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.

TALKING THE TALK |

February 23, 2011

Name: Etta2010
Stationed in: Afghanistan

Some readers may be tired of the washed-out, complaining vein of thought I've been peddling lately -- everyone has their problems, right? So this will be a more lighthearted post, without the melodrama of contact, or the pitiful, self-indulgent discussions of my current emotional disposition. What do I have to complain about, really -- my body is whole, and I've got a full belly of FOB chow.

I'm going to discuss some of the sayings and phrases I've heard this deployment that stuck with me, for whatever obscure aesthetic reasons:

1) Fanning Balls. This means "doing something other than working," or anything that doesn't involve firing one's weapon. Particular emphasis implies that what one is doing is not useful to the group, or contributing nothing to the war effort.

"What did you guys get up to on the last patrol?"
"Nothing, just sitting at checkpoints, fanning balls."
or
"I won't be coming on this mission, I'll be on the FOB fanning balls [or "on the FOB just f.b."].
or
"Then so-and-so got his vehicle stuck and we had to sit around fanning balls for eight hours while a wrecker got out to us to recover."

2) Blow into [something]. This means to energize or otherwise invigorate a project that has encountered difficulty, or will probably be difficult.

"We're having trouble tracking down what happened to the generators after they left camp for Bagram. XO, I need you to blow into this, get to the bottom of things, figure out where they are and who's got accountability for them."

3) Some of the many ways to euphemize getting yelled at: Nuked, detonated, lit up, blown in place [a strangely sexual metaphor, must be unintentional], tore [sic] out of the frame, slam-dunked, torn a new one, f***ed five ways from Friday, destroyed, skullf***ed, annihilated, taking HEAT rounds, taking hits, getting flamed, getting torched, "having words with the boss."

4) Taking a sh**, or taking a dump. This means breaking. Things that can and have taken a sh** this deployment: my computer (lost everything on the hard drive, but saved by my discipline in backing up the system on CDs), my vehicle, comms (on numerous occasions, usually when I can least afford to lose it), other peoples' vehicles, Internet, the cell phone network.

Note: bathroom activities have their own series of euphemisms, which I will not use or explain here, as to do so would be a low thing.

5) "Shucking and jiving," "Cutting and jabbing," "Making it happen," "Working the mojo" "Working it": Ways to explain that one is making headway with a problem that is difficult to define or quantify. Also, ways to say that one is making headway when in fact one is not making headway.

6) Smoke and mirrors: The active and conscious attempt to deceive another party as to what one has done, or failed to do:

"That was a hell of a brief, everyone seemed really impressed."
"Smoke and mirrors, smoke and mirrors."

7) Other ways to underline the importance of doing something, and doing it right: get personally involved, dig into it, figure it out, nug through it, get into the weeds, get into the TM / FM, [this is] a no-fail task, [this is] my number one priority [it is possible to have numerous "number one priorities" at the same time], do the head-check.

8) To finger-drill [something]: to do an inadequate or half-assed job.

"I need you to conduct rehearsals on movement to contact under NVDs [night vision devices]. This is important, we'll be out for a few days with no vehicles, so you cannot afford to talk through it or finger drill the rehearsals -- actually do them, and do them until they're right."

9) Pushed to the right: delayed.

"Sir, when are we SP-ing tomorrow?"
"We're not. Mission's pushed to the right 24 hours."

10) Shelved, tabled: cancelled.

"Sir, when are we SP-ing tomorrow?"
"We're not. Mission's shelved. Pushed to the right indef."

11) Dust off the plan: Mission that was cancelled a week or more ago is now no longer cancelled, again.

"Hey, I need you to dust off Operation Success, it's a go."

"Sir, when are we SP-ing tomorrow?"
"We're not. Operation Success is back on, so our other mission is pushed to the right. Dust off your balls, we're getting blown in place."


