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.

ROZE-E TASHAKURI |

November 30, 2010

Name: Major Dan
Stationed in: Afghanistan

Milblog: AfghaniDan


"You got a problem with that?"
Col. Ibrahim, Col. Asif, AfghaniDan, Gen. Azimi, Maj. Daoud


Thanksgiving in Kabul, 2010...

The post title "Roze-e Tashakuri" essentially translates to "Day of Thanks."  There is a great deal for which I am thankful this year, and last Thursday presented some pretty unexpected reminders of some I hadn't considered.  It was the designated day for a high-level conference and working group between my advisees at the Defense Ministry, their counterparts from Pakistan, and a number of folks from ISAF (the NATO-led coalition command).  You know it was an odd Thanksgiving when the highlights were: Seeing your general and colonels in uniform instead of their usual suits; appearing on NBC's Today Show in an extended crowd shot outside of where you eat your meals each day; and deciding that the Afghan feast you had for lunch was far better than the "traditional" dinner everyone awaited with great anticipation.

 The honor guard turned out for AfghaniDan...

 

"Does anyone know how to just end this thing? Anyone?"


It turned out that I was thankful to spend a holiday like this one -- so sacred for family functions in the US -- with "my boys" from the ministry.  It is extremely rare for all of the Dagarwaals (Colonels), Dagarmans (LtCols) and the Major General whom I advise to be gathered together in one place, and I considered myself really fortunate to be there with them.  Perhaps it was sealed by all of the "main commander" ribbing from Asif (who loves to call me that after General Azimi dropped that on me in a meeting), or the back-and-forth whispering throughout the meeting with utterly insane Daoud (who is going to break my ribs one of these days with his "I can crush you" Pashtun bear hugs), or the re-entrance of Azimi himself -- after all the VIPs had gone -- to ask "Where is the Major?", since he hadn't yet wished me a happy holiday.  (Story by that Huvane guy who's always writing about Azimi...)


Now when you read that, you can probably decipher that "lively discussions" refers to squabbles. It got pretty interesting when each side of the border wanted to point out the other's culpability for the spread of ammonium nitrate (a key ingredient in IEDs).  And lest you think that it's all sunshine and roses -- though it was plenty sunny outside and the dying rose bushes were still holding on -- there were some comments shared with me by some Afghan colleagues who were, let's say, less than enthusiastic about their Pakistani counterparts being here.  But of all people, it was Daoud who put it into context for the grumblers: "Today, we are friends.  Today, we shake hands."  Wish I could do justice to the fake smile he wore for that remark; it was classic!

 My posse -- heads of the "3 families" of PAO -- and a wild card.  


One funny moment I must share: At one point in the meeting, which had run almost two hours past its scheduled break for lunch, the Afghans brought in a folding table from outside to set food upon.  As they draped a tablecloth over it, and then those buffet-serving dealies (you know, with the top that pulls open in an overly unwieldy way?), I thought immediately of Snoopy setting up Thanksgiving dinner outside in that Peanuts holiday classic.  I haven't seen that in quite a few years, yet still, folding table + tablecloth + food = memories of that scene.  And there it was, in the "Tea House" of the Ministry of Defense, Kabul.

Oh, the things I do for my country and world peace.


It never turned out to be much of a holiday in the labor sense, but there were a bunch of enjoyable moments back at the base too, squeezed in between the work and more work.  Busy is always good here, especially during something like Thanksgiving: it wasn't until my 2:00 am phone call to the family when I really remembered what I was missing.

One of those things "missing": alcohol.


Some other things for which I am thankful:

My team.  Esmat, Johnny Kabul, Pam, Joe, Qais and Dave are the greatest people I could possibly work with.  I'd serve alongside any one of them again, anywhere.  Working arrangements are always temporary in a business such as this, but this is one team I'd have looked to keep intact somehow.

Dave, Joe & Pam from the team, and good friend Senior Chief Garcia, enjoy turkey dinner Goat-style (that's the name of the chow hall).

 

Donations to my moustache fund.  People, it's not easy keeping that hideous rat on my lip, particularly as it tries to grow to some respectability while staying within strict Marine grooming regulations.  But some of you have shown great generosity already in giving to the fight against prostate cancer -- the worthy cause which ended my career-long refusal to grow a deployment 'stache.  And you honor this effort when you do!  (It's not too late -- chip in if you like...)

 

Lt.Col. Arif and I support Mo'vember.


Hot water (usually).  Bountiful food (though "edible" can often be considered a stretch).  And a culture which fosters a tradition such as senior officers serving up food to the troops.  Some of our higher-ups got their Afghan principals into the act as well, in a few of those forward posts -- where generals from our side and theirs stood side by side, dishing out grub to the soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and civilians.  Pretty cool, that.

As an Irishman, should I consider this reparations?
 Col. Nigel Jefferson (UK) & Maj. Cheney serve up grub.

The fun side of deployment.  I would never get caught up any more in a television broadcast the way that I wound up enjoying Lester Holt's live sequences from the Today Show yesterday.  Now, I'd rather they were further downrange, bringing the excitement to some grunts living out of a true combat outpost in the badlands, but since they were here, it was fun to check out.  And to broadcast this unfortunate dirty sanchez look to the American public!  (Supposedly this clip below shows me, but I have no ability to view video. Anyone want to verify that this link even works?)

