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.

SLEEPY HOLLOW |

January 26, 2011

Name: CAPT Marc Rassler
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Hometown: Livingston, MT
Milblog: To Afghanistan and Back

Group photo after meeting with ANA and ANP at a Combat Outpost.

This past week my team and I helped out a couple of other small units and did a combined mission to Balk Province, in which the city of Pol-e-Khomri is located, approximately a three-hour drive west of Mazar-e-Sharif. We have soldiers on top of what is sometimes known as Cement Hill, which overlooks Pol-e-Khomri and the surrounding valleys. The artillery soldiers there are manning a couple of guns to pull security and provide overwatch of the valley. I am not sure how accurate they are as I have never been able to watch them fire, but I have been told that they hit the ground with every shot.

One-lane bridge North of Pol-e-Khomri

The day following our visit to the top of the hill, we assisted the NTM-A* team that accompanied us. Their goal was to visit some local ANA outposts and ensure that taxpayers are getting what they have paid for. That includes taxpayers of our coalition partners, as they have funded projects throughout Afghanistan.

Recently the ANA have been building combat outposts, to push out into areas that have recently been cleared of Taliban and other enemies of Afghanistan. Establishing the outposts should hopefully allow the ANA to maintain a foothold in the areas, provide security for the locals, and keep the enemy out. Since many of the outposts have recently been built, some with assistance and funding from coalition members, the NTM-A team needed to check the progress -- find out what supplies they may still need, and what their overall living conditions are.

With an ANA soldier at a small outpost in the town of Ayback.

One of the sites we visited was a combat outpost called Russian Hill. Driving to the location felt like driving through a scene from the movie Sleepy Hollow. All that was missing was to see a Headless Horseman pass us as we slowly traveled down the small country road. It was a very overcast day, and the road is lined with trees, the fields tended by hand. Other than our current trucks it felt like a drive back in time to early colonial America.

The area we called Sleepy Hollow.

Post meeting at Combat Outpost "Russian Hill."

One of my biggest impressions as winter has set in in northern Afghanistan is how the Afghan people are a tough and hearty bunch. Talking with some of the Afghan soldiers I was amazed that some of them are able to walk around with just a pair of sandals -- shower shoes at best by Western standards -- and a light jacket. The soldiers I know have at least been issued a pair of boots and a jacket. Many of the locals do not have much, and walk with poor shoes, and their protection from the wind and elements appears to be nothing more than a light blanket. It is a rare occasion when I've seen anyone wearing a pair of gloves.

Another thing that never ceases to amaze me is that no matter where we stop children will suddenly appear out of nowhere. It is not uncommon, as we are driving around any area, to see three or four kids out playing at any one time. But invariably as soon as we stop, get out of our trucks, and acknowledge the kids with a smile and a wave, 30 other kids will come out of the woodwork.

Some will know a couple words of English, others will come up to us and give a thumb to their mouth, signaling that they want some water, or a "raise the roof" motion with both their hands. They are hoping for anything that we can give them. Unfortunately for our safety and their safety we can't give them what they desire. If we stop and toss them some of our water bottles we would quickly be out of the water we need for our missions, as more kids would appear than we have water for on the trucks.

Nonetheless, it is always fun and refreshing to see the smiling faces of the many youngsters of Afghanistan. We are all amazed at how young they are when forced to grow up here. Two-year-olds or three-year-olds are outside playing along the edge of the streets. Nine-year-olds are acting like mothers, caring for their young siblings, holding their infant or toddler brother or sister on their hip. Every time that I am outside the wire reinforces for me the fact that it takes a strong person to grow up and survive in Afghanistan.

"Who wants to be an Afghanistan Millionaire?" A billboard that made us laugh.

 

*NTM-A: NATO Training Mission - Afghanistan

EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. |

January 24, 2011

Name: airforcewife
Spouse: returned from overseas
Milblog: SpouseBUZZ

I only get sick when Air Force Guy is not home. This is not one of those statements like, “It only rains when I wash my car,” it’s the absolute truth. I only get sick when AFG is not home. And I get sick at some point every time AFG is not home.

