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.


October 26, 2010

Name: Etta2010
Posting date: 10/26/10
Stationed in: Afghanistan

So much frantic energy has been invested in keeping my spirits up, and the company's momentum moving forward (against everything), that it seems like I haven't had the opportunity to step back and appreciate the humor and joy of what's actually going on around me. Rather than take a bit of time for myself I allow the situation to overwhelm me and dictate my emotions. Stupid. Thankfully, I was recently blessed by a period of two days that captured all the best things in life -- shared happiness, shared sorrow, with plenty of tomfoolery in between to keep things interesting.

I always have my Platoon Leaders develop their own plans when it's a Platoon mission, and if I see an interesting mission I want to jump on, I tag along. Obviously they have no choice when it come to participating in my operations, although I should make it clear that everyone loves my missions, and wants to go on them, not only because they're brilliant, but because they're also sure to see contact (and the best kind of contact -- the one where the enemy runs off at the end of the day, and one can actually measure progress from the day's actions). This saves me valuable time, while developing my subordinates to think for themselves. I rarely tell my Lieutenants what to do, or where to go. I give them broad intent, and so long as their plans fall within my intent, they are free to do more or less what they please.

So it was that one of my Platoon Leaders came up with an interesting plan to visit a village we hadn't visited before. He'd recon'd a route on his own, and came up with a very thorough plan that was wholly supported by the ABP* -- there was some small chance of contact, but, more importantly, it was pushing out the area that the ABP were willing to patrol. So I figured, "Great way to get off the FOB for a couple days, see some new turf, work with the ABP, reinforce easy wins."

The mission was well planned and meticulously rehearsed. After all the preparation, there was one last hour-long talkthrough / "rock drill" the night before, with a chilling cold wind blowing through, making it difficult to stand still and promising an uncomfortable night for those who'd forgotten their sleeping bags. We finished the briefing, retired to the four-wall, open-air compound at which we would spend the night, posted sentries, built up a roaring fire, and waited for sleep to arrive. I was in a damned fine, comfortable mood -- there's nothing quite like having a warm fire pushing out a bit of heat, a sleeping bag, and that all-important feeling of security. It's very easy to slip out of consciousness under those conditions.

I woke up with a vague sense of alarm, tied to a shout. The fire had died down, and the illumination cycle and clouds were such that it was nearly pitch black. Someone in the compound was yelling, with a sense of urgency, which brought me fully alert. "Get him off me! Get him off me! Help me!"

Still 75% in my sleeping bag, I combat-rolled off my cot, grabbing the loaded rifle one habitually keeps within arm's reach when sleeping in the field, assuming we were under attack. I pulled security outward (I'd positioned myself at a sandbagged entrance -- a dangerous place, basically a fighting position -- I depend fully on my ability to pull better security than anyone else, based on prior experience), as everyone else came awake, and flashlights started stabbing through the darkness. I turned back -- all this had taken no more than three seconds -- and yelled for a SITREP. In the middle of the flashlights, one of our Air Force JTACs* was shadow boxing... with his personal demons.

This opens up an interesting subject. I recently learned that Congress is debating what constitutes a Purple Heart-worthy injury. The Purple Heart is typically awarded "for military merit and for wounds received in action," so it's the "award" one receives for being wounded. Without going too far into the specifics, suffice it to say that the disagreement boils down to what constitutes "a wound received in action."

The progressives argue that even mild traumatic brain injury constitutes a wound, or an injury -- there is evidence to suggest that these things are cumulative, and debilitating, and our definition of injury should be based on contemporary scientific beliefs, not century-old tradition. The conservatives point out that under current scientific beliefs, just about every front-line soldier in WWI, WWII, the Korean War, and most of them in the Vietnam War would qualify for the Purple Heart based on the prevalence of bombs, artillery, and rocket fire. The Purple Heart is for wounds that impair a warrior's body, not his mind, or soul.

As I qualify for the Purple Heart based on the most liberal interpretation of the award -- as do many serving in today's Army -- I feel that it should carry some weight when I agree with the conservative group. If an enemy rocket bursts above me and I get a headache that goes away after a few days, I do not deserve a Purple Heart. If the stress of being in a combat environment twists or warps me, I do not deserve a Purple Heart. If I get nicked in the fat portion of my left thigh by a stray piece of shrapnel, or a bullet, I'll take my Purple Heart. The point is that the award is tied to a certain type of action, which does not include "nerves," "shellshock," or "post-traumatic stress disorder / mild-traumatic brain injury." It's getting peppered with shrapnel, shot up, stepping on a mine, stuck by a bayonet.