 

Lester prepares to go live...and I prepare to nod at the camera.

 

The host then greets an attention-starved crowd.


A position of responsibility, at such a crucial juncture for Afghanistan.  Sure, if I've learned nothing else, it is that time is continuous and so is human history. So maybe none of this will much matter in the grand scheme of things in a century, or even a half.  But the moment is palpable here.  And though it's hard to see through many daily frustrations, I've got an important job doing meaningful work (some of you who comment have really helped me see that -- I thank YOU too!).

 Which is the one from Jersey again?

 

Also on Thanksgiving, in another part of town...
Bashary himself praises Joe for HIS meaningful work.


Those who keep us safe.  As much as I lament being here in the bubble of Headquarters land while comrades in arms put their lives on the line every day in some parts of the country, I am thankful for what I have.  The forces which keep Kabul safe have done an amazing job -- I shudder to think of how ridiculous our already-ridiculous force protection policies would be if it were actually still a dangerous place.  I'm not being shot at, or going out on patrols through mine-infested farmland, and for that I do give thanks.

Marine Corps corporal in a firefight earlier this year...

 

My amazing family and great friends, who support me every step of the way, who understand when I say I'll be extending my time in Afghanistan, who take care of needs I often don't even think of, and who manage to make me feel as if I'm there when I call.  I miss you all.

Roze-e Tashakuri Mubarak!

GIVING THANKS |

November 25, 2010

Name: Scott
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Milblog: The Sand Docs

In spite of what some may call an austere environment, we have much for which to be thankful. Among those things: our deployment is over halfway complete, we have not lost any of our team members, we live in a prosperous society that values and dignifies its individual citizens, we enjoy many times in our lives free from fear, and we have plenty to eat, a warm place to sleep, the support of our families and friends, and our children are safe. We are grateful.

The true need for sailors in the desert revealed.

To celebrate turkey day the DFAC is serving a great spread. Many troops from the small outlying posts are arriving to join in. The lines will be long but they are a deserving group. Here is a video link to the 2009 Thanksgiving spread made by a member of one of the preceding Foward Surgical Teams. 

Finally, we are thankful for the holiday cards supplied to us by the 3rd grade class at Holy Infant School in Ballwin, MO and the 5th grade class at Boyce Middle School in Pittsburgh, PA.
 

Thanksgiving cards on display.

Here are some select excerpts from our young friends:

"I was a skateboarding banana for Halloween.  I pray for your safety.
"  -- Lucas, 3rd grade
    And we pray for your safety, Lucas.

"You are a big HERO to me.  A story I think is funny is my friend Emma tried to hug a chipmunk and it tried to get her. She named him Montgomery."
-- Osa, 5th grade
     Sounds like Emma is the big HERO.

"If I could be any character in Modern Warfare 2, it would be you."
-- Mark, 5th grade
   Unfortunately, Mark, I suspect you would have to play Operation.

"Doctors are the best."
   -- Jack, 3rd grade
    Future president of the American Medical Association.

"Because of you I feel safe.  Do you have a dog?"
-- Don, 5th grade 
    Don, what's really on your mind?

"Fix them all up and get out of there!!!!
" -- Zach, 3rd grade, 
   Now that's a succinct summary of the mission.

"Did you know 32 miners were trapped in a mine for 71 days.  They all got out.  This story should inspire you to show most stories have happy endings.  And I know you will too!"
-- Olivia, 5th grade
   Olivia, thank you for the thought of the day.

We hope that you have a Happy Thanksgiving.

48 HOURS OF BLUNDERS: PT 2 |

November 23, 2010

Name: Etta2010
Posting date: 11/23/10
Stationed in: Afghanistan

This post picks up several hours after 48 HOURS OF BLUNDERS: PT 1 ended -- weapons back on safe, everyone sleeping with one eye open, on the JTAC.

After the excitement of the night, it was a bit of an anticlimax, getting rained out of bed in the morning. Rain is something that comes infrequently in Afghanistan, and generally not under conditions where it can be appreciated in its proper context (this is to say, from the comfort of shelter). In this case, rain obeyed the cardinal rule, and waited until it was good and cold, then came down and drenched everything / everyone, further reinforcing the lucky nature of our mission.

I couldn't help but notice that the JTAC had cleverly positioned his cot under a tree, so that he managed to avoid the worst of the elements -- being at the mercy of concerns and worries in his sleep, and perhaps in every waking moment as well, the JTAC (as expressed by the jarring incident that woke us all hours earlier) used his hightened sense of alarm to plan for every contingency. I know that it was petty and pointless of me to notice and begrudge him his preparedness, but such is the way of things. Ultimately I suppose I would have seized on any pretext to envy the sleeper who avoided getting soaked.

Almost as soon as we'd finished packing up, wringing the water out of our gear and clothes and storing it in our bags, then throwing the bags disgustedly in the back of our vehicles, we had the day's first piece of positive news. For anyone who's worked with the Afghans - -this probably goes for the Iraqis, and any other third-party national who's working on standing up a working Army -- establishing an early-morning time-hack is best-guess under the most ideal circumstances. You say: "We'll all meet up at 0500, and leave at 0530," and you expect them to show at 0700. 0700's still way better than last time I was here, in 2008, when they'd show up when they wanted to, if at all.

