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.

THREE MONTHS DOWN |

August 30, 2010

THREE MONTHS DOWN
Name: CAPT Marc Rassler
Posting date: 8/30/10
Deployed to: Afghanistan
Hometown: Livingston, MT
Milblog: To Afghanistan and Back

I have been "boots on ground in Afghanistan" for around three months now. We flew into Kyrgyzstan, then the following day flew into Marmal. After following around and learning from the unit that we replaced, we were handed the keys to our new mission.

One thing that is always funny about Changes of Command and hand-over of mission authority is the differences between the units. The outgoing unit will often leave with the opinion that the guys they are being replaced with don't know crap and are going to screw up things up. The new guys can hardly wait till the old group gets out of the area, because they didn't know what they we were doing and we will do much better.

From my previous two deployments, and the start of this one, I saw thoughts expressed that way by both sides. Part of the problem is that the old unit has been doing their mission for so long that they are just like kids in high school with a week left before summer break. They are burnt out and ready to go home, they know their job, but they probably don't have the same zeal for it that they once did.

The real challenge for the new unit is to not listen too much to the "Good Idea Fairy" that will come around trying to sprinkle good ideas about how things can be changed. The old unit, right or wrong, had a system or method that worked for them and their mission; there often is really no need to go changing things other than the fact that you want to change things. Our unit really didn't make all that many changes when we finally did take over the mission, aside from a couple of changes in how we have our Afghans run their meetings.

From my experiences in my previous two deployments, and in discussion with others, I have heard it said that it takes two or three months to learn your job when you come into theatre. If you are a truck driver, you already know how to drive a truck. It takes a couple months though to figure out where everything is on the base, and who the people are that affect you and your mission. It will take a while to get a system figured out and rhythm down to a good comfort level. My first month here I was often staying in the office late each day, and working hard to get things figured out. After about a month and half I noticed that my comfort level had greatly increased, and I no longer had to work as hard to get the same amount of work accomplished. I could knock off and head back to my room earlier in the day if I wanted.

My typical day involves enjoying a quick breakfast around 0800, then walking to gate 2 of our base to meet our terps before our walk down. It's about a mile from the gate to where the offices of our Afghan Kandak are located. We often joke about it, but in reality one of the most dangerous parts of job is the walk to and from the Kandak. The streets are designed kind of like a warehouse district area, with the blocks a bit longer than the average U.S. street. The Afghans have a variety of vehicles (Hummers, Ford Rangers, International straight trucks) most of which were almost certainly purchased by the U.S. taxpayer. It seems like many of the Afghan drivers have never been taught what a speed limit sign is, so they only know two speeds -- Fast and Stop. So during our walks we are constantly jumping out of the way of fast-moving vehicles.

Most normal weeks we like to have a BUB (Battle Update Brief) on Monday and Thursday. This is basically a staff meeting in which we can compare notes, accomplishments, and any possible issues we may have. The first month it was guaranteed that each meeting would take a good hour to complete. We all have improved since our first weeks here, but each meeting still takes at least a half hour or more to get all the information.

Generally the issues for each section and company are very similar, a variation of "I tried to teach my section something, however the people I needed to teach this to were gone." Additionally almost weekly someone brings up that their Afghans are asking that we, the mentors, provide or purchase them such things as an air conditioner, fans, GPS, bottled water, fuel, and an assortment of small knick-knacks. The BUB does give good opportunities for everyone on the team to try and focus their mentoring for the next few days. Several times I have asked the company mentors to try and work with their sections on turning in a daily personnel report, which gives them a chance to focus on an area that will help my section.

I have come to the conclusion that I am probably the luckiest of the mentors. The guys in my S1 shop seem to have their stuff down pretty well. The main thing that guys in the Afghan Army care about is getting paid, and getting paid on time. Since I have been here I have not seen any issues regarding pay from the guys that I work with. In fact my main frustration is that perhaps my guys work too many hours each day. Almost every morning I will ask them what time the reports from the day before were turned in and how late they worked. It is not uncommon for them to reply that the reports came in around 9pm, and they worked till 10pm or later.

Since we have been here in Afghanistan we have done three overnight missions, one to Samagon, and a couple to Pol-e-Khomri as we have soldiers from our Kandak currently stationed and working there. Fortunately in the times that we have visited there were no incidents of hostile fire or other issues that would have increased our danger because we were there. It is anybody's guess if we will leave Afghanistan without being engaged.