What started me on this particular rant was another phenomenon that I've been reading about -- the phenomenon of the soldier who develops combat stress / PTSD without having deployed, or having served one light deployment in a support zone. Versus, say, deploying to an area where one is in a fight every day one leaves the wire (I'm quite a bit closer to the latter end of the spectrum than the former). Although there is medical and empirical evidence to support the validity of these "PTSD-lite" cases -- made up mostly of people who probably should never have made the army a lifestyle choice to begin with, or been weeded out by selection -- I tend to fall into the camp of those who have suffered, and been checked, and experienced real loss in combat, where everything that happens is completely arbitrary and on a certain level, once you leave the wire, out of your control.

Now this Air Force JTAC who came out with us falls into the camp of people who see little or nothing of combat, yet somehow manage to be deeply affected by the possibility of combat. The stress of the potential fight of the next day overwhelmed him, and he suffered from Night Terrors.

To return to the scene: I am pulling security facing out with my rifle, JTAC is shadow-boxing with demons, three soldiers are pointing their rifles at him, one of the Navy EOD-techs is pointing his pistol alternately at a gap in the wall and the JTAC, others are pointing their rifles at different corners of the compound or at doorways, and I am doing my best not to appear frantic, praying that nobody pulls a trigger, as it will certainly occasion a massive bloodletting. The JTAC comes to, looks around, puts up his arms, and says: "What's going on?" Everyone lowers their weapons. It takes a little while for the absurdity of it all to sink in, a couple guys mutter "Fuckin' JTAC!" and we go back to sleep. The next day, when we get back to the FOB, everyone laughs about the scenario. Everyone except the JTAC, who finds himself the object of derision and scorn.

This incident was the funniest thing that happened to me in months.

 *     JTAC: Joint Tactical Air Controller
        ABP: Afghan Border Police


Gen. Patton would be proud.

Holy shit thats the most real story i've ever read

This is the kind of thinking that sickened the crap out of me while I was in the Corps. The belief that the only "true" wound is the physical one. That people who suffer from PTSD are somehow "weaker" that everyone else, or are less of a soldier because they suffer from PTSD. Like it or not, PTSD is real and REAL SOLDIERS experience it. The fact that everyone in this guys unit felt the need to deride and scorn this JTAC shows that they have no compassion and are severely lacking any moral integrity. Perhaps these "Soldiers" will realize once they have been back home for awhile that PTSD affects almost EVERY soldier, regardless of how "tough" or "seasoned" they are.

This scenario reminds me of the senior leadership that I had to deal with while in the Marines..Haughty, pompous, self-righteous Commanders and Squad Leaders who felt that anyone who showed signs of PTSD or other mental illnesses were "lazy, weak-minded soldiers trying to "get one over" on their command because they obviously didn't want to pull their load like every other soldier. I fought for a year to prove my command otherwise, and I won. There is nothing like having your Squadron Commander shake your hand and personally apologize for the actions of himself and his fellow officers. I, and soldiers like myself can perform perfectly in every area of our military life, yet when we experience some kind of mental issue we are immediately labeled a slacker and a troublemaker. Hopefully things are finally starting to change, and military leaders are beginning to realize that these kinds of injuries do NOT indicate a mental weakness or lack of motivation on the part of the soldier, and are as real a combat injury as the soldier who receives shrapnel wounds to his thigh. Humiliating fellow soldiers because of their mental injuries has long been an accepted practice in the military, but it is time this practice be stopped and the reality of the effects of these mental injuries on injured solders be studied and validated.

Thank you for your honorable service to our country, and I hope you will, in the future, continue to treat ALL of your soldiers with the great respect and honor REGARDLESS of the type of injury they have received in the service of their country!


Jeff C.
United States Marine Corps Veteran
100% P&T Disabled

Ha ha. What a leader, and a real manly man to boot.

Awesome post. I'm a civilian and cannot fathom PTSD, but I'm in the medical field it is one condition I know will constantly reappear in the patients I tend to. I wonder sometimes how I would begin to help them- obviously I can't relate and obviously I don't have any magical pill. It made me happy when I heard they implored returning soldiers to get puppies to help with PTSD. That's one reason they gave Marcus Lutrell (the SEAL who survived Operation Redwing and wrote Lone Survivor) a labrador when he went home. But I am glad you finally had some fun though! Laughter isn't the same as an extra gun by your side, but it can save your soul when you need it most.

-American Reader

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