At any rate, on this day, they showed up at 0500, like we'd agreed on the night before, and they were ready to move. We did final checks on equipment, talked through the plan one last time, and began moving at 0530, also as planned. This put me in a great mood. We were moving toward the objective village and it was just getting light. Our luck, it seemed, was changing.

It was all new territory for me as soon as we turned off the main road. I don't go in much for the smaller reconnaissance operations, unless it's tied to the certainty of enemy interruption or there's a chance something could go wrong. I leave it to the Platoon Leaders to establish their own areas, and explore the trails I don't have time to see myself -- I can't be in three places at once, so I have to assume some limited risk, and besides it's good to empower them.

In this case, things didn't work out the way I'd hoped. We got to the previous limit of advance, where the Platoon Leader had ceased his reconnaissance, and discovered that the culverts had been destroyed, taken down by the local villagers to build new, stronger culverts. This was good news for us two months from now, but not great news at the moment, as there was no way we were getting across the irrigation ditches without culverts. So, there we were, having invested hours of planning and coordination, standing at the edge of two great ditches with our hands on our hips, strung out on a road, with no obvious way onto the objective. I told the PL to get with the ABP and figure out if there was any other way into the village, which he did. He came back after a five minute huddle, and the look on his face was promising.

"Hey sir," he said, "The ABP say there's a trail into the village..." he cracked a kind of smile, "but it's through the mountains."

I couldn't believe my good fortune. Next to clearing a village of Taliban, (which was clearly not going to happen on this day), the best thing, my favorite activity in Afghanistan, is a mountain trail recon. In the first scenario you have violence of action (the ultimate challenge for the soul) balanced with positive change you can measure, and there are few things more rewarding than seeing villagers thank you after you've booted thugs out of their town. In the second scenario you have beautiful landscapes, no chance of contact, cut off communications (so a sense of freedom and limitless potential), and no IED threat. I can't tell you how liberating that last piece is -- driving without really having to worry that there might be a bomb in the road. That's the best part about off-roading. No bombs, no worries. Almost euphoric.

As you can imagine, when I heard that the ABP were thinking of taking us into the hills, I immediately leapt on the opportunity, and sent the report up to higher: "We're heading into the hills, to recon an alternate trail into the village." I knew -- I mean, that trail, like the paved road, never leads into the village. It doesn't work like that. It leads to some other village, or dead-ends, or gets too narrow. Something takes you off course. In the history of Afghans knowing a secret trail through the mountains that could hold U.S. vehicles, not once has the trail in fact led where the U.S. forces expected it to.

I was fine with this. In my mind, we were already conducting this village clearance sometime in the future. It wasn't happening today. Today was going to be a fun mountain trail recon, where we didn't accomplish a damned thing apart from identifying some routes that our vehicles could use, and confirm that the trail did not, in fact (I mean, there's always the chance) run into the village.

True to form, the day worked out exactly as I'd imagined. We rolled around in the mountains for the better part of six hours, stopping to climb a couple of them. Saw a few shepherds, a few abandoned qalots (one with a tree growing in the middle of it), and no end of breathtaking scenery. I saw a gray fox, although I have no idea how it could survive in a barren, inhospitable place like the hills. The scenery was amazing. The JTAC, who brought a camera, left without giving us any pictures, so the photos I hoped to post proving what a special and extraordinary journey we took must remain the product of your imagination.

The end of the reconnaissance deposited us in a small meadowed valley, which was dotted by caves -- not the type I've seen in other Islamic graveyards, and no conspicuous tracks leading into the valley. It reminded me more of the early buddhist caves I've read exist in parts of China. We turned around, got out, looked at the grass, made sure there was no way forward, and turned around to move back to the FOB.

Technically this qualifies as a "blunder" because we should have stayed out there. It was awesome, and put me in a great mood for the rest of the day. Unfortunately, this mood was, like all things good and joyful, doomed to an early demise, through circumstances very much outside my immediate control...

THE PL |

November 18, 2010

THE PL
Name: Michael C
Returned from: Afghanistan and Iraq
Hometown: Orange County, CA
Milblog: On Violence

Sometimes the difference between "a" and "the" can be gigantic.

For example, every platoon has a “PL” (short for platoon leader), but not every platoon has “The PL.” The first is a common name; the second is an informal show of respect.

I don’t remember the first time someone called me The PL, but I remember who said it, Staff Sergeant Williams. He referred to me as if I weren't in the room, or as if I were some higher deity looking down. Something along the lines of, “The PL wants the trucks ready to roll by 0800.”

They had probably called me The PL a bunch of times when I wasn’t around before I first heard it. When I did hear it for the first time, I liked it. I was proud. It’s the final step on crappy nickname ladder that new platoon leaders climb. First, I had other nicknames.

Lieutenant: Lieutenant is the de facto title, and it’s neutral depending on context. If your men call you the “lieutenant,” it isn’t that bad. If a higher officer addresses you as “lieutenant,” you can almost guarantee he’s about to tear you a new one. As a new PL, I couldn’t wait wait to drop that title.