BACK IN BUSINESS |

February 20, 2011

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

This morning we had our first major war casualty in several weeks. The action occurred at a nearby village, which is remarkable because the most recent casualties in mid-January were from the outer edges of our AOR (Area of Responsibility) at the Pakistan border.

An Afghani officer with the NDS (National Directorate of Security), their equivalent of the FBI, was shot. One of the DOD* civilians told us the story. The man was on his way to work in the village and decided to take a rickshaw-type taxi. He was dressed in his uniform. The taxi stopped along the way to pick up three other riders. The riders were Taliban in disguise. After about fifteen minutes, one of the insurgents pulled a gun and the shot the officer in the head at point blank range. He was not killed instantly. The driver then claimed that he was forced to continue driving at gunpoint to some unknown destination where presumably the Taliban intended to take their victim. However, they encountered an ANA force at which point the Taliban abandoned the taxi and fled. Frankly it sounded like a planned ambushed to me.

The NDS agents are as close to reliable as any Afghani government agency gets. He was definitely one of the 'good guys' as much as anyone is within the realities of the current system. I asked the DOD worker who related the story if this meant the winter 'break' was over. "Seems like it to me. We know there are at least three of them loose out there."

He arrived at the FST* completely unresponsive with profuse bleeding from his wound. His vital signs were decent except that he was profoundly hypothermic with a body temperature of 88F. The code went well but the patient deteriorated. With wound packing, blood products, and maneuvers to limit brain edema, we managed to stabilize him enough to allow transport to KAF*. He died later in the day of his wounds.

 

*
DOD: Department of Defense
FST: Forward Surgical Team
KAF: (the hospital at) Kandahar Air Field

THE LESSON |

February 14, 2011

Name: Captain Dave
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Hometown: Tampa, Florida
Milblog: Playing in the Sandbox...Again

Having spent nearly eight months in this wonderful little country called Afghanistan, I think it's now safe to assume that it has not been what I expected. Unfortunately, I'm not entirely sure what I did expect, so it's difficult to compare that version with reality.

The last time I wrote here was three months ago, so allow me to briefly summarize the last 90 days with a few sentence fragments:  birthday, Australia, Bärchen!, Kandahar, Christmas, New Year's, illumination fireworks, back to work, some other stuff, patrols, tearing a huge gaping hole in my pants, snow, Star Wars, mud, and boom, here we are.

Looking at that list, I realize some of it might need explanation, but I'm only going to explain one thing -- the hole in my pants. For those keeping score at home, I've been a staff officer this deployment, which means spending the vast majority of my time sitting in a crappy office and going to ridiculous meetings, many of which include clueless Romanian dudes. Although I've managed to find myself on a few random patrols, they are relatively infrequent. On one hand, this keeps me away from most of the danger (good). On the other hand, I sometimes find myself bored out of my freaking mind (bad). 

Imagine my surprise last week when I was asked to go on a dismounted foot patrol to a few of the small villages in our area. I was supposed to be an "advisor" regarding economic development and project funding, though I did not feel it was important to mention how little I know about either of these things. Actually, that's not entirely true. I do know some stuff. Like water is good, irrigation has something to do with water, Afghan dude wants to irrigate some land or something, also wants lots of money to do it, local kids will probably do the work, Afghanistan has no child labor laws, guy will probably keep most of the money = winning the war!

Armed with my clearly extensive expertise and knowledge of project development, I stepped off with the patrol bound for the local village, which was something like 2km away.  Although that does not seem far, the terrain here is what you might call "rugged," with rolling hills, rocks, shit streams (seriously), and dirt. Add 40lbs of armor and ammunition, and movement becomes slightly less than graceful. Anyway: we were walking up some farmland which was shaped like terraced steps, each of them probably a meter high. I climbed the first few with relative ease, and feeling confident (and remembering what it feels like to be a soldier) I attempted the next step, which was just a tiny bit higher. Then, I hear a loud RIIIIIPPPPP, instantly realizing that I had torn the absolute bejesus out of my pants.

