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.

CORPORAL JOE WRIGHTSMAN, UNITED STATES MARINE |

July 27, 2010

CORPORAL JOE WRIGHTSMAN, UNITED STATES MARINE
Name: America's 1st Sgt
Posting date: 7/27/10
Stationed in: Bahrain
Milblog: Castra Praetoria
Email: castrapraetoria1@gmail.com

"The Department of Defense announced the death of a Marine who was supporting Operation Enduring Freedom. Cpl. Joe L. Wrightsman, 23, of Jonesboro, La., died July 18 while supporting combat operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan. He was assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division, III Marine Expeditionary Force, Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii."


Framed AmFirst Wrightman 1
A Marine carry team lifts a transfer case containing the remains of Cpl. Joe L. Wrightsman, Wednesday, July 21, 2010 at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware.

While all of the above is true it doesn't sit well with me to merely leave you with that sanitized version of events. As someone who knew Cpl Wrightsman's character, I will do my best to paint for you, the citizens he served, a better picture of an American fighting man.

To the best of my knowledge, this is what happened:

On July 18, Cpl Wrightsman was part of a patrol crossing the Helmand River when an ANP (Afghan National Police) was swept away in the river behind him. Without hesitation, Cpl Wrightsman, in full personal protective gear, dove into the water in an effort to rescue the ANP. He was last seen about 50 ft. downstream when he surfaced briefly. Four other Marines dropped their gear and went in after him, but were unable to find anything.

From what I understand, the entire Marine Expeditionary Force threw its efforts into recovering Cpl Wrightsman. Every type of asset, aircraft, equipment, and personnel were employed. Taliban forces were beginning to move in from the north in an effort to capture Cpl Wrightsman's body before the Marines. They were thwarted after two days when both bodies were recovered by the Americans.

In the picture below you can see then-Lance Corporal Wrightsman standing directly behind me, serving as guidon bearer for Kilo Company 3/3 when we were getting ready to leave Fallujah and head home in 2008.

Framed AmFirst Wrightsman 2

I remember Wrightsman had a tattoo of the Green Lantern symbol. Many young men have joined the corps with dreams of doing exploits. No doubt Wrightsman was no different, hoping to emulate the valor of his childhood heroes.

Framed AmFirst Wrightsman 3
Graduating from Marine corps Martial Arts Instructor Course, Al Asad, Iraq, 2009.


Framed AmFirst Wrightsman 4
Hamming it up with the Company 1st Sgt during the Marine Corps Birthday, November 2007.


Upon hearing what happened on July 18, nearly every one of us that knew him immediately thought: "But Wrightsman can't swim!" Fortunately, America still breeds men with a bias for action who don't dwell on what they can't do. I imagine Cpl Wrightsman thought to himself: "I can't let this guy down!" Then he heedlessly went after a man who wasn't a fellow Marine or even an American.

One of my last acts as Kilo Company 1st Sgt was to submit Wrightsman for meritorious promotion to Corporal. At the time of his death his current 1st Sgt had submitted him for meritorious Sergeant. It was recently remarked to me that all Cpl Wrightsman cared about was being a Marine and taking care of his squad. Yeah, that's just about my breed of Marine I'd say.


"And each man stand with his face in the light of his own drawn sword. Ready to do what a hero can."
                                                                                                -- Elizabeth Barret Browning



Semper Fidelis      
                         




AFGHANISTAN DREAM |

July 15, 2010

AFGHANISTAN DREAM
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.

RESTREPO |

July 08, 2010

RESTREPO
Name: Charlie Sherpa
Posting date: 7/8/10
Deploying to: Afghanistan
Hometown: Boone, Iowa
MilblogRed Bull Rising
Email: Sherpa at RedBullRising.com 

My fellow Red Bull TOC-rats and I pulled a working lunch earlier this week.

As we started pulling apart our tactical compugter systems in preparation for loading them on a truck, we previewed a soon-to-be-released (and award-winning) documentary called Restrepo, which unblinkingly depicts the hardships endured by U.S. troops fighting in Eastern Afghanistan's Kunar Province.

From June 2007 to July 2008, documentary co-producers Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger repeatedly embedded in the Korengal Valley with the second platoon of Battle Company, 503rd Infantry Battalion (2/B/503 Infantry). In 2007, nearly one-fifth of the combat in Afghanistan occurred in this valley, which is only six miles long. The unit is part of the U.S. 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team (A.B.C.T.), headquartered in Vincenza, Italy.