It’s maddening.

Let’s take, for instance, AFG’s most recent trip to a far-off, exotic locale (which happened over our anniversary). The second day after he left, I planned to get up early and make it to a boxing class at my gym. I told my coach I would be there, I got everything ready the night before, and then… I woke up in the morning throwing up everything I had eaten since graduating the eighth grade.

It was horrible. Truly horrible. And disgusting. In case anyone is wondering, there is something worse than the taste of Pepto Bismol going down. Pepto coming up. Urggghhh.

Every Single Time


We did not have the ability to talk on the phone during that particular trip, but we did have email contact, so I took a few moments to email AFG that I was ill and went to bed until 7:45 that evening (luckily my children were cooperative and didn’t attempt to kill each other until after I was able to stand upright for longer than fifteen seconds at a stretch).

When I checked my email again that evening, I noticed a note from AFG:

Well, I didn’t get an email from you today and it’s late, so I’m going to go to bed now.  I really wish I had heard from you.

This did not go over well with airforcewife. I’m pretty sure that I had the same reaction that many others will upon reading that line: “Excuse me?”

I stifled the urge to write something truly snarky in return, and gently reminded AFG that I had emailed to tell him I was sick. The next morning, I had this reply in my in-box, “I’m sorry! I didn’t think you were really sick.”

Of course he didn’t! He doesn’t see me sick! The only time I ever get sick is when he is gone.  Apparently, I have super-special never-get-sick genetics. Also, I can translate pursed lips and tapping feet into email format, because AFG figured out really quickly that he had said something very, very wrong.

This led to a rather long discussion when AFG came home. For one thing, I had realized that while I never get sick when AFG is home, AFG has the opposite problem going on. In all his deployments and trips, he has only gotten sick away from home once. And every single time he returns home, he comes down with illnesses of various intensities. So much so, and with such predictable regularity, that Wife Unit has christened AFG’s home-sick-days as “The [fill in the exotic, usually sandy locale] Crud.” We’ve been through the Iraq Crud, the Afghan Crud, and the Korean Crud. Also, the Turkish Crud. And some first world crud as well, most notably from Las Vegas.

The second thing I realized is this: as a military wife, my husband’s mortality is always near the front of my consciousness. Anticipatory Grief has a place setting at our dinner table, for goodness sake. And a stocking at Christmas! I have planned for what I think is every contingency (because when you plan for it, it doesn’t happen -- Murphy’s Law).

But AFG does not think that way. And he never realized that he didn’t think that way, even though we’ve had the anticipatory grief discussion several times. Even though I’ve tried to bring up discussions for plans should something happen to me. In fact, I’m not sure he thinks about it at all -- even now.

Photo credit: sleepyneko

DARK CLOUDS |

January 21, 2011

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

The new Air Force team is off to a remarkable start. Unfortunately, not in the good sense. Yesterday, we experienced our busiest day in well over a month. Three separate IED blasts brought patients to us, many of whom turned out to be KIAs. It was a deadly day.

Initially, an IED attack occured near one of the remote FOBs. Four patients became two when two died during transport. Later, another IED detonated along the Pakistan border from which we received a border patrol agent who was injured beyond our help. Another attack resulted in a badly wounded Afghan soldier with spleen and liver injuries so extensive that he required nearly 50 units of blood product to stabilize him. Finally, a 10-year-old boy in a motor vehicle accident sustained arterial injuries. To top it all off, MEDEVACs were held up by a rocket attack and subsequent casualties at KAF. The sum total left us to wonder if the day was an orchestrated campaign by the Taliban.

I happened to have a conversation with the local brigade combat team's surgeon. He offered that, thus far, it has been a busier winter of combat than in past years. Perhaps it's because the weather has been warmer than usual, which allows digging in ground not cold enough to be frozen, something I had not considered. He also mentioned that insurgents seem to be directing their efforts towards placing lower energy IEDs. The lower energy IEDs have subsequently been directed at Afghan units, which seems to be consistent with our recent patient population. By the end of the day, his thoughts seemed prophetic.