Of course, I couldn't exactly stop the entire patrol just because I ripped my pants. Fortunately for me, I had what is affectionately called a "crotch-protector" attached to my body armor, designed to protect a soldier's manhood from uninvited shrapnel, but in my case on this particular patrol, covering my balls from the prying eyes of Afghani children. 

When we finally got to the village and met with the elder, the hole was basically down to the top of my knee. He invited us to sit down with him and enjoy some tea (I would have preferred to stand), which we did. Meanwhile, my crotch-protector was totally saving the day, as was the awkward Indian-style pose I'd managed to twist my body into while still attempting to maintain some shred of dignity. 

By the time we finished our meeting and started walking back to the base, the hole was beyond hiding, despite the valiant efforts of my brave crotch-protector. Several children pointed and laughed and said something in Pashto to the effect of, "Dude! Check it out! That guy totally ripped his pants! You can almost see his balls!"

If there is one lesson I've learned in my time in Afghanistan, it's this: respect is difficult to earn when your balls are almost showing.

AN EXTRAORDINARY TIME NOT TO WRITE |

February 10, 2011

Name: Etta2010
Stationed in: Afghanistan

This posting is as much an admission of guilt as it is an apology for the actions that led to the behavior that earned the guilt. To whit -- I never would have thought that I'd spend over a month and a half in combat and not write anything down about it. Heaven knows I've experienced enough of the breadth of combat in the past 45 days to generate some interesting comments and commentary. At the end of it all, though, here I am, sitting in front of a computer in a crowded MWR, incapable of writing anything interesting.

I mean, assuming that the things that I write are ever interesting.

The fact is, while everything was happening I was so deeply involved in it all -- so engaged -- that in retrospect I suppose it was inevitable that I'd get back, from days in the field, and just be -- feel -- totally washed out. More exhausted, less motivated, than at any point in the prior deployment. There have been many occasions on which I felt angry, or frustrated, or steeped in some other similarly negative emotion, but I can remember no other time when I felt nothing. It's gone on for a good four days now -- ever since getting back from the last of three long, overlong extended missions.

This is new ground for me. Not motivated, not inspired, just trying to get through it all to the end. Tired of getting shot at.

Guess that means it's high time I found a new career!

VISITING BIBI ORPHANAGE |

February 07, 2011

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

Framed Rassler school2 1 Recently my team and I took toys and school supplies and delivered them to Bibi Fatemah Orphanage, which is on the east side of Mazar-e-Sharif. Over the last few weeks we had collected a ton of material, so much that we could no longer move in the spare room where we were storing all of it. We originally had planned to visit another school, like we did in November, and deliver all the supplies to kids in school. Unfortunately we were hit with a bit of a surprise around Christmas time when we learned that all the schools in the area are closed till the Afghan new year, which is around the 1st of Spring. Apparently the schools do not have a way in which to heat the classrooms.

Framed Rassler school2 2 With all the supplies we had collected we needed to find a place to deliver the items, as they were starting to get in the way. Plus with our replacements due to arrive soon we needed to clear space so the new guys could move in. One challenge is the number of toys that we received. Some families must have gotten confused about our intent, as we received as many boxes of toys as school supplies -- boxes of toys for toddlers, as well as countless stuffed animals. I think that we would have made the Marine's Toys for Tots proud with the number of toys collected.

Framed Rassler school2 3 I was also surpised at some of the toy items that people had included. I know that in their hearts they wanted to help, but I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw a little children's book on how to speak Spanish and some games which required batteries, with instructions in English. By simple luck of fate one of the guys on our team heard about an orphanage which 10th MTN, the major unit here on Camp Spann, had visited last summer.

We contacted the director, Mr. Ahmad Sultany, and asked if we could donate some toys and school supplies. He was very receptive to anything that we would bring for the children under his care. However, he said, it would be much better if we could bring coats and warm clothes for the children. We agreed, but unfortunately all had to bring was toys and school supplies.

