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.


August 25, 2010

Alex Horton
Posting date:
Returned from:
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.


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.


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:


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


This is my first exposure to a milblog, and I wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed your post. It's wonderful to be able to feel like, while I can't share your exposure to things I'll never see, I may have a glimpse at a tiny percentage of your experience. I really enjoyed the pictures as well. To be able to see, not just try to imagine, what you were talking about was more satisfying than words alone. Thank you for all that you do.

I am very thankful for all the military does. If you don't mind me saying you have a great collection. I remember as a child holding the casings from my grandfathers collection. When I read your miliblog it brought me back to that time. A few pieces of history brought back by you will provoke discussion and admiration for years to come. No one wants to see our soldiers in harms way but I am glad you do what you do so my family and I can be free.

I found your post to be very interesting as I had always wondered about the rules regarding trophies and what was considered commonplace for trophies in modern wars. I guess I should not be surprised that the bayonets are still common as trophies so the more rare ones certainly interested me. Especially the sword I would not have guess that a sword would ever have turned up in a situation like that, knives sure but a dull bladed sword? never. Very interesting and thank you for sharing your collection with us. My grandfather had a grenade he brought back from WWII that he had hollowed out and turned into a lighter.

You have a wonderful collection. And not only are those items pieces of history, but they are also a time line to your experience, and the stories that you told to how they were acquired makes me have a lot of questions. When was the picture taken of Saddam? He looks very young in the photo. Why was it in this place where you found it? It looks like a photo that would have been kept by a family member or friend, not one that you find in an average household. Both my Grandfathers are Army Vets, and between them have acquired many keepsakes from their tours. All of which have a story and meaning behind it. My Grandfather still has the piece of shrapnel that they removed from his leg, and tells the story frequently as to how it got there, and the people involved. Not only are they memories of his, but they will be passed on to my children as mementos of history and how their family was involved in that moment in time.

not to be critical...but isn't rummaging thro'people's stuff ,re; books and papers, 'stealing'? even if it is an abandoned building?what is the owners return?i would think a lot of afghans have 'abandoned' biuldings to get away from the war.

Wow I think that your story is very interesting. I know that I am not in the same situation to understand any of this. But this reminds me of a documentary I watched. It explained that some killers like to have trophies of their victims. I do appreciate what you guys do for us it’s just hard for me to imagine. In my mind having such trophies would bring back terrible memories that you try to push out of your mind, not hold on too. But like I said I appreciate what you guys do for us it’s just hard to wrap my mind around.

He looks actual adolescent in the photo. Why was it in this abode area you begin it? It looks like a photo that would accept been kept by a ancestors affiliate or friend, not one that you acquisition in an boilerplate household. Both my Grandfathers are Army Vets, and amid them accept acquired abounding keepsakes from their tours. All of which accept a adventure and acceptation abaft it. My Grandfather still has the allotment of armament that they removed from his leg, and tells the adventure frequently as to how it got there, and the bodies involved. Not alone are they memories of his

I'm a little late on this, but perhaps I should answer the most pressing question you guys had. I found the photo of Saddam beneath a huge pile of loose papers and books on the floor. It had looked as if the house was ransacked at one point, but not by American soldiers; it was the first time Americans had set foot in that part of Baqubah for months. Whoever lived there had not been there for some time, and he seemed an admirer of Saddam. There were many books about him scattered on the floor. Perhaps he was a Baathist sympathizer, I can't be sure. The picture is not on glossy paper but rather thick cardboard. I have no idea of its utility, but it seemed a waste to leave there. It now hangs on my wall at work.

As for rummaging through other people's stuff, I'm afraid that was part of my job. During patrols I was tasked to collect material that was relevant from an intelligence standpoint. The photo is obviously a personal keepsake, but we did have to go through people's stuff in search for weapons and other things not so savory.

I certainly agree with the amount of stuff that a soldier brings home from war can be limitless in nature. Some items do carry an intrinsic value. However caution is strictly exercised and you must remain within rules to what you can ship. My first tour I shipped carpets (prayer and area), bayonets (AK74) as well as the bootleg DVD which some did work and others did not. During my tenure of being stationed over in Europe, I did travel to a variety of countries and took pictures of various landmarks, restaurants, and locales as well. I did collect a series of souvenirs as well. I did keep some tickets because of they were in a foreign language. During my tenure in Iraq, it did interest me to seize some items anything from the battlefield because of the unit I was assigned to, this was “off limits” if you know what I mean. It would have been nice to have collected a few war trophies but I am grateful to have collected items that were a practical in nature. I did acquire PTSD and some injuries which resulted in early retirement (medical). However serving my country was great and I realize our cause was very just.

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