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.

EGYPT IS THE PLACE TO BE |

April 28, 2011

Name: America's 1st Sgt.
Stationed in: Bahrain
Milblog: Castra Praetoria
Email: castrapraetoria1@gmail.com

 

Small demonstration in Tahrir Square while I was in town. Not sure what it was about but I think at least one sign reads: "Welcome America's 1stSgt!" in Arabic.

 

Just returned from a command visit to one of my platoons in support of the American Embassy in Cairo. During the revolution the forces of good were able to slip in and reinforce embassy security, allowing the diplomats to continue their mission and keep the consulate open.

As you can imagine the Marines witnessed a number of surreal events during the last 90 days or so. The embassy is roughly 400 yards away from Tahrir Square and I am told the uproar of the crowd was thunderous to say the least. At one point the CS gas was so thick you could still smell it 15 stories up.

As the Marines witnessed the infamous camel charge they could only look at each other dumbfounded: "Did that just happen?" They noted some of the riders were armed with machetes and hacked at the crowd as they plowed through. The riders were almost all snatched off the back of their mounts and swallowed by the furious crowd never to be seen again.

A number of people were burned to death when molotov cocktails were thrown into the streets. Rounds ricocheted through the alleys as shots rang out from rooftops into the square. They saw Lara Logan brought in to the compound: "They beat the $#!% out of her." They also saw Anderson Cooper, who despite being "punched in the head!" seemed none the worse for wear.

In the meantime American State Dept types seemed in awe of young fire breathers willing to place themselves between the hazard and perfect strangers. Fortunately the word is out: the Marines are in town. Those with bad intentions tend to get a little queasy at the sight of armed Marines. "Let's go mess with the French instead."

One of my blood drinkers ready to do violence on others' behalf.

 

During my visit there was a small demonstration at the embassy. A bunch of nice people politely demanded the release of the blind sheik Omar Abdel Rahman.  The linked article reports "hundreds" of Islamists staged the protest. Hundreds, as in 200 if they were lucky. When all your friends are assassins and killers I guess there isn't a lot of turnout for you.

Egyptian military provides security in front of the American Embassy. We all agreed the armored vehicles would make great anti-zombie conveyances.

 

Cairo is still picking up the pieces. As you drive around you can still see the burned out government building on the northeast corner of the square as well as the rusting hulks of torched cars littering the area here and there. But life is returning and shops, restaurants, and businesses were open while I was in town. Hopefully the good guys will win this one in the end.

Semper Fidelis!

REUNITED |

April 25, 2011

Name: Scott
Returned from: Afghanistan
Milblog: The Sand Docs

Reunion feels wonderful but it can also be unsettling. I was part of several reunions over the past few days and I wanted to share some of those.

In Germany our flight stops to refuel. Here we are reunited with the concept of having to pay for a bottle of water. This sounds funny but remember, for months our water has arrived boxed on enormous palettes. We've become connoisseurs about which strange-sounding brand of bottled water tastes best -- Dibba or Hayat or Oasis. Now bottled water costs us $2 from the vending machine. Also, we are reunited with our first western-clean toilet. Beautiful. I have nothing more to say on that subject.

Volunteers welcoming a service member home.

 

Our plane touches down at BWI. There is an organization called Operation Welcome Home that greets troops on the transports returning from the Middle East. As I pass through the customs inspection they are just around the corner. I hear the applauding volunteers. I stop.

It is the final stop for our team that came together so many months ago and has been family for that time. It is the family that has lately been showing some warts. Tempers have been shorter. Politeness is in more limited supply as we got closer to the end. But it has been family. So I stop there to say goodbye. Once we round that corner, we go our separate ways. I feel sadder than I would have guessed at this moment. I say goodbyes and thank you's and wishes for safe travel and pass along the navy's traditional salutation, "Fair winds and following seas." It is a small navy but the truth is that most of us will never see each other again.

After this I turn that corner to cheers from the volunteers. I shake their hands as I pass by. If you are ever in the DC area and looking for something to do, maybe consider shaking hands at BWI after a troop transport lands. At the end of the line, I see the first of the family reunions. Dave, our orthopedist, has met his family. The kids are hanging on his legs. He has a large family and many have made it. I stop to enjoy the scene. I will witness other reunions later in the day. Some are similar, others quiet and low key. Some service members return without a reunion, just a ride home to an apartment or barracks room.