About a week after Ramadan ends are some new elections, and our Kandak will likely be tasked to secure polling places. As a result we will probably go out to further mentor and assist our soldiers. Enemies of the Government of Afghanistan may try to do disrupt the attempts at a peaceful election. So it is anyone’s guess what will happen. Our Kandak has soldiers stationed and working west of Mazar-e-Sharif which will probably make an effort to visit in the future.

When we are not out visiting our soldiers at distant FOBs, the challenge is to keep our motivation and spirits up when we are working with our soldiers. Almost every day that we go to visit the soldiers that we are mentoring the same issues are present and it seems like there is little to no progress. It is frustrating, as we are not here to make them do our system of Army, but rather to force them to make their system work no matter how good or bad it may be. If we can keep our motivation to mentor up over the next six months, like we did the first month, this will have been a successful deployment.

TAKING A PASS ON TAKING A PASS |

August 27, 2010

TAKING A PASS ON TAKING A PASS
Name: Charle Sherpa
Posting date: 8/27/10
Not deploying to: Afghanistan
Hometown: Boone, Iowa
Milblog: Red Bull Rising
Email: Sherpa at RedBullRising.com

There's been a lot of Family Readiness Group (F.R.G.) talk on Facebook about the times 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division soldiers might be allowed a 4-day pass from their pre-deployment training.

Not all soldiers will take their passes at the same times -- or in the same places -- making it an administrative nightmare and a potential gold mine for travel agents. Soldiers are restricted to travel within 300 miles of their duty station, which means they'll not be able to return to Iowa.

Not to be too contrary, but passes, in my opinion, can be a mixed blessing. Sure, it sounds great, getting together with your soldier for a few "extra" days before they leave for Afghanistan. Please remember, however, that not everyone -- especially lower-ranking soldiers and their families -- has the resources to spend money and time on travel, lodging, daycare, and whatever else it takes to get from Iowa to Mississippi for four days.

That doesn't mean they don't love their soldiers. That doesn't mean they don't want to see them. That does mean, however, that you should watch what you say. You may think you're only asking about someone's plans to visit their soldier ("Aren't you so excited about seeing your soldier?!"), but what they may be hearing is "If you don't visit your soldier, something is wrong with you and your family."

All of this is only one soldier's opinion, of course. Here are some other tips to consider regarding pre-deployment passes:

Talk honestly and directly with other family members about your expectations. One Red Bull spouse reports getting pressure from a not-so-passive-aggressive mother-in-law. Mother-in-law wants to visit her baby boy during pass-time. Meanwhile, Mrs. Red Bull wants a romantic stress-and-kids-free interlude before her husband disappears for 12 months. Please do not put your Red Bull soldier in such a crossfire.

Don't talk about times, dates, and places on public venues such as Facebook. I say again: Don't do it. It confuses other people, and causes them stress. Your soldier may have different opportunities than my soldier. What you've heard about Joe's unit doesn't necessarily apply to Joan's. Focus on your own family.

There's also something the Army calls "Operational Security" or "OPSEC." Basically, OPSEC means "keep Army stuff out of public view." If you were going on a family vacation, you'd lock your doors, put the lights on timers, and stop your mail and newspaper deliveries, right? Now, if you're careful enough to hide your departure in those common-sense ways, why would you announce publicly the dates of your upcoming visit with your Red Bull soldier?

Think about the trip home, too. Not all families may want to re-visit the pain of having to say good-bye. Only recently did my wife tell me how painful it was to leave after we said goodbye after a 4-day pass at my 2003 mobilization station. It was a long, long way home, and she kept bursting into tears. People kept asking if she was all right, and all she wanted was to be left alone. Knowing that story now, I wouldn't ask her to visit me this time -- particularly if she were traveling with our two kids.

Other soldiers and their families, of course, might choose differently. And that's really my point, no matter how grinchy I may sound today: We need to give each other's families the spaces to make those decisions.

Godspeed the Red Bull families, and their soldiers.

SPOILS |

August 25, 2010

SPOILS
Name:
Alex Horton
Posting date:
8/25/10
Returned from:
Iraq
Milblog:
Army of Dude

The amount of stuff a soldier brings home from war can be limitless. Books, bootleg DVDs, letters, pictures, memories, post traumatic stress, TBI -- without fail, everyone comes home with more than what they left with. The worth of some of those things can be easily determined, but others carry a more intrinsic value. Go on a backpacking trip through Europe and you might collect train tickets or pub coasters for mementos, but grabbing a keepsake from the battlefield earns an entirely different description: war trophy. Look in a thousand houses or rummage through a hundred caches and you might find something worth stuffing into your pocket.