Framed Rassler school2 4 Due to mission requirements, the day for our trip had to get pushed to the right a couple times, but we were finally able to put everything together and go deliver some supplies to needy kids. Without the help of our Croatian Army Teammates we would have really struggled. They provided a Maxpro MRAP vehicle to carry all of the supplies, and one of their crews helped provide security for the mission. 

It was also important for us and this mission to have the involvement of the Afghan Army. We asked some of the soldiers that we mentor if they would like to join us and spend time with children. Whenever we do humanitarian assistance missions we try to bring along someone in the ANA or ANP, to help put an Afghan face on the event. We would like to help instill trust and confidence in the government, military, and police. Hopefully through these actions, children and thier parents can learn that the ANA are some of the good guys and people that can be trusted.

Framed Rassler school2 5 When we arrived at the small orphanage, things could not have run smoother. Mr. Sultany had all the children lined up like a gauntlet to greet us as we arrived. Several of the kids knew a few words of English, and were excited to say "Hi" or "Hello" to us. I sought out Mr. Sultany to listen to his concerns, and figure out the best way to distribute everything. As I was expecting, he immediately started asking for the moon, in terms of ways that we could help him. They are trying to fundraise for a new orphanage, as their old one went bankrupt. Again he asked for coats, and food. I assured him that we would listen to his concerns, but unfortunately we could not promise and guarantee future help and assistance. While he and I were discussing his situation, others on the team were carrying boxes.

Framed Rassler school2 6 When everything was set up, short speeches were made by the director and one of the Afghan soldiers. Together in cooperation and partnership, one US soldier, one Croatian, and one Afghan soldier gathered the toys and handed the items to the excited children. Each child got at least one notebook, several pens or pencils, as well as at least one toy. As the distribution carried on, it became obvious that there would be more than enough items for everyone to get more than one. After they collected their notebook and pens, their little arms were filled up with as many toys as could be found.

Most of the kids had smiles from all the loot that they had collected. Had they been looking at the soldiers in attendance they likely would have noticed the large smiles upon our faces.

GENESIS OF THE PORCH |

February 03, 2011

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

It was back to reality for the team last week. There was a passenger bus rollover in Qalat. Combat trauma is our primary mission so our ability to see non-war-related trauma varies. We see civilian trauma when we can ensure that our primary mission capability is not degraded. However, we are also the only trauma center in Zabul province. These conflicting realities sometimes creates real ethical dilemmas.  Unfortunately, we cannot alone fix the broken healthcare system in our province. Nevertheless, when possible we take what comes and we have been in a "green" status all week.

In this incident, there were reportedly three fatalities and the local clinic was overwhelmed, so we handled nine patients with a variety of injuries. Among them was one young girl. Later in the day, we had two suspected insurgents with gunshot wounds. All told, in a twelve-hour period, we treated eleven patients, performed four major surgeries, and transfused over 90 units of blood and plasma.

Also of note this week has been construction of a new porch for our building, an ongoing project for our Officer-In-Charge (OIC) which brings to mind a story.

On the first day, SEABEEs were created.


In the beginning was the gravel and the gravel was without form. And then came the patients. So the OIC said "Let there be a slab." And there was a slab. And the OIC saw the slab and it was good.

And then came the rain (not so often, don't kid yourself). So the OIC said "Let there be an awning."  And there was an awning. And the OIC saw the awning and it was good.

And then came the darkness. So the OIC said "Let there be florescent lighting painted red so as to not attract insects which I have already created in abundance." And there was florescent lighting painted red. And the OIC didn't stumble in the darkness and it was good.

And then came the cold. So the OIC said "Let there be a porch." And there was a porch. And the OIC saw the porch and it was good.

And the OIC saw everything that he had made and, behold, it was good. And he rested.

But then came the paperwork...

COMING HOME ON A BUNGIE CORD |

February 01, 2011

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

The polka band knows approximately five songs, running the gamut from "In Heaven There is No Beer" to a tuba-heavy version of Ozzy Osbourne's "Crazy Train."