Our unit's public affairs officer wanted a couple of Joes' reactions to the film, to see whether they thought it a potentially useful pre-deployment learning tool for our Red Bull soldiers. We've got a good mix of experiences and specialties in the TOC, he knew, and certainly no shortage of opinions.

About 90 minutes later, even the combat veterans among us called the film "eye-opening."

Said one staff sergeant: "I wish I'd had something like that to show my soldiers before we left for Iraq." An Afghan-theater veteran observed how well the documentary depicted the mountainous terrain as an ever-present enemy. Another commented: "It's a good reminder that this uniform gets dirty ... and sometimes bloody."

It remains to be seen, of course, whether elements of our unit ever face conditions as brutal and gut-wrenching as the 15 soldiers who established and maintained Observation Post Restrepo in 2007. Because Restrepo is a doggedly neutral work of non-fiction -- there is no spin-and-polish offered here, only situation and circumstance -- it rewards non-judgmental and soldierly contemplations such as:

-- How would I react to the death of a friend?

-- How will I react to enemy contact?

-- How would my body hold up to the demands of altitude and terrain?

-- How would I seek to win friends while also holding a rifle?

The Korengal Valley was thought to be a conduit through which Taliban and foreign fighters were infiltrating from Pakistan into Afghanistan. The area has variously been described as "the valley of death," "the most dangerous place in the world," and "the tip of the spear." More than 40 U.S. military personnel have been killed in the area since 2006. U.S. Army Pfc. Juan "Doc" Restrepo was one such soldier.

By placing the compay in the Korengal in 2007, U.S. Military leadrs had sought to stop the flow of fighters, while winning over the hearts and minds of the indigenous Korengali people -- an ethnically distinct population. 

In April 2010, however, U.S. forces withdrew from the Korengal after determining that their presence was doing more to create anti-U.S. sympathies and Taliban influence than to diminish them. 

Hetherington is a photographer and filmmaker who has covered was in Liberia and Afghanistan. Junger, author of The Perfect Storm, has also recently published War, a book-length account of the troops who fought in the Korengal.

After a theatrical release in June and July, plans call for Restropo to air on the National Geographic Channel later in 2010. Here's a trailer:

ROLLING THUNDER 2010 -- A MARINE'S VIGIL |

July 04, 2010

ROLLING THUNDER 2010 -- A MARINE'S VIGIL
Name
: 1SGT (retired) Troy Steward
Posting date
: 7/4/10
Returned from
: Afghanbistan
Milblog
: Bouhammer

 

This is an awesome piece of video that speaks volumes without saying a word. Leave it to my very close friend LL to find something that can make me cry. Thanks, LL, you are a sweetheart.

FABLE ILLUSTRATED |

July 01, 2010

FABLE ILLUSTRATED
Name
: Old Blue
Posting date
: 7/2/10
Returned to
: Afghanistan
Milblog
: Afghan Quest

This has been a hellacious week. I suppose it looked pretty bad from the US side of the pond. Well, it sucked here. Losing the General wasn’t cool. Oh, I know that he stuck his foot in it up to his knee. I also see where none of that had to happen. It reminds me a fable I told my ANP mentees (Afghans love a good analogy or fable) once about a man who was getting ready to cross a river when a snake asked him to carry him across the fast-flowing waters. You know how it goes… the dying snake-bit man saying, “You promised you wouldn’t bite me!” You also remember the snake’s reply: “You knew I was a snake when you picked me up.”

McChrystal should have seen that snake. Okay, got it.

Now I’ve got to continue to do my job in this war while some truly insufferable people gloat. A couple of writers are now claiming prescience, bathing in the wonder that they are, the sound of all else around them drowned out by the roar of their own awesomeness. No one gave a crap about what Hastings had to say about the strategy of the war two weeks ago. Immediately after McChrystal’s resignation was accepted, Rolling Stone emailed the masses of its readers to trumpet yet another article by Hastings. You’ve no doubt read it.