There are strict guidelines that describe what can be taken and what should be left alone. Nothing can ever be taken from a civilian, but enemy equipment (limited to non-firearms) is mostly fair game. I kept my bayonets, but had to get rid of a zip gun and an insurgent ammo-bearing vest punctured by bullet holes and stained with blood. During my mid-tour leave in Europe, I picked up a rock from Omaha Beach and a piece of concrete from a destroyed bunker at Pointe du Hoc, only to throw them into a patch of gravel outside of customs in Kuwait. Tangible pieces of history were lost to conform to the strict no-soil policy. Brass shell casings from my first firefight were stuffed into an amnesty bin. Thousands of those ejected casings burned our necks and rolled around the floor of our vehicles, but they had to be discarded like common aluminum cans. I wanted to save a few to show my grandchildren, maybe tell them the story about how they were left behind. They'd roll them around in their hands and stick their pinkie into the top of the casing. I'd tell them, "It was these moments that made me who I am."

Mostly everyone came back with at least one interesting thing. Al Qaeda flags were rare and treasured while bayonets produced yawns; everyone seemed to have one (I brought two home). Another common souvenir was an ammo vest. They were essential to any enemy cache and easily stuffed into a cargo pocket. I managed a unique find; a camouflage ammo vest with an Iraqi flag printed on the back, deep in a box in an insurgent safe house.

Somewhere in Baghdad, Dodo found a rare gem: a pistol holder with a golden seal of the Republican Guard affixed below a stamp reading "1984," which was about the midpoint of the Iran-Iraq War. It was attached to an ammo belt more suitable for the Old West than the Middle East. When he showed them to me, I couldn't believe those things were found together in what can only be described as a trailblazing attempt at insurgent chic. He offered them to me and I declined, but he insisted, true to his selfless and giving nature. With his generous donation to the Mus
ée d'Dude, I put together a tiny space for war trophies centered around the concept drawing of the 3rd Stryker Brigade Memorial statue.


Photo-0136


The sword is perhaps the most storied item in the platoon's war trophy collection. In a house littered with insurgent accoutrements, I uncovered the weapon hidden underneath a pile of blankets. I was already carrying a heavy folding litter on my back and jammed two AK47s into the carrying case. The sword barely managed to fit. Along the blade were dried streaks of blood, a peculiar fact considering it wasn't very sharp. Across the street, another platoon discovered a torture chamber utilized by insurgents operating in the area. We openly wondered if the sword was used for sadistic purposes.

My squad leader determined it was critical to mission success and took it to headquarters during my post-mission shower. I had carried it for several days until we came back to base, and it was mine based on the international rules of Finder's Keepers. The battalion staff was less than impressed with its story and sent it to be blown to bits in a hole alongside dozens of captured weapons. The Snack Master just happened to be walking by the collection and just happened to spot the sword, and in a rare moment of thoughtfulness, grabbed the weapon and brought it back.


Photo-0139


Bringing home weapons from war is a tradition as old as war itself, but that doesn't mean all war trophies are of death's construction. I consider myself lucky for finding not one, but two gems. After clearing an abandoned house, I looked through piles of books and papers on the floor for any important documents. I uncovered a curious portrait of one of the world's most hated dictators:

Photo-0140a

GQ Saddam now hangs on my bathroom wall. A piece of history saved.

TO TELL OR NOT TO TELL |

August 23, 2010

TO TELL OR NOT TO TELL
Name: Air Force Wife
Posting date: 8/23/10
Spouse deployed: Overseas
Milblog: SpouseBuzz

My husband is gone right now, on an all expense paid vacation to an exotic locale.  Which really isn't anything unusual in this household.
And, really, I'm okay with it.  I've got the routine down pat at this point.  The kids have their chores, I keep up on my things, and for those frustrations it sometimes feels like I can't talk about to anyone -- you know, those ones I would normally talk out with my husband in bed at night? Well, I go hit things at the gym. That heavy bag, it's an amazing therapist.

But. There's always a but, right? There's always a monkey somewhere with a karmic wrench to throw into the works. I got one of those two weeks ago.

Two weeks ago my coach told me in no uncertain terms that I either go see my doctor for a breathing problem I'd been having in class, or I wouldn't be welcome back in class. They take near-fainting spells pretty seriously, I think it might be a liability issue.

So I did. I assumed I had asthma and had been avoiding the doctor's office because I didn't want it on my medical record. I mean, who would? I was fine, I wasn't dying or anything. Just having a hard time breathing sometimes. And with the horror stories I've heard of people getting stopped from overseas moves or other moves because of some silly medical diagnosis that really wasn't any big deal to speak of -- well, you can see how I didn't want to deal with that kind of baggage if I didn't have to.