I have to shout over the beat and blat of the music. "How long have you been here?"

Saber2th looks at his watch. "At least three 'Crazy Trains,'" he shouts back.

There's a quirky protocol when it comes to buddies who are back on military leave.

First off, you don't call them -- they call you. They only have a few precious days here to spend, after all, and wives, kids, dogs, and home repairs are all higher on the food chain than Army buddies. If and when they call, however, you make sure to go. It's like a getting served a subpoena or notice of a "command performance," even if they don't outrank you.

Call it a "drunken muster."

A decidedly unshaven Saber2th is back from Afghanistan for two weeks, and has decided to hold court at Central Iowa's only authentic German bier hall. "I made sure to have shaving cream for him when he got home," Saber2th-6 says, shaking her head. "What was I thinking?" I ask her how long he's been home, and how long it took for the novelty to wear off. She smiles a tolerant smile. I've seen that expression before, in my own home.

She tells me later: "I would've wanted this leave to happen in March, when we'd have only a few months left." As it stands right now, however, they're only halfway through the deployment. The Saber2ths have two younger kids, the same ages as my own. Managing the kids solo has been a little rough, she says, but having her husband back has been a good reminder of how it's supposed to be.

Every deployed family has a different strategy for taking mid-tour military leave.

One soldier friend recently chose to meet up with his wife in New York City, then absconded with her to some tropical island somewhere. Another says he'll similarly meet up with his wife and kids at a neutral location, rather than traveling all the way home. That way, he hopes, the kids won't feel like he's ripping the emotional stitches off regarding his year-long absence. One stay-at-home (this time) soldier says his pre-teen kids say they don't want to see his wife at all during her deployment -- only when she gets to come home to stay for good. Or, more realistically, until one of their parents has to deploy again.

Someone hands me a beer in a tall but not entirely unmanly glass. I don't catch the description of what I'm about to drink. The beer names here are longer than Wagner's Ring Cycle, and I don't speak German, other than a little conversational Def Leopard. Setting my buddy up for a war story, I jokingly ask if the beer is called "schutzenschnur."

"Hey, that's German for learning how to shoot some NATO weapons and not hurting yourself," says Saber2th. "They give you a badge for it and everything!" God love him and the U.S. Cavalry -- he's not entirely joking.

I'm introduced to some others present as "that guy with the blog." Later, I realize that I have perhaps missed my one opportunity in life to be addressed as "Meisterblogger Bloggermeister."

Saber2th and I do get to talk a little shop, although spousal proximity prohibits too many details. That's another unwritten rule about mid-tour leave: Don't talk about Fight Club. At least, not with family present.

Still, he reports that our Red Bull cohorts are both doing well and doing good, although a few soldiers have tripped up on the details. "Counterinsurgency is pretty easy. Rule No. 1 of Counterinsurgency is 'Don't be a douche-bag,'" he says. "Rule No. 2: 'Don't drive 80 miles an hour throwing your piss bottles at people.' but it's been kind of surprising that we've got guys who can't even get those two things right."

Our group ends up sharing a large booth with a bunch of brunettes -- endo-, meso-, and ectomorphic Barbies -- so the single guys in our posse swivel their turrets to start winning hearts and minds and telephone numbers. Instead of shots fired, or shots heard round the world, the night devolves into shots bought round the table.

Meanwhile, a hipster wearing a bright orange T-shirt and a beige blazer somehow starts chatting up the Saber2ths. Turns out their group is from the local metropolitan opera. "It's our first night off in two-and-a-half weeks," the guy complains. Saber2th rolls his eyes instead of punching the guy. They don't get weekends off in Afghanistan.

In just a week or two, he'll be right back at it, and so will his wife and kids here at home.

Tonight, however, it's a few stolen moments of beers and buddies and brass instruments, of not getting too caught up in the details, and avoiding fisticuffs with opera singers and shield maidens.

In Bagram, there is no beer. That's why we drink it here ...

Going off the rails on a crazy train.


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