Butter Bar: New PLs don’t want to get called this. It’s the universal synonym for all freshly-minted, new lieutenants, because of the solid gold bar you wear on your chest. It is also why my guys cut a butter pat into thirds and taped it to my rank, a literal butter bar.

LT: Sometimes, before you become “The PL”, you get the intermediary LT. Lieutenant and LT are almost interchangeable, but I preferred LT. (Side note: I’ve noticed that some old Vietnam vets love to call LTs “LT.” Its like, “Hey, I’m not in the Army any more so if I call you LT, what are you going to do?” It’s a throwback to the days of Vietnam, like smoking Pall Mall cigarettes or hating Jane Fonda.)

Cherry: Though the term “cherry” isn’t exclusive to new officers, being called a “cherry lieutenant” is probably the worst insult in the Army.

The Sir: To my face, I was only called “Sir,” the same way our platoon sergeant was only called “sergeant”. On the way to becoming the PL, "the LT" morphed into “The Sir." Again, this was better than being called “The Lieutenant.” (Second side note: my men also came up with the theory that you could say anything you wanted to a higher ranking officer, so long as you said, “Sir, with all due respect.” Such as “Sir, with all due respect, this mission is blanking retarded.” That theory wasn’t true.)

Michael: My men never called me this, especially in the strict world of the Airborne Infantry. Only years later did my men call me Michael, and for some it was a hard habit to break. After I moved to battalion staff, I told one of my guys he could call me by my first name. He looked both ways for Sergeants Major then said, “Later, Michael” with a smile.

Why all this philosophizing on the many names of lieutenants? Because the difference between an “a” and a “the” can bring the emotions flooding back.

Last January, I attended a funeral for Sergeant Lucas Beachnaw after he was killed in Konar province. Most of the Fourth Platoon “Helldivers” showed up to say their farewells. The night before the service, with all of us staying in the same hotel, we had to plan the rest of the night.

Without realizing it, Staff Sergeant Williams referred to me as “the PL” again. I smiled. We weren’t in the same platoon anymore, we weren’t even stationed anywhere near each other and half the guys at the funeral weren’t in the military anymore. But we were still a platoon, and I was “the Sir” and “the PL.” And no one can ever take that away.

THE MEMORIALS |

November 16, 2010

Name: Scott
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Milblog: The Sand Docs

Today is Veteran's Day in the United States. In honor of those who have given so much I wanted to look at how they are remembered here. But first a thought about war memorials.

A few years ago, my sister was married in a church in the famous Italian neighborhood in St. Louis called The Hill. This church had been built amongst the square grid of streets in a crowded neighborhood that was populated during the great wave of immigration a century ago in America. It was ethnic community in every sense and this church was part of its fabric. But with time and the march to the suburbs, that ethnic identity gradually waned.

Before the ceremony I was wandering the back of the church where I stumbled on a seemingly forgotten photo album. The album contained pictures of the young men from that neighborhood who had been killed in America's wars. The majority of the pictures were of World War II veterans but also some were from Korea and Vietnam. There were no pictures from the current conflicts. As I flipped through the pages, I wondered about the young men, the lives they lived and those they didn't live, and how much their legacy depended on that neglected photo album.

And so it is on the FOB. The tragedy of the life lost too young is immense. Yet, even here, where that tragedy is experienced most immediately, the memorials tend to recede from constant thought amidst the inevitability of daily routine. Furthermore, the war in Afghanistan is now America's longest war, and one of the small consequences is that the memories of these men are receding even here. Some of them were killed three, four, five, even six years ago which is an eternity in the tempo of unit deployment. Therefore I wanted to display the ways they are remembered even if their personal histories are vague to us.

Structures are named for them,

The FOB Gym

SPC Scott Andrews

the Romanians have erected memorials,


Cross at the Romanian Chapel


Memorial Garden nestled between tents


barriers and walls are painted,

Jersey Barrier

and the dining facility has reserved them a place.

The Empty Chair

GETTING IT OFF YOUR CHEST |

November 15, 2010

Name: Anthony McCloskey (Tadpole)
Returned from: Afghanistan
Milblog: ArmySailor.com

Sometimes coming home, and being home, is the hardest part of war. I am beginning to think that leaving the war may be more difficult than serving in it. While you are in theatre, things tend to be pretty cut-and-dried, pretty black and white. You know what your mission is, you know your orders and you execute. You don’t think about the “why” of it all, or whether or not what you are doing is right or wrong, because you don’t have the time, nor the luxury, to do so. You sure do think about it when you come home though.

When you come home, you will replay in your mind every significant event you experienced while you were in theatre, and a lot of insignificant ones as well. You’ll replay them over and over in your head and analyze them. You will think about your mistakes and lapses in judgement. You will think back and discover new mistakes, realizing that you could have, and should have, done something differently. You will wonder about the fate of the locals with whom you interacted.

Over and over again I find myself trapped in a battle zone version of “Groundhog Day." I frequently wish they would send me back, if only because I know it would silence this inner monologue that I dare not share with others, lest they not understand. How can you chat with a friend over coffee at Starbucks and expect them to fully comprehend the gut wrenching feeling you get every time you think about the time the .50 caliber machine gun you were manning jammed in the middle of a fire-fight and all you could think about was whether or not you’d maintenanced it correctly. Was it your fault that you and your buddies were about to die? Just because you had not used enough lubricant, or too much?