And I was very angry about being forced into making what I assumed was asthma into something official.

Except that it wasn't asthma. After several tests, my regular doctor informed me that I had heart issue that was causing her serious concern and referred me to a cardiologist. Along with the referral, I had several other recommendations to follow, based on the assumption that my issues were as serious as they looked -- heart disease in a 36-year-old female is generally not a good diagnosis to work from.

It was truly awful. I wasn't allowed to work out for a while, and when I was allowed to return to working out, it was with some rather severe limitations. I had to completely switch up my diet from the one I had been following. I had to walk around with heart monitors, checking my heart rate and my blood pressure many times a day. And my fingers began to feel like hamburger from testing my blood sugar levels at different times of the day, as well.

I was stressed beyond belief, not only because of a looming sentence from a medical problem that was potentially the end of the life our family had mapped out (we've got a move coming up to a place that a heart condition would disqualify us from in two seconds flat), the end of the one exercise program that has worked for me in 15 years, and the advent of my use of those day-by-day pill organizers -- but also because there was no one I could really talk to about the knot in my gut that was getting larger by the day. I mean, a heart problem doesn't seem like the huge issue compared to some of the things other people I know are going through. I would just need to take some medicine and chill out. That's not such a big deal, right? Why should I be freaking out? And yet, inside I was.

The other problem I was having was whether or not to tell my husband.

On the one hand, that's what married people do -- they tell each other their problems. And it's probably not normal for a married person to not inform their spouse when a significant medical issue arises.  On the other hand I didn't want my husband worrying about me when he should have his head on his game. It's an issue military spouses try to figure out every day. To tell, or not to tell? This isn't a "normal" life, this can be life or death for them or the people they are with.

I decided to tell. Sort of. It was an, "Oh, by the way. This is no big deal, just the doctor who needs to CYA. Just so you know I'm getting some tests done. Totally routine," kind of telling, but I told. And apparently I was very convincing at it, because Air Force Guy didn't ask another question about how I was doing in regards to my heart issues. (He's normally an easily freaked out guy with medical issues.  Someday I'll tell the story of our first home-birth; he could have been the basis for a TV sit-com with his reactions to that one.)

Last week the cardiologist evaluated me and lifted all my restrictions -- apparently my heart problem wasn't a problem, it was normal for someone with my level of physical activity.  I could not stop talking about how awesome I felt, how awesome it was to not only be told I'm fine, but that I'm really super healthy. And I think it finally dawned on AFG that I had completely sanitized the issue before passing it on to him.

And I also think he didn't like that feeling one bit. But, considering the amount of sanitization going on in the information that he passes along to me, I hope he understands why I did it.

I'm still not sure if it was the right thing to do, I'm just sure that I was very lucky in how this turned out. 

 

 

RAMAZAN OBSERVED |

August 18, 2010

RAMAZAN OBSERVED
Name: Major Dan
Posting date: 8/18/10
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Milblog: AfghaniDan

Framed AFGHANIDAN Ramazan 1
Moon rising over Kabul, from the roof of the Interior Ministry.

It's the wee early morning of Day 5 of Ramazan here (the rest of the Islamic world says Ramadan, but Afghanistan does it her way).  And I'm here to tell ya, people -- it ain't easy.  Not that going without food and liquids of any sort (yes, water included) sounded easy, but a fast is a fast.  So a few colleagues and I figured that if our Afghan partners were observing, then we could too.  It really is a fascinating experience so far. By night, after iftar (the break-fast dinner after sundown) we feel quite alright.  But those hunger pains during the morning and all afternoon definitely make you see why you it's a pretty big deal when Eid finally rolls around at the end of 30 days.

Framed AFGHANIDAN Ramazan 2

These guys could JAM. Seriously. Lacking Ramazan photos, I chose scenes from an incredible dinner in Kabul
two months ago.

Why are we doing it?  Primarily for the aforementioned reason: Our hosts do it, and our mission is to work closely with them in order to help build their capacity.  We gain some newfound or maybe even enhanced respect from some of our dostaam (friends) by fasting along with them, and are looking to plan an iftar together here and there.  It really is a joyous occasion to eat and drink finally each evening (Ah, Gatorade! Ah, mystery meat!), and the communal feel of doing it with others is very rewarding.  Even the sudden and unexpected calling to a meeting with a general -- right when you're heading to iftar! -- can't dampen the spirits too much when you know that food sweet food, and quenching liquid goodness, await eventually.

Framed AFGHANIDAN Ramazan 3

Now THAT is eating well, Afghan style. Six separate meat dishes represent, on one plate.