Dark clouds rolled in overnight and this morning we woke to sleet and heavy rain. It was as much precipitation as we have seen since our arrival and has turned our lovely dirt into lovelier mud.


Puddle of mud complementing Howitzer lawn ornament.

 

Hopefully yesterday's events don't represent dark clouds of another sort hanging over the new team's head. They have a long road ahead with spring and summer combat just around the corner.

FRUSTRATION |

January 13, 2011

Name: Old Blue
Returned to: Afghanistan
Milblog: Afghan Quest

I was very pessimistic after my tour as a PMT* in 2007-2008. What I saw then was a near-complete disconnect between the military and civilian efforts. Two of the main lines of operation were largely absent, and so any security gains were followed by… nothing. The Army cleared and then left, turning hard-fought gains back over to the tender mercies of insurgents, criminals and ineffectual governance. Units fobbed-up and commuted to work, bound by vehicles and often interacting poorly or not at all with the local population. The influx of Iraq-trained troops who brought the driving tactics they had learned there began to irritate everyday Afghans with overt aggression. Units were often interested more in self-protection than in accomplishing anything. The answer to nearly every tactical situation was spelled, J-D-A-M.* The doctrine of COIN* was known only as a set of buzzwords which everyone immediately put into use -- to describe actions that were most often decidedly un-COIN. The war was on a seemingly inexorable downward spiral.

I arrived back in Afghanistan in July of 2010 determined to make a difference by educating whoever I could on COIN. That I did, to varying effect. I trained and worked with troops and civilians from over 30 different countries over the course of the subsequent fifteen months. General McChrystal had just taken over the reigns in Afghanistan. A renewed emphasis on COIN had been settled upon, along with an increase in the numbers of troops and civilians on the ground, as the strategy that would be employed to stop the downward spiral.

Field grade military officers were often quite resistant to the concepts taught in the COIN course. Many had either no previous experience fighting an insurgency, or had served only in Iraq pre-2007. Some of the questions posed to the instructors were quite oppositional, showing the mindsets that we were dealing with. Informal polling showed that, consistently, about 15% of incoming US Army field grade officers had read even so much as FM 3-24, much less any other texts regarding insurgencies or how to counter them. Senior NCOs almost universally had not read the manual describing the doctrine. Ignorance of the available information, prejudices inculcated by years of conventional training and pop-culture influence and any number of internal resentments combined to provide many oppositional students. A great deal of patience was required. Angrily countering such arguments as were raised could “lose” a student permanently, yet it was necessary to understand how to counter each objection in an intelligent and persuasive way.

The COIN Leaders Course (CLC), conducted during the last week of every month, was the most comprehensive course offered. This five day course incorporated the normal curriculum along with a fair number of guest speakers, many of them Afghan senior officials from the ministries, Army and National Police. Students from many participating nations attended the course, with a heavy attendance by civilians. As much time as possible was devoted to discussions involving the members of each small group, or “syndicate” as they were called (the Australian influence was clearly visible in this). The time available for discussions varied, but was never enough for the students. Practical exercises sparked discussions and raised issues in microcosm, such as working with Afghans through language barriers. Prejudices surfaced; military, political, national and ethnic. Some interfered, many were overcome.

The CLC was not the only course offered. There were other, shorter courses at the CTC-A* during the month, and each regional team ventured forth into their respective region for several weeks each month. Units and organizations were trained in the field, sometimes in tents. Our interpreters got a full workout and were often subjected to poor treatment at the hands of American forces, such as our adventures at Bagram (truly horrible at times). Still, our interpreters hung in there and sometimes taught classes to Afghans practically unaided. They were that good.