You’ll think back to other times, when you were under fire, and in the heat of returning fire, perhaps you fired on a civilian. Was that a gun they were holding or was it a broom? Did they point it at you? It all happened so quickly. You’ll be having these thoughts at the same time that those around you are thanking you for your service and commending you on your bravery. Would they think you so brave if they knew how scared you were? What if they knew that in the heat of battle, your only real concern and motivation in the moment was survival?

You will stand in ceremonies, and receive awards and accolades and you’ll salute bright flags as marching bands pass in a zzzz Fourth of July parade full of emotions and feelings you cannot put into words. Not pride -- but the feeling that you’re not where you belong. A tinge of guilt that while you stand here, back home in the states, one of your brothers-in-arms is getting his ass handed to him in the sand. You’ll hear your “superiors” drone on about how important such-and-such a report is, and how the command is switching to the new “e-leave” system, and you have to attend the training. By the way, did you go to that Equal Opportunity training? These are the things they think are important back home, working in garrison, in an office. These are the new priorities and it is maddening. You may begin to stop caring altogether. Things begin to feel pointless. Is this really it?  The nice part of battle, and war is that it eventually ends, and you know it will. The hard part of peace, and returning to the real world, is that it doesn’t. You have to adjust. You have to talk to someone, find an outlet and get it off your chest, or you will be consumed by the demons.

Not a day goes by that I don’t spend far too much time either over-analyzing my actions in theatre, or simply replaying them in my mind. Real life seems like a distraction. How am I supposed to get upset because some young sailor didn’t crease his uniform properly when I have “real issues” on my mind? I get sick and disgusted with those around me.  They describe mundane things as “important” or as an “emergency” and I want to spit at them. They don’t know the meaning of an emergency.

There are a lot of self-important people in uniform who have never spent a day on the ground in a war zone, who think they know what is important. It is my contention that they wouldn’t know their ass from a hole in the ground. Everyday I feel sick to my stomach knowing that the day will be filled with this mundane drudgery, which I must try to pretend concerns me at least a little.

A friend of mine with whom I served in Afghanistan e-mailed me the photo below. I don’t know who that soldier is, but when I saw the photo, I couldn’t help but think “right-on”. The image sums up many of my own feelings. How can one come to terms with unclear memories of such tumultuous, vague and uncertain situations?

All I know is that I did my best and I tried always to do the right thing. But I fear I will never escape the perpetual replaying of these situations in my head. I fear I’ll never come to peace with everything I’ve seen and done. And perhaps I shouldn’t -- but I do know, sometimes you’ve got to get it off your chest.

ESQUIRE VETERANS PROJECT |

November 12, 2010

Name: Major Dan
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Milblog: AfghaniDan

Please allow me to take the unusual step of plugging something that's not self-serving, from Tim at Esquire magazine.  Get in touch with them if your family fits the bill:

For a major photographic portfolio in an upcoming issue, Esquire is looking for multigenerational families of combat veterans: sons or daughters who served in Afghanistan or Iraq, fathers (Vietnam), and grandfathers (World War II or Korea) who each served in combat and are willing to be photographed together representing three generations of American military history. Esquire has a long tradition of honoring American troops in wartime and we hope to add this unique portfolio of veteran families to that history.

If you and your living father and grandfather (or son and grandson) have served America at war and would like to participate in this project, please send a note with your contact information to the Esquire Veterans Project at veteransproject@esquire.com.

Thank you.

THE BROTHERHOOD OF THE TRAVELING FLAT MINUTEMAN |

November 11, 2010

Name: Charlie Sherpa
Unit: deployed to Afghanistan
Hometown: Boone, Iowa
Milblog: Red Bull Rising
Email: SherpaatRedBullRising.com

There's a 21st Century tradition in the Army National Guard of mounting life-sized photographic likenesses of deployed soldiers to cardboard, foamboard, or corrugated plastic. They're called "Flat Daddies" (yes, there are "Flat Mommies," too) and some of them really get around: Family reunions, vacations, dance recitals, birthday parties.

There are a lot of twists and turns in the following story, but they all center on what might be billed as the "Granddaddy of All Flat Daddies."

Danny Coggins is president of Gulf States Manufacturers, fabricators of metal buildings systems. When business slowed a year or two back, he challenged his employees to come up with a patriotic project to spruce up the exterior of their Starkville, Miss., plant.

"They told me, 'The only thing we know is steel.' And I said, 'Well, then, that's the language we'll use.'"

A couple of great stories result. First, the workers create a work of art outside the business, one that includes minutemen and the seals of each U.S. service branch. "It's pretty amazing," Coggins says. "For us to do this kind of detail work is a little bit like asking a framing carpenter to do your cabinets. Our guys figured it out."

Then, a little girl starts stopping by the plant to add some flowers to the display. Goggins zaps the girl's grade-school teacher an e-mail. "I thought Gracieann was pretty special, but even more special was a teacher who teaches patriotism," Coggins says. The e-mail travels around the Internet a couple of times, and, by the time that Coggins gets a chance to introduce himself, she's already fielding media inquiries.