Each of us has our priorities and rationale for taking part, I suppose.  Just among the few Americans known to be observing the fast here, there is at least Christian, Buddhist and agnostic representation.  But it presents a spiritual opportunity for those who choose to see it that way -- and one rewarding result is the chance to learn a whole lot more about the practice and traditions of a religion adhered to by a quarter of the world's population.  In addition to fasting and abstinence, there is emphasis upon refraining from gossip, swearing, fighting, lusting (yeah, no problems here), and holding grudges.  Encouraged are charity, charity, and more charity -- and seeking of forgiveness.  So, not bad things to strive for over a month of cleansing.  In these and other ways, there are of course striking similarities to traditions of other religions.

Alright, I'm sounding preachy, so it's time to sign this one off.  But I hope to, at the very least, keep things interesting for you always, readers.  At least as interesting as a Kabul-based assignment can be!

Framed AFGHANIDAN Ramazan 4

My dining companions that night: Spokesman/celeb Bashary, Shamshad TV, police protection, and my peeps from NTM-A. More from the Serena:

Framed AFGHANIDAN Ramazan 5

Pretty unreal that a true 5-star luxury hotel lies beyond the blast walls of a traffic circle.

Framed AFGHANIDAN Ramazan 6

My main man Joe classin' up the joint...

Framed AFGHANIDAN Ramazan 8

Marble everything; again, I walked around stunned at the opulence that I didn't think possible anywhere in Afghanistan today.

Framed AFGHANIDAN Ramazan 9

His hair, as always, was perfect. (Bashary's, that is, not the maniacs flanking him.)

WINNING HEARTS AND MINDS! |

August 15, 2010

WINNING HEARTS AND MINDS!
Name: CAPT Marc Rassler
Posting date: 8/16/10
Deployed to: Afghanistan
Hometown: Livingston, MT
Milblog: To Afghanistan and Back

Framed Rassler WINNING 1 Yesterday was a good day! For the first time since we have been here we essentially engaged in combat tourism. For the past week we have had a reporter embedded with us, and to help him out we decided to take him outside the wire to view some of the sights of Mazar-e-Sharif. Previously every time that we have left the wire, we have headed directly our destination. Yesterday was a bit different as we incorporated into our travel plan to actually stop our vehicles, get out and interact with people. Unfortunately due to security concerns not all members of our team were able to get out and interact, as our drivers and gunners had to stay with the vehicles. I was one of the lucky few that were able to get out at each stop.

Our first stop was near a market a couple blocks north of the center of the city. With the assistance of my terp I walked through the "farmers market," along three other guys on my team, a couple more terps, and our reporter. It was very refreshing me to get out and wave hello to the many people who were selling their wares. It seemed like kids appeared out of the woodwork when we arrived. I was more than happy to shake hands with as many as I could.

Framed Rassler HEARTS 3 Much to my surprise and satisfaction, many of the kids could speak a few words of conversational English. One of the funniest moments of the day was while I was walking the street and noticed a kid who appeared to be about 9 or 10 wearing a baseball cap that said, "I Love Jesus." I doubt that he or any of the people around in the market could actually read enough English to understand what the cap says. As an aside I don't know how many people would be truly offended, as Muslims believe that there was a prophet named Jesus. They just don't believe that he was the son of God and savior of man.

None of the other guys in my group were making an effort to interact with any of the people in the market. I was of the opinion that just walking through and not interacting would turn into a staring contest -- the locals staring at us, wondering what the heck we are doing, us staring at them making sure that none of them are doing anything that might hurt us. I hope that I made a bunch of down payments in future good will with the smiles and the few pieces of candy I had in my pockets to hand out. I was smiling, rubbing heads, shaking hands, and even showed a couple kids what a high five is. I don't know if I or we made a difference in the lives of the group of kids, but my thought is that in our short 20-minute walk through their area we potentially reduced some fear that those citizens may have of US Soldiers.

After the farmers market we drove to the east side of town to a roundabout with a Buzkashi* monument. This was just a short stop to take some pictures of the monument. We have driven by several times, but never been able to get a descent photo through the thick armored windows of our moving vehicles. Once again I took a couple minutes to toss some snacks to some young kids, who had been helping their fathers work on vehicles and were literally covered in oil.

Framed Rassler WINNING 2 Upon departing the Buzkashi monument we headed back to the center of town, and did a slow drive-by of the historic Blue Mosque. Due to the Rules of Engagement that say no US soldier may enter a mosque, it was not worth the effort to try and find a place to stop our vehicles in order to try to walk around the courtyard of the mosque.