As I traveled around the country, I was able to witness the behaviors of various units from various countries on the ground -- and the effects they were achieving. It wasn’t looking all that great. I was teaching commanders and staffs about the virtues of learning the details of their Areas of Responsibility (AOR) regarding the people and what was important to them using a framework called ASCOPE/PMESII. “That’s great!” they all said as they completed the course. Weeks or months later I would see them out in the provinces, working their magic.

“So, how is your ASCOPE coming?”

“Yeah, uh… we don’t really have time for that,” they would reply.

I began to acquire a persistent shallow in my forehead from smacking the heel of my hand into it with the Homer Simpson “Doh!”

Conventionally organized staffs, who had trained for months on staff processes geared more towards conventional operations than to support COIN information flows, simply could not implement an informational framework such as the ASCOPE/PMESII while simultaneously supporting ongoing operations on the ground. Reorganizing staff processes on the fly turned out to be as challenging as changing shoes while running without breaking stride.

Civilians were pouring into the country; USAID, State and contractors. Many had scant knowledge of Afghanistan and were full of prejudices about the country and what it needed. Many civilians attend the CTC-A or are taught the course out in the field as the instructors roam about the Regional Commands. They provided their own challenges. One civilian I trained, who was very disruptive in training, had been in the country for four months, had worked for State for five, and her previous work experience was working on Hillary Clinton’s campaign followed by, in her words and with quotation marks swiped in the air, “another campaign.” Political appointees with no prior experience were side by side with workers whose prior experience was in Africa. They had a tendency to believe that they had it all in hand and knew exactly what was needed both locally and nationally. Afghanistan would soon beat that out of them, however. Reality is an awesome mindset adjustment tool, and these were smart people with good intentions.

Another problem they had was in working with the military. It was mutual. The military has a tendency to view civilians engaged in development work as flower-munching, Birkenstock-wearing tree-huggers. Civilians engaged in development work have a tendency to view military personnel as linear-thinking knuckle-draggers. Fun.

Meanwhile, USAID’s Dr. Jim Derleth had brought the District Stability Framework to Afghanistan and was out busily training units to perform it -- in the absence of the deep understanding that thorough reconnaissance of the human terrain (ASCOPE, which is now built into the toolset) brings. Units, starting with the Brits, were beginning to recognize that  having foreign military personnel conduct TCAPF (Tactical Conflict Assessment Planning Framework) questioning -- the famous four questions to gather local inputs necessary for the accurate completion of the Tactical Stability Matrix -- was problematic. Everything was disconnected. Efforts were scattered and much less effective than coordinated actions can be. USAID became frustrated with their ability to train people how to use the methodology in significant numbers.

I’m not sure how it came to be, but there were talks about training the COIN instructors at the COIN Training Center/Afghanistan to teach the DSF. COL John Agoglia, the visionary director of the CTC-A during that time, recognized the value of the DSF. It was the missing link; a common operational framework that could be used by military, foreign civilians, Afghan civilian development workers and the local populations. In COIN and Stability Operations, unity of effort is key -- and highly elusive. A common operational framework enabled the development of a common operational picture, a necessity to develop unity of effort. Even across languages, if you are talking about the same information organized in a framework that is commonly understood, you are speaking the same “language.” It was decided to train the instructors. This was followed by a couple of weeks of intensive work at the CTC-A and the assignment of an instructor as a subject matter expert to assist in adapting the DSF training to dovetail with the COIN training in partnership with USAID.

As the military “surge” gained momentum, the most common feedback we heard was, “We wish we had gotten this education six to nine months earlier, so we could practice it in training.” We were training leaders, most often at the battalion level and above. Soldiers and NCOs got, at best, a few hours and were full of the same prejudices. As I was seeing in practice in the field, the lessons of COIN are not best taught after boots-on-ground. We were a band-aid on a gushing arterial bleed.

Things weren’t looking all that encouraging. One thing about COIN and Stability Ops is the perception delay. Just as poor performance is not manifested immediately, so positive inputs do not create immediate and undeniable positive effects. This is one of the reasons that appropriate metrics are so difficult to choose.

Six months into my tour I was feeling enormous frustration.