Then, a general officer at Camp Shelby phoned, and asked if he could make the 3-hour drive up from the Hattiesburg area. "We're a 40-year-old business, and we're not a pretty place," says Coggins. "Suddenly, we've got a general coming to visit."

While preparing this summer for a deployment to Afghanistan, soldiers of the Iowa National Guard's 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division (2-34th BCT) first noticed the 6-foot-tall steel minuteman standing outside Paxton Hall at Camp Shelby, Miss. Turns out, that minuteman is only one of some 70 that were subsequently installed throughout the State of Mississippi. You know, after that general visited.

The 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division has a well-established history with Camp Shelby. In World War II, members of the celebrated Japanese-American 442nd Regimental Combat Team (R.C.T.) trained there. The unit would later fight alongside the Red Bull in the mountains of Italy.

While at Camp Shelby prior to a 2005 deployment to Iraq, members of the division's 1st Brigade Combat Team (1-34th BCT) re-created a "living patch" photograph that evoked the division's World War I origins at Camp Cody, N.M. The 1-34th BCT included two units that are now deployed with the 2-34th BCT: Iowa's 1st Battalion, 133rd Infantry Regiment (1/133 Inf.); and Nebraska's 1st Squadron, 134th Cavalry Regiment (1/134th Cav.).

Although he's proud of his employees' efforts, Coggins repeatedly stresses that Gulf States Manufacturers is not in the business of making or selling 6-foot-tall flat minutemen. The "statues" don't have a brand or company name on them. Rather, they say "Made in the U.S.A." and "God Bless America." They're made out of 100-percent U.S. steel, by the way.

There are, however, 8-inch-tall steel replicas of the Gulf States minuteman for sale at the Mississippi Armed Services Museum, also on Camp Shelby. Gulf States Manufacturers donates them to the Mississippi Chapter of the American Gold Star Mothers, so that the chapter can raise a little money.

Gold Star Mothers have lost a child in service to his or her country. There's a conference room at Gulf States Manufacturers designated for Gold Star Mothers' use: For meetings, for counseling classes, for grief sessions--whatever they need, whenever they need it.

The bottom line to all this? Gulf States Manufacturers is a group of creative, patriotic people who have repeatedly gone the extra mile for troops and their families.

Now, I told you all that in order to tell you another one ...

In addition to many other fine attributes, Coggins is also a former combat engineer. He was once even a member of the Iowa National Guard's 224th Engineer Battalion--"Iowa's Engineers"--when he lived in Mount Pleasant, Iowa. When Coggins and his buddies found out the Red Bull was once again on the move through Mississippi, he saw another opportunity to deliver more Gulf States steel on target.

Retired Col. John "Jack" Wallace, chairman of the Mississippi Employer Support to the Guard and Reserve (E.S.G.R.), personally delivered to Camp Shelby one of the 6-foot steel minutemen to the Iowa National Guard's 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division (2-34th BCT). Iowa's Lt. Col. John Perkins, commander of the 334th Brigade Support Battalion (334th B.S.B.), accepted the minuteman on behalf of the brigade. There's talk that the minuteman will eventually reside at Iowa's own Gold Star Museum, Camp Dodge, Iowa.

But the minuteman isn't coming home to Iowa--at least, not right away.

The 334th BSB includes soldiers who are logisticians and maintainers. You want to move or improve something, you go to the BSB. The battalion's motto? "Support the Attack!"

In less than a day, the metal-heads in the 334th BSB figured out how to mount the 100-pound minuteman statue on a portable stand. The Red Bull is shipping out to Afghanistan this month, and so is the steel minuteman.

"Attack!"

There are a couple of lessons I take from all this:

If you are business owner, manager, or employee, you can help your organization to think beyond flag-displays, free lunches, and military-discounts. Look for unique ways that you put your own stamp on ways to celebrate, remember, and help people. Look for the low-cost, the meaningful, the win-win. (A "Gold Star Mothers" conference room? Genius!)

If you are a National Guard soldier or spouse employed by a business that supports you and your family's service, you can nominate that organization for recognition by the Department of Defense's ESGR program. Click here, fill out the form, and hit "send"--it takes less than 5 minutes!

And, if you are a Red Bull soldier serving in Afghanistan, and you come across a certain Flat Minuteman, tell him Danny, Jack, and Sherpa say "hi." We look forward to your stories.


CAMP SHELBY, Mississippi – Retired Col. Jack Wallace, chairman of the Mississippi Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve (ESGR), presents Lt. Col. John Perkins, commander of the 334 Brigade Support Battalion of the 2-34th Brigade Combat Team, with a 6-foot tall “Steel Minuteman.” The steel minuteman statue is a gift from Danny Coggins, president of Gulf State Manufacturers, Starkville, MS. Coggins is a former member of both the Iowa (224th Engineer Battalion) and Mississippi National Guard. The statue will accompany the 2-34th BCT during the year long deployment to Afghanistan. More than 3,200 Iowa and Nebraska National Guard soldiers from the 2-34th BCT will deploy later this fall to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. (Photo by Capt. Adrian Sean Taylor, HHC 334th BSB)

A NEW MISSION |

November 08, 2010

Name: Alex Horton
Returned from: Iraq
Milblog: Army of Dude

Nearly half a decade ago in a stuffy barracks room corner, I created this milblog for a very simple reason: to communicate to my family the curious aspects of Army life. Before I committed, I enjoyed writing but never had an impulse to do so. Writing for sheer pleasure was a difficult concept to grasp; the act was often sullenly attached to school assignments I habitually ignored in favor of reading dry military history texts. But after I got started, writing became my only creative outlet, a way to relay thoughts and experiences that I would never dare speak out loud. Emails, letters and occasionally blog postings were sent from the grounds of Fort Lewis and enormous bases carved out of Iraqi soil. My only audience was an assembly of blood – family members and close friends were the only ones following my travels. In an all male infantry unit, writing was the furthest thing from grunt machismo. This blog was a closely guarded secret.