Our final stop of the day had us swinging through what appeared to be a very poor village on the south end of town. I got out my small plastic bag of remaining snacks and toys. Bringing my bag out at the beginning of our time there was a mistake. I stepped out of my truck, and it seemed like I was immediately surrounded my 30 little hands grabbing at the goodies in my hands. I was trying to pass out candies one at a time in an effort to try and make sure that everyone would get something. That wasn't fast enough for the kids, as some of them jumped up and grabbed at the plastic bag in my hand, tearing it open. Candy and snacks fell all over the ground, and it quickly turned into a fish-feeding frenzy. That quickly solved my problem of making sure that everyone got something. The quick ones got something, and the not-so-quick ones didn't.

While our reporter spent time talking with a couple local village elders -- who appeared to be in their mid to late 30s but wore those years as though they were in their 60s -- I talked with about 30 kids. Once again mostly simple pleasantries like "Hello" and "How are you?" Some of the pre-teen boys knew a few words of English. Many of the boys told me that their name was that of WWE superstar John Cena. This gave me a good laugh. I attempted to demonstrate John Cena's signature hand-waving in front of his face. As our time ended in this small village area, there was a bit of concern to make sure that no kids ran underneath our large vehicles.

One thing has me confused about being here in Afghanistan, and it was reinforced yesterday. That is the force protection standard when we are outside the wire. It was emphasized throughout our training at Ft Polk and Camp Hohenfels, prior to coming Afghanistan, that as part of the counter insurgency effort we should be trying to move through areas and neighborhoods without our body armor on. Essentially we should be saying that if the area is safe enough for the people of Afghanistan to live there, it is also safe enough for the US Army to walk through without body armor. I  am beginning to think that was just lip service by our instructors, as I have yet to hear of or see anybody who was gone outside the main gates of our base not wearing body armor.

RC North, where I am, is widely considered the safest region in Afghanistan. If there is anywhere in which soldiers should be able to take their body armor  off, RC North would be the area. If I were a commander here, I don't know that I would authorize or allow my soldiers to take their body armor off, because there is such fear of the unknown when it comes to safety. But it makes me wonder: if there is such an unknown about threats of violence, is the area safe? And if the area still is not safe, are we winning the war in Afghanistan?

*Buzkashi: the national sport of Afghanistan

OFF THE BUS |

August 12, 2010

OFF THE BUS
Name: Charlie Sherpa
Posting date: 8/12/10
Not deploying to: Afghanistan
Hometown: Boone, Iowa
Milblog: Red Bull Rising
Email: Sherpa at RedBullRising.com

It's time I tell you something ...

After months of mental, physical, emotional, spiritual, and fiscal preparation for deployment to Afghanistan, I didn't get on the bus.

I will not be deploying to Afghanistan with 2-34th Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry Division. Today marks the last unit send-off from Iowa, and I'm not going with them.

A rule regarding my pending 20-year-mark and subsequent retirement was reinterpreted by Big Army, and I'll most likely be leaving uniformed service in December. I will continue to be a member of the Iowa Army National Guard until then.

Yes, I was surprised by this turn of events. So was my family. And we're all a little conflicted about it. It quite literally came down to the hour I was to throw my duffel bags on the truck. "Everybody get your bags on the truck -- hold on there, Sherpa, not so fast!"

It's hard to change family focus and plans so quickly. Hard to see one's buddies go off to war. Hard not to feel left behind.

At the same time, it's hard not to feel like I've suddenly have been given my life back. I can re-focus on my civilian career. I can witness my daughter's first days of kindergarten. I can watch my 3-year-old son grow inch by inch, day by day, and word by word. My wife says that my not leaving is blessing to our family, but she is kind enough not to say it around me.

This deployment has been an emotional bungie jump for me and my family. We have fallen and bounced and twisted with a hundred unexpected jolts. A number of you have asked how I ended up telling my kids that I would be leaving them for a year. The truth is, my procrastination now seems like genius -- my children need not know that Daddy was once going away, until they are old enough to read and understand this blog.

I plan to continue writing the Red Bull Rising blog, partly to help collect and capture this latest chapter in 34th Infantry Division history. It is a wonderfully storied unit, and my friends and colleagues will be writing history. I can only hope to help them write it all down.

In the coming months, I should also have expanded opportunities to share ideas on how we can all help "remember, support, and celebrate" our citizen-soldiers, veterans, and their families. I'll also continue to explain and illuminate how our National Guard soldiers are pursuing their Afghan missions.