(to be continued...)

*
PMT: Police Mentor Team
COIN: Counter-insurgency
JDAM: Joint Direct Attack Mission
CTC-A: COIN Training Center -- Afghanistan

THE CHANGE |

January 11, 2011

Name: MAJ Ben Tupper
Returned from: Afghanistan
Hometown: Syracuse, NY

Benjamin Tupper is a long-time contributor to The Sandbox. His well-received first book was Greetings From Afghanistan: Send More Ammo. The following post is adapted from his recently-published second book, Dudes of War.

 I hear a lot of talk about how allowing gays and lesbians to openly serve in the military is asking too much of our servicemembers. According to many opponents of repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, the challenge of dealing with open homosexuality is a burden too great for the American fighting man and woman to bear.
 
Dudes of War cover I chuckle when I hear this argument of concern for the welfare of currently-serving military members. I wonder why these same people were silent when we went to war without enough body armor, or came home to underfunded veterans hospitals and shortages in mental health care resources for PTSD. 

As a current member of the military, and as someone who served as an Infantry front line leader in Afghanistan, I can quickly think of dozens of burdens far worse than the possible awkwardness of serving with openly gay servicemembers.

I would happily trade the burden that is the terror of combat and the death of comrades, or the physical challenges of the Afghan cold and heat, or waiting weeks if not months for PTSD treatment from the VA, for this alleged “burden” of soldiering side by side with a homosexual. 

Frankly, I take personal offense when I hear critics of repealing DADT say that it will hurt our fighting force, or hinder the ability to accomplish our mission. We are professional soldiers who go to war and are issued challenging and life-threatening missions on a daily basis. To think we can’t improvise, adapt, and overcome to the change of having our gay and lesbian soldiers come out of the closet is an insult to our long legacy of victory. I'm sure people feared the burdens of  integrating women, and African Americans into the ranks, but we did this, and are a stronger, more unified fighting force because of it.   

I know first hand that homosexual servicemembers are just as brave, smart, and committed to the mission as any of their straight comrades in arms. I owe my life to a closeted gay army soldier who, during an assault on a Taliban camp, was the only person in our unit to recognize that a squad of our soldiers was accidentally firing their weapons at my forward position. Multiple machine guns were chipping away at the rocks around me, until this gay soldier recognized what was happening and ran through the open to stop the friendly fire.
 
So given all this, it should be no surprise that when Don't Ask Don't tell comes up, and people ask me if I support gays serving openly in the military, even if it’s in front line combat units, my answer is simple:  “Hell Yeah!

 

RESOLUTION |

January 07, 2011

Name: Lurch
Stationed in: GITMO
Parent command:
106 out of NAS Oceana, VA Beach
Email: Phantomgrift@gmail.com

I suppose I can say Happy New Year, and perhaps follow it up with a resolution, as is the custom?

My resolution is to never go on a year-long deployment again if I can help it. I know, I know, not likely to happen, but I spent my holiday period being bored stiff. Greetings from Guantanamo Bay Cuba, an oft-overlooked aspect of the Global War On Terror.

I'll admit, I was kinda surprised when I found out that the Navy had started drafting Individual Augmentee orders for this place. It never really strikes someone as a deployable hot-spot. Then again, it strikes me that some folks even forget that there is a pre-existing Naval Base that's been here since the forties. They called, I went, and I find myself with a entirely different perspective. Quite different actually. On the very nature of where I am, for starters.

"What is Guantanamo Bay? They deploy people there?" With family and friends these question show up a lot. Apparently, to most people, "Gitmo" is an ambiguous concept. A sorta prison/detention/camp/whatever thing somewhere on Cuba. Well, unless, of course, you're a far-leaning activist of any sort, in which case I'm stationed in an unholy doomsday land of atrocious horrors. Media doesn't help either. More often than not, GITMO gets passed over for bigger news, and if anything is mentioned at all, it's accompanied by ten-year-old photographs from Camp X-Ray, which has long since been closed down.