Violent explosions have the power to transform bodies and minds. They also have the ability to transform perspectives. A decimated house in Mousl brought me from snarky spectator to battlefield observer once I saw bricks scattered about the street like violent confetti. I decided at that moment to record as much as possible of what I saw through writing and photographs, to relay thoughts and images that were nearly impossible to articulate. It was my way of talking out the often painful and difficult situations during my unit’s deployment. Writing was catharsis long before I understood the meaning of the word. As the deployment crawled past the one year mark during the worst period of violence of the entire war, handwritten letters seemed like they were being delivered to another galaxy. Writing became my only connection to a place that didn't feel quite like home anymore.

The Third Stryker Brigade completed its mission when we razed the home of the Islamic State of Iraq in the summer of 2007. My own mission of serving in the Army was accomplished shortly after we returned home. After I got out, I set my sights on an education, which felt like a battle unto itself. My high school grades were impressive in their mediocrity - I failed, among many other classes, freshman and sophomore English. College seemed like a task far outside my abilities, but I quickly found my military experience prepared me with the discipline I didn't have as a teenager. The most difficult part of school was making sure my VA benefits came when they were due.

Along with thousands of veterans going to school, I found myself without a monthly living stipend when the Post-9/11 GI Bill went live last year. Simply navigating a complex benefit package like the GI Bill required research and painful lessons learned, but how to tell a landlord I couldn't make rent wasn't in any FAQ provided by the federal government. I sent my grievances to the only person I knew at the Department of Veterans Affairs - Brandon Friedman - and within hours I was speaking with Keith Wilson, the Director of Education Services for the Department. He was able to answer enough questions to spur a followup post, which went far to explain some confusing and frustrating aspects of the GI Bill.

Apart from my posts written from Iraq, this blog has been mainly introspective and nostalgic in nature; a look back at the good old days. The two posts dealing with the GI Bill were a departure for the norm. It felt great to step outside my own experiences and help other veterans who needed the right information directly from the right source. I spent the next few months burying myself in homework and working part time before Brandon came to me with some news: the Department of Veterans Affairs was expanding its new media reach, and it needed someone to helm a forthcoming blog.

I took Brandon up on his offer after much deliberation. I still had school to finish, but it was rather unsatisfying. I missed the challenges of the Army. I missed having a mission.

Today I announce a new mission: the launch of VA's blog. It's called VAntage Point, and its purpose is simple: to transform the mode of communication between veterans and VA. The main column will be written by staff writers: myself and Lauren Bailey, the Special Assistant to the Chief Technology Officer. Brandon is the editor, and will occasionally chime in when not covering my drafts in red ink. We are set to tackle issues affecting veterans, with emphasis on getting the right information to the right veteran at the right time. The exciting part for everyone involved is the Guest Post column. Anyone can submit a post on a topic concerning veterans, and it will be published as long as it's coherent and competently argued. We're not just looking for fluff pieces either. If you had a bad experience with a VA doctor or couldn't get through on a help line, we want to hear about it. We're looking for a cross section of guest writers - anyone from a student struggling with reintegration to a VA surgeon to a Vietnam veteran and everyone in between. For the first time in the history of the Department of Veterans Affairs, ideas and communication will flow two ways.

Of course, my new job carries with it some implications for this blog. Now that I work for the government (again), I relinquish a bit of editorial freedom of what I can say here. That's the downside to increasing the reach of my words. But with it I gain legitimacy and authority to speak about veterans' issues, and I have a hard time thinking of a better way to use my energy. That is not to say I won't have enough time for Army of Dude. Whenever I have a post in mind that doesn't fit at VAntage Point, it will go here. But sadly, I can't focus on my writing here like I once did. Things will change around here, but this blog will remain. VA wanted me to write for them, and with me comes my style and personality unabridged. Both will survive the migration. I encourage my readers interested in veteran issues to bookmark VAntage Point and check back often.

I cannot imagine where I'd be without the people I've met along the way. It'd take all day to mention all the talented writers in the milblog community that have linked to me for years, or to list all the readers who have left countless messages of support both here and through emails. I've made many friends and luckily few enemies through my writing, and I hope that is something that continues both here and my new home. Thank you for reading. I look forward to my new mission, and I know I can count on many of you for support.

Note: Alex Horton is a longtime contributor to The Sandbox. His numerous posts include Burning Sensations, Groundhog Year, The Thing I Carried, and Through Amber Lenses, A Light.