Thank you for reading Red Bull Rising. I hope you'll continue this journey with me. I hope that you will continue to think good thoughts, and pray for the safe return of the Red Bull.

In the meantime, tomorrow is another day, and, well ...

Let's just say I haven't told you everything yet.


UPDATE: THE SECOND-HAND MINUTEMAN

Yesterday, I told you that I wasn't going to deploy to Afghanistan. Today, as I am writing this, I am on a plane headed toward Camp Shelby, Miss. I'm calling this boomerang turn-of-events "Operation Bad Penny."

Confused? Imagine how I feel!

National Guard life can be fast-changing and full of surprises. The Latin motto of the Army National Guard should be "Semper Gumby," for "always green, always flexible."

I received less-than-24-hour notice that I'd be headed to Shelby, where I'll help out in getting my buddies in the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry Division (2-34 B.C.T.) get from Mississippi, to California, back to Mississippi, and on to Afghanistan.

While packing my bags, I considered my Minuteman ancestors: Citizen-soldiers who kept a musket at the ready, who could run toward the sound of the guns, at moment's notice.

Me? I can be spontaneous -- I just have to plan ahead to get that way. Apparently, so does today's National Guard: It took me about 12 hours, getting travel orders published and airline tickets purchased. It was like a red tape scavenger hunt, with me doing laps around the state headquarters building.

But here I am. In Mississippi. Where I'll see friends and colleagues to whom I said good-bye just last week. (I imagine plenty of double-takes and handshakes in the TOC.) We'll catch up on current operations, and wait a few weeks say our good-byes again. Meanwhile, I can help get them a little further down the road to Afghanistan.

Another day, another change, another mission.

 "Attack!"

 

BATTLE FOR HEARTS AND MINDS |

August 10, 2010

BATTLE FOR HEARTS AND MINDS
Name: 1SGT (retired) Troy Steward
Posting date: 8/11/10
Returned from: Afghanistan
Milblog: Bouhammer's Afghan Blog
 

I was recently made aware of this upcoming documentary by the boys over at VAMC, and I like what I see so far.This is the third in a list of movies that follow the Cinema Verite style of film-making. The first was Scott Kesterson’s AT WAR, and the second was the recently released RESTREPO by Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger. BATTLE FOR HEARTS AND MINDS was filmed by Danfung Dennis while he was embedded with the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade in 2009. The expected release of this documentary is slated for 2011. Keep an eye out for it. 

Battle for Hearts and Minds Trailer from Danfung Dennis on Vimeo.

SCENES FROM A SEND-OFF CEREMONY |

August 04, 2010

SCENES FROM A SEND-OFF CEREMONY
Name: Charlie Sherpa
Posting date: 8/4/10
Deploying to: Afghanistan
Milblog: Red Bull Rising
Email: Sherpa at RedBullRising.com

The vibe at a unit send-off ceremony is like a funeral, a graduation, and a wedding all rolled into one, except that there isn't as much beer involved.

Don't believe me? Consider this: There are bagpipes, there is marching, and the National Anthem is played. From where I come from, that's halfway to a party right there.

Here's how it went down for me:

First, there was freakish line in the sky immediately preceding our brigade headquarters' official send-off ceremony last Friday. It seriously went from black to blacker in 60 seconds flat, and dumped Biblical amounts of water on Boone, Iowa: Flash-flood, dogs-and-cats, use-your-seat-as-a-floatation-device while you hydroplane-at-highway-speeds weather.

Framed Sherpa SEND-OFF I'd like to report that it got sunnier after that, but it would be more accurate to say that the rain stopped. It was misty and cloudy and almost muggy. Perfect weather to match my overall mood.

The ceremony took place indoors, thank goodness. A volunteer group of Iowa bagpipers marched the Headquarters Company troops into the auditorium. Greetings were offered. The National Anthem was played. Salutes were rendered. Words were said, and prayers offered. Most of all, past-tense was used.

I've become increasingly convinced that that send-offs aren't as much for the people who are being sent-off, as they are for the people doing the sending. It's important for mom and dad, spouse and kids, friends and family to mark the time and place of their loved one's departure.

The ceremony was over in about 30 minutes, even with the 7-minute standing ovation the troops received as they marched in. The troops grabbed their rucksacks and duffel bags as they left the building, and started stuffing the gear into the bellies of the buses.

There was plenty of time to say good-bye. Almost too much.

Since I didn't have family there, I played my usual part of court jester, cracking jokes and shaking hands and chatting with anybody who seemed to want to chat. I also took some pictures for folks, so the whole family could get into frame.

Later, I realized it had felt a little like emotional triage site. You couldn't focus on people too long or deeply, because you might end up crying yourself.