In the new article, Hastings can scarcely contain his own wonderment at the man he snake-bit. This snake didn’t die in the same raging waters. No, this snake used the body of the man who agreed to carry him as his bridge to better things. Hastings, a relative nobody with a strong anti-war sentiment, has managed to turn this into a little bit of money and a bully platform for his uninformed opinions. I could disassemble the child’s thoughts, but I don’t need to. His only education is in writing, and he’s done a mediocre enough job of it that he had to behave without integrity to sell the biggest story of his life. He has the political/strategic/COIN knowledge of a writer with no integrity. He’s not a pundit, he’s a liar and a cad. 

There is no reason to take his “analysis” of the progress of the war seriously. His gloating and the audacity to even offer an opinion that is so ill-informed that he should be embarrassed of it, now that’s harder to swallow.His assassination is complete, but while he will always be known as the writer who brought down a general, no one can possibly respect him for his treachery. McChrystal will always be remembered as the man who picked up a snake because the snake promised that it wouldn’t bite him. Hastings will always be remembered as that snake. He was the snake who was taken at his word when men who have spent their lives in honorable pursuits trusted it. He did not lie to lightweights. He lied to some of the best men that this country could produce. They have paid dearly for it.

It was clearly agenda-driven reporting. Hastings’ profanity-laced rant against the war and the strategy at the end of the article should leave no doubt as to his bias. Based upon Hastings’ clear bias, I believe that it was his intent to cause damage and create chaos. He expresses surprise, but that is feigned. It is clear that he opposes our nation’s efforts in Afghanistan. He never counted on Petraeus. The move of, in essence, demoting a General to take the job of a subordinate just isn’t done. The man who is 1-0 couldn’t possibly be brought in as the closer, could he? No, clearly not. With the character assassination of McChrystal, the effort would be thrown into disarray, and there was Hastings to be its clarion.

*needle scratching across a record*

Well, the unprecedented has been done. GEN Petraeus has been appointed, I’m sure not without consultation. There will likely not be massive changes, but GEN McChrystal was GEN Petraeus’ padawan. The true Jedi of COIN is about to step once again into the shoes of campaign commander. Hastings’ fallback position will be that he did the nation a service.

Don’t pick up that snake. He’s already bitten one good man.

I was recently asked if I am still optimistic. Yes. I am. Hastings did us no service, but the answer to that void is powerful. GEN McChrystal’s resignation was a distraction, true. But in the days surrounding the end of his tenure there are initiatives that continued that he had a hand in, or generated by direction. The key troop-contributing nations here are making giant strides towards training units in COIN more effectively. These efforts will begin to bear fruit in a short time. I’m still talking months, but the fruit is already forming. Wait till the critics get a load of what’s on the way. Common operational frameworks have been developed that will permit more unity of effort. Units are going to begin to arrive that have already learned these frameworks and are prepared to speak a common operational language with their Afghan and civilian counterparts. This is powerful stuff. This is the stuff that I’ve been saying is needed for a long time. These are game-changers. Yes. I’m optimistic.

These are efforts that GEN McChrystal directed or endorsed. GEN Petraeus carried these messages to the Secretary of Defense, who has directed that the actions be taken to make it happen. GEN McChrystal’s efforts will not have gone in vain, and GEN Petraeus will continue to reinforce and refine what GEN McChrystal has set in motion.

So, while there are a couple of gloaters out there, and gloating is hard to take, their disservices to our national objectives are merely noisy distractions. The disservice that they have done to an honorable man and a good commander are things that they will have to live with. Hastings is young. He will live with his infamy for a long time. It will go well for him only in certain circles. Small circles that will get smaller. Low integrity is like that. Being a jerk is its own reward.

As for others who gloat and claim prescience, their gloating is opportunistic and, again, being a jerk is its own reward. None of that matters. Noise-makers. Noisy gongs. None of this changes what units and agencies are beginning to accomplish. The progress is, in large part, due to GEN McChrystal’s efforts. As opposed to previous commanders, I have never heard a subordinate criticize the General. To the masses who get their news from TIME and Rolling Stone, GEN McChrystal’s legacy will be that he was bitten by a snake that he was unwary enough to pick up. But here in Afghanistan, and in the Army, the legacy he leaves is that he began to turn the rudderless ship. He worked to establish the mechanisms that will bring a lot of good here and even at home. GEN Petraeus will, no doubt, refine and put his mark on Afghanistan. He will no doubt continue to make his mark on the Army. But GEN McChrystal left his imprimatur on a lot of enduring programs and changes that have begun to change both behaviors and results. No one can ever take that away from him.

Not even a snake.


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