THE PEOPLE BEHIND THE WAR |

November 01, 2010

Name: Air Force Wife
Posting date: 11/1/10
Spouse returned from: Overseas
Milblog: Spousebuzz

Every year my husband has been home at this time, we make it a point to visit Red Lobster once for their Endless Shrimp special. It's like a holiday of some sort for us, "Shrimp Christmas." We look forward to it, we leave the kids at home, and we go eat shrimp until we can't stand up and walk normally.

It doesn't help my diet any, so luckily we only do it once a year when Air Force Guy is home.

This year, entirely by accident, we sat in the section of a woman with a very interesting name and a slight accent. When she brought us our food, my husband asked her where her name was from and she turned the question around on us. "Where do you think it is from?" she asked. 

I guessed Morocco. My husband guessed Israel. We were both wrong. She was from Afghanistan.

We had come to the restaurant late in the evening, so business was winding down and we got our server's full attention. And she was very attentive! She kept our drinks refilled, the biscuit basket full, and the shrimp coming. And we got to hear her story. 

Hamasa (not her real name, but a fitting substitute I think), and her family had managed to escape Afghanistan just ahead of the Taliban. To hear about that harrowing journey -- where she, a fourteen year old girl, had been sent ahead of her mother and four siblings to find a place in Pakistan -- was equal parts horrifying and astonishing. And yet it was just one part of her story.

Her father, who had been a physician in Kabul, had been taken away one night by the Soviets. When that happened, her mother was left alone with five children, at the age of twenty-five. Hamasa was sent to a school that taught Russian literature, emphasized engineering and Soviet political thought. She was taught in Persian-Dari (which she said she still likes to write poetry in today), but surprisingly she didn't learn Russian. 

Hamasa didn't tell us much about that transition period -- she didn't talk about the Soviets leaving or the bombings. She skipped forward to when they started to hear more and more news about the Taliban. Her family had always been more Westernized; not only had her mother never worn a head-covering (much less a burqa), but Hamasa didn't really remember anyone who did. Her mother decided that theTaliban's coming was inevitable and she made plans to get her family out.

They left their house and extended family, taking only clothes and food items (and "modest coverings," as Hamasa described them, which I think meant something more than a head scarf and less than a burqa). Hamasa, as the oldest child, was sent ahead first to Pakistan and ended up in Peshawar. She didn't tell us about her journey there at all, but I can't imagine a fourteen year old traveling through a war zone to make a way for her family to escape. She learned Urdu quickly (she already spoke Pashto), and sent for her mother and siblings. This was when she had to start lying about her age -- a fourteen year old was not allowed to do the things Hamasa had to do for her family.

The family's journey was terrifying. The bus they started their travels out in was hit by some kind of explosives. The family continued the journey on foot. The group they were traveling with was discovered by Taliban and some of the boys in the group were taken. Hamasa felt lucky her brothers were both spared; but her mother has never gotten over seeing all the family photographs (the only thing aside from food and clothing they took with them) seized and burned. They made it to Peshawar with Hamasa, though, and started planning for the next step. They felt the only chance they had was to come to America. And once again, it was Hamasa who was going to have to get them there.

Sight unseen, Hamasa agreed to marry an Afghan man in America. His father had also been taken by the Soviets, so she felt they would have something in common. And, unlike so many of these stories, her marriage was wonderful. Her husband brought her to America where she immersed herself in learning English, becoming an American citizen, and sponsoring her family to bring them to the United States to safety. 

Hamasa's brothers are wildly successful. One is a dentist and one is an engineer. She has two sons; they speak Dari to their grandmother and are completely Americanized in their pursuits and endeavors. She said that now, now that she has managed to get her family here and put them all through school, she is concentrating on herself. She is working on her college degree during the day and waiting tables at night to pay for it.

We left a very large tip.

I have read a lot about Afghanistan. I'm a news junkie and a history addict who majored in Political Science in college; so I spend Air Force Guy's deployments learning as much as I can about where he is. I've read the horror stories of Taliban treatment of women. I've also read about their treatment of boys. But no matter how much I read, how many specials I watch, or how I pick apart the news to try and get some sense of what it is like where he is, I'm always removed. I think that's just the way it is -- it is a place I have never been, and a situation I can't imagine. 

I had never before had the chance to talk to someone like Hamasa; someone who lived through all those events that culminated in my husband going to war in a country thousands of miles away. It's one thing to read the stories, or watch the news report. My heart would break seeing those things. But it was completely different to talk to Hamasa. My heart did break, and I did have moments during her story (particularly when she asked my husband to describe to her places as they were now versus how she remembered them) when it felt like a huge weight was sitting on my chest. 

And it was strange, very strange, to see my husband and this woman neither of us had ever met before share something that I could not share with my husband. I have never seen these things first-hand. I've seen him have these moments with others who have deployed, but never with someone like Hamasa -- one of the civilians whose life was completely shaped by the war that my husband keeps leaving to fight.

But overall I felt humbled. As trying as some of the events our family has had to go through have been, they've been a cake-walk compared to Hamasa's story. And she laughs, still. She is excited about her future. She makes plans, and works to fulfill them. And she can breathe -- something I had trouble with just hearing her story.

And now I have that extra background to add to the picture, to shade the nuances when my husband talks about his deployments. I have talked to one of the people behind the war.

 


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