There were the girlfriends and boyfriends saying good-bye with death-grip hugs and kisses. Forehead to forehead, couples tuned out world for as long as they could.

There were the geographic bachelors, the guys and gals who just reported into the unit. "Yeah, I just introduced myself to the commander," one soldier muttered to me, shaking his head. Imagine parachuting into the deployment to become the one guy on the bus who doesn't know anyone else.

One buddy of mine was getting on the bus. He'd injured his back, and the Army wanted to evaluate him medically when he gets to Camp Shelby, Miss. Another buddy of mine wasn't getting on the bus. He'd also injured his back, but the Army had told him that they wanted all medical evaluations be complete prior to travel to Camp Shelby. He'd told his parents not to come to the send-off, because he wouldn't be getting on the bus that day. They came anyway.

There were new fathers, huge with pride, cradling tiny babies.

I saw one mother struggle to keep her three kids focused on looking for Dad through the windows of the bus, while the kids struggled not to focus on the fact that Dad was leaving for a year. I thought about what the walk to the car would be like for her. Or the drive home.

The send-off ceremony is part of a mental and emotional transition from civilian to soldier. After all the standing in line, hearing the pipes, loading the bus, and saying good-byes? At some point, troops just want to get on the bus:

Let's do this thing. Let's get this deployment over, so I can come back. Let's roll.

I AM IN A WORLD OF SHIT |

August 02, 2010

I AM IN A WORLD OF SHIT
Name
: Anthony McCloskey (Tadpole)
Posting date: 8/1/10
Returned from: Afghanistan
Milblog: ArmySailor.com

Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 cult-classic Full Metal Jacket was a brilliant piece of work. It nicely encapsulates the maddening experiences of the military, and war. For better or for worse, war changes a man, and there is no way to escape that reality. Anyone who witnesses the horrors and triumphs of war cannot possibly expect to walk away from the experience unchanged.

My experience in Afghanistan completely changed my own outlook on the world and life. In Afghanistan I discovered what real poverty and true desperation really is. I saw grown men cry, I sent friends home to their families in boxes. I saw the results of people who believe in absolutes, and follow the most extreme form of a religion zealously. I witnessed men do unspeakable and horrifying things to other men, and rationalize it with expressions like “war is hell” or celebrate it with “Allahu Akbar."

When I left Afghanistan I knew, with a good deal of certainty, that I was in “a world of shit”, but I also knew I was not alone, and I was not afraid, for I had grown stronger from the experience. I learned more about life, the world and myself in Afghanistan than anyone ever could in any school, from any parent, or even by reading all of the world’s philosophy. I had seen the best and worst man had to offer his fellow man, and it changed me. I left that desolate country in relative peace, with a strangely calm mind, and with no fear in my heart.

Since I have been home, things have changed. Now, three years after returning home, I am left with a continuously empty feeling of a job left unfinished. I hear stories about those who have returned, and I desperately wish to join them, though I also do not want to leave those I love. My mind is not so calm any more. I find it difficult to concentrate, I find it difficult to rationalize the mundane drudgery of day-to-day life in the relative comfort of modern America. I have discovered that I am in a world of shit, and I am full of fear.

No longer do I have the bond of brotherhood and camaraderie that was forged by shared hardship in a world where anything may kill you. No longer do I have the peace of mind knowing that no matter what happens tomorrow, I can count on the man to the left and to the right of me to do everything in their power to ensure we all make it home together. No longer am I living in a world of absolutes. Only now that I have rotated back to the real world do I realize that I am in a world of constant uncertainty and moral ambiguity. I live in a selfish, shallow world of politics and people who are only looking out for themselves, and I am afraid. I find it hard for my mind to find peace in this world.

I cannot find peace, because I cannot find others who seem to truly understand, or who share similar values. No, in this strange new world of home, people are shallow and selfish, obsessed with material things and meaningless pageantry. No one is willing to make a sacrifice for anything. Suddenly, I feel terribly, horrifyingly alone, without the peaceful, loving bond of my brothers-in-arms, and I just don’t know if I have the strength to make it. I find it hard to find the motivation or reasons to forge ahead, but I do. I keep going because that’s what we were trained to do -- to keep going, and to survive, even in the face of abject fear.

 


Note: Tadpole contributed many posts to The Sandbox during his deployment to Afghanistan in 2006-2007 (including The Dance, It's Not All Bad, Forgiving, and Coping With Homecoming), and he has continued to contribute to the site since. Four of his posts also appeared in Doonesbury.com's The Sandbox: Dispatches from Troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.


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