Only a rare few have begun to come around to the fact this place serves a decidedly unique purpose. At least from what I've seen. People will conjure up arguments of "prisoner of war," say it's unjust, against "insert-brand-X-supposed-international-regulation-here." But take a closer look.

WWII reinforced a basic template: guys on one side, guys on another, they commence to shooting and the last man standing wins. Armed forces fought under the authority of their respective countries, and soldiers, if captured, were treated with such in mind. Our jolly terrorists have changed all that. There is no single openly-known host country conscripting everyone and paying them. Just a self-sufficient group with extreme ideologies using violence and terror to spread their message. (Suppose the Amish decided to one day stand up and use bomb-laden carts to convince us all we needed to be just like them. It would be roughly the same.) Hence the term "terrorist." And hence they don't qualify for POW status.

And yet, since we're America, we still care about treating people properly. So in accordance with Geneva Convention laws and basic human needs, we have to put the guys we take off the battlefield somewhere. Somewhere where they can have a decent standard of living while being kept from returning to the fight. That somewhere is here.

It's a new development in history -- a detention facility unlike any other ever made. Filling a role that, between you and me, I would prefer was not needed.

As for our role, sure, this is not the most arduous or dangerous of duties. I don't see combat, I don't worry about incoming mortars or lengthy patrols. Instead, I face the daily aspect of working with a bunch of fellows, who, for better or worse, don't exactly take kindly to the Western way of thinking. And therein lies the explanation of why I'm sitting here ticking away at my keyboard, as a chance to quietly vent frustration. Talk to people in the civilian world and they don't notice or care about this place, or they are severely misinformed. Talk to anyone I work alongside, and you see joint troops who have come together to professionally work in a decidedly hostile environment.

It gets bantered about in shtick, but that whole Core Value thing strikes home here. Working away from families, friends and spouses, at a detention facility with guys who don't like you and have been here longer than you -- all while under International scrutiny for a hint of anything perceived as less than standard. It impresses me to see the attitudes my colleagues maintain in the face of it all.

The base, for all its highlights, can only do so much to help us cope. The activity list is short, and when one is here for a year or so it can quickly be used up. Then boredom sets in. So I sit, reflecting on the finer points of a very nice area that manifests as a conceptual notion to most everyone else. And feel a rising desire to punch the TV anytime I see a report on GITMO presented to the rest of the world.

If nothing else, I've learned that "tropical paradise" is a polite way of saying "sweltering hot-box of muggy armpit humidity." That, and -- sorry folks -- I still can't get you an authentic Cuban cigar.

Happy New Year everyone, wherever you are.

THE IRONY OF SUCCESS |

January 05, 2011

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

Recently, an army special forces warrant officer was in an IED blast. Given his job, this was not his first deployment of the wars, but it was to be his last before retirement. In this mission he was sitting in the troop commander seat, meaning the front passenger. This seat is perhaps the most dangerous seat in a vehicle because it is the first to pass through the kill zone and is closest to the side of the road where the explosive typically is planted. His vehicle was the sixth in the convoy. The first five vehicles either missed the pressure switch or failed to activate it, but his was not so lucky. 

His unit was not taking the incident well. The warrant was well-liked and respected. They had set out to find the perpetrator but had had little success. Instead they might find only the impotent rage that comes after an enemy attack without an enemy to fight.

Body armor, no laughing matter

He arrived awake, with a single IV, and with tourniquets on three of his four limbs. He had the injury that has come to define the Iraq and Afghanistan wars: multiple limb amputations but no abdominal, thoracic or head injuries. In his case his legs were amputated at the knees and his right arm was fractured, dislocated and torn open. His body armor saved his life, but not his limbs. We make much about the success of medical care in the current war, but the jury is still out on whether it is our practices or the body armor that has improved survival rates. 

In surgery, the immediately agreed-upon priority was to try to preserve his right arm. Paul and Kat washed and packed the leg stumps while Dave and Ted worked on the right arm. They washed the wound, cleaning out gross dirt and debris, identified vital structures including the vessels, the nerves and the muscle tendons, and stabilized the fracture with a frame. Aric and I transfused more the 30 units of blood product. To what effect, we do not know. This soldier is now a double amputee and is at significant risk of becoming a triple amputee. If his arm does not succumb to infection, it has a chance to regain some function. He faces dozens more surgeries and years of rehabilitation. He was doing okay the next day at the hospital at KAF. We do not have word beyond that. 

One of the phenomena of the current war is the survival of quadruple amputees. It is not an exaggeration to claim that never, in the history of war, have quadruple amputees survived the battlefield. Before I deployed, I remember reading about Spec Brendan Marrocco, the first quad to survive, and marveling at his resilience. There are now three living quad's among about 1100 amputees from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. One of the three, Marine CPL Todd Nicely, is from my home town, St. Louis. I am heartened to hear about their successes as they persevere through the ordeal of rehabilitation. Still, the devastation of the body that remains means that we might be able to save their life, but not the life they had. That is the irony of success.

WHAT WE'RE DOING IN AFGHANISTAN |

January 01, 2011

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

Don't call this a Gift Guide, or even a "Best Books of Pre-Deployment" review. Reading these five titles won't make you an expert on Afghanistan. That said, as a citizen-soldier, I've found each of these helpful in piecing together What We're Doing in Afghanistan.

Best of all, each of these is accessible to non-military audience. In other words, you don't have to be a military historian fluent in Army acronyms to get a lot of bang from these books:

WAR, by Sebastian Junger

This book covers much of the same ground as the 2010 documentary "Restrepo," which author Sebastian Junger ("The Perfect Storm") co-produced with Tim Hetherington after continually embedding with a U.S. infantry company in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley in 2007-08. I saw "Restrepo" first, and even been lucky enough to have seen it a couple of times. The book enriched my understanding not only of how the soldiers of Battle Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team fought the fight, but how they came to the fight in the first place--and where it left them afterward.

  • First impression on reading the book: "Wow! That was ... Wow!"
  • Second impression: "I can't wait to read that again!"
  • Third impression: "I can't wait to see "Restrepo" again!"

I've decided to start describing Junger's book as one facet of a larger multimedia work, one that needs to be visited and re-visited, turned over and reflected upon. Yes, each of the components--"Restrepo," Junger's War, and Hetherington's Infidel (reviewed below)--is independently worthy of much praise and consideration. They add up to something even greater, however.

For his part, Junger makes writing about war look almost too easy. One can spend hours unpacking his simple prose, as if the sentences were written by Confucian fortune-cookie makers. Here are some personal favorites or mine:

Every time you drove down the road you were engaged in a twisted existential exercise where each moment was the only proof you'd ever have that you hadn't been blown upon the moment before. [p. 142]

Rear-base limbo: an ill blend of apprehension and boredom that is only relieved by going forward where things are even worse. [p. 199]

When I asked the men about their allegiance to one another, they said they would unhesitatingly risk their lives for anyone in the platoon or company, but that the sentiment dropped off pretty quickly after that. By the time you got to the brigade level--three or four thousand men--any sense of common goals or identity was pretty much theoretical. [p. 242]
*****


INFIDEL, by Tim Hetherington

Packaged to resemble the type of black Moleskine sketchbook favored by some artists and writers, this collection is a jumble of Hetherington's photographs, words from soldiers and Sebastian Junger, and other mental ephemera.

Hetherington's photographic view extends to a more-artistic, less-journalistic treatment of some of his subjects. Sometimes, rather than a straight-forward newshound's pictorial account of soldierly toil, Hetherington gives the grime and squalor a near-transcendent treatment--combat as still-life. Trust me: After reflecting on these images, you will never look at fly-strips, Army cots, and cheesecake centerfolds the same way.

The book takes its title from one of the tattoos shared by the Battle Company soldiers. (One of the soldiers packed a tattoo gun up to the remote outpost.) Hetherington documents the body art in both photographs and drawings. Each soldier has his own designs, his own scars, and his own brand--variations on a theme.

If "Restrepo" allows us to witness the conditions that Battle Company endured, and War illuminates how fighting men are bound together, then Infidel allows us to see each of these men again as individuals: flawed, young, and innocent.

As Junger writes in Infidel:

Creeping through the outpost came Tim, camera in hand, grabbing photographs of the soldiers as they slept "You never see them like this," he said to me later. "They always look so tough, but when they're asleep they look like little boys. They look the way their mothers probably remember them." [p. 15]


Having seen the war through Hetherington's eyes, you will not look at your sleeping sons and daughters the same way, either.

*****


WHERE MEN WIN GLORY, by Jon Krakauer

I'm not sure I would've liked Pat Tillman. That's probably saying more about me than it is him, but more on that in a second. In the mid-1990s, Tillman played college football for Arizona State University, and eventually ended up playing professionally for the Arizona Cardinals. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, however, he and his brother enlisted in the Army--he gave up millions of dollars to serve his country--and later deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan.

I tend to be biased against jocks and meatheads, and pictures of Tillman as the square-jawed Army Ranger or the long-haired gridiron gladiator tend to play into my worst high-school instincts.

The problem is, Tillman doesn't fit anybody's stereotype. And he was anything but a meathead.

As he was an everyday free-thinker, iconoclast, and patriot, I probably would've ended up liking Tillman, if I had been given a chance. Unfortunately, too many of us were never given the chance. He was killed in Khost Province, Afghanistan in a friendly fire incident April 22, 2004.

In the United States, political and Army leaders at the highest levels sought to celebrate Tillman as a martyr in the "Global War on Terror," a position at odds not only with the circumstances of his death, but with his increasingly articulated views against the invasion of Iraq.

The events leading up to Tillman's death were largely driven by bad calls made by unthinking leaders who were back in a Tactical Operations Center (TOC), rather than out on the ground. Army leaders failed to investigate and accurately report those events. Tillman's death was used for cheap political gain.

Ask any soldier: Accidents can happen--even fatal ones--but cover-ups are made. Cover-ups are more insidious than friendly fire. Cover-ups chip away at trust and honor within an organization. If we don't have trust and honor, what are soldiers left with? And what good is an Army?

*****


AFGHAN JOURNAL, by Jeff Courter

I reviewed this book in June, and had the pleasure of working with the author when he guest-blogged for Red Bull Rising in November.

Illinois Army National Guard Sgt. First Class Jeff Courter weathered a 2007 deployment to Afghanistan with plain-spoken good humor, quiet faith, and a passion for trying to put it all together. A former Marine cook and Navy Reservist, he deployed to Afghanistan as as an Army ETT tasked with training Afghan Border Police (A.B.P.). While there, he blogged about his experiences, and later self-published this book. His blog-posts are presented here chronologically, which creates a conversational, easy-to-read pace.

When a National Guard mother or father asks me about what the Afghan mission is like and for, I often start by putting Courter's book in their hands.

*****


GREETINGS FROM AFGHANISTAN: SEND MORE AMMO, by Benjamin Tupper

Reviewing this book was one of the first good things I did shortly after launching the Red Bull Rising blog in December 2009.

New York Army National Guard Capt. Benjamin Tupper had worked in Afghanistan as a civilian in 2004 before deploying as an Embedded Training Team (E.T.T.) member in 2006. An ETT is a small group of U.S. soldiers who train and mentor Afghan police and army counterparts. As such, they're really the less-celebrated core of the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan. You can kick down as many doors and kill as many bad guys as you want, but until the Afghan government can keep its own people safe and secure, it's all just tactical cats-and-mice.

As Tupper writes:

Sending an additional 30,000 soldiers may seem like a rational approach to fighting and defeating the growing Taliban insurgency, but it misses a simple truth. As the Afghans like to say: "You Americans have all the watches, but we Afghans have all the time."


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