Happy reunion.

 

I wander through the airport feeling detached from the proceedings. Throughout the day, strangers in airports shake my hand and thank me for my service. I have not figured out how to reply to this. I appreciate the sentiment, but it is awkward nonetheless. I stop at a sports bar in the airport. Here I am reunited with a beer and a burger. I savor the taste. I wonder if the waitress knows that it is the best beer she has served all day. It tastes like home. Some kind stranger picks up the tab. I wish to thank him but the waitress tells me that the person has requested to remain anonymous. So I thank him here.

I board one of my connections, a flight that I have just changed to catch. I am sitting in the last open seat. Next to me is a young woman. After takeoff, she begins to read a lacrosse magazine. The pages give reviews of each of the NCAA title contenders for the upcoming season. There are also stories about the hottest high school prospects from each region. I can tell from the way that she lingers on each page, that she is a true fan of the sport. The situation seems divinely preordained.

I am considerably introverted. I almost never talk to strangers on planes. Yet here I am, just returned from the war, sitting next to a obvious lacrosse fan and all I can hear in my head is "Brendan Looney," about whom I wrote many months ago. Brendan was a member of what might be the first family of Naval Academy lacrosse. In 2004, Navy reached the NCAA lacrosse finals but lost to Syracuse. Brendan and his two brothers were on that team. I thought that Brendan had been an All-American but, in fact, it was his brother Steve. Knowing his lacrosse association, I am compelled to tell this woman about Brendan.

"Excuse me, are you a lacrosse fan?" opening with the obvious.

"Yes."

"Have you ever heard of Brendan Looney? He played lacrosse for Navy. They went to the finals but lost in 2003 (I get the year wrong). I was told that he was an All-American (I confuse him with his brother)."

She immediately establishes her lacrosse cred by saying "Hmm. 2003. I thought that was Notre Dame and Georgetown but maybe Navy too in the final four. I don't know his name but then I didn't really know the Navy guys so well. I'm from Ohio. Why do you ask?"

I tell her that Brendan was a SEAL and that he was killed in a helicopter crash in September in the province where I was. I tell her that he was well-known in Naval Academy circles but I am curious if he was known in lacrosse circles.

Her reply is simply "That is tragic."

Initially, there is no more said. Maybe that is the final word on the subject anyhow. Perhaps it is too harsh a thought for polite conversation. But then after awhile, she starts to ask me questions about where I've been and what I've done. She is pleasant company and it feels right to tell her some of it. We talk for a while about the war and life choices. It is a good conversation. But mostly I just wanted her to know Brendan's name.

COMBAT COFFEE |

April 21, 2011

Name: 1SGT (retired) Troy Steward
Returned from: Afghanistan
Milblog: Bouhammer's Afghan Blog

WARNING: This funny video has some rough (typical combat zone) language, and may not be safe to listen to at work or around small kids. But it offers a glimpse into how soldiers in some of the worse combat areas of Afghanistan try to lighten the mood and make it bearable. Not only do they give a good lesson on how to make coffee in the field, they do it while making you laugh.

SUMMER READING |

April 19, 2011

 Name: Zachary Scott-Singley
Returned from
: Iraq
Milblog: A Soldier's Thoughts (about Iraq) and Nevadog (about life as a single father)


I recently found out that my blog has been assigned reading for junior in high school English homework. I was asked the following question by a student in an email:

What do you feel is the driving emotion behind the blog entries and why? I felt that you felt guilty for killing so many people and devastating their families, while also feeling guilty for leaving yours at home. But truly I would like to know what was your driving emotion behind these blogs.

I took a bit of time and reflected on why I did write so much, and thought I would share my response:

Hello XXXXXX,

I am glad that you found my writing interesting. It is an odd feeling to have your experiences and writing read as summer homework, but I am honored all the same. As to your question regarding the driving emotion behind my blog entries...

You mentioned guilt for the death I have caused. I suppose that there is guilt there, but if I had to go back I probably would have made many of the same choices. It is war and in war you fight or you die. You return fire or you are killed. That is the black and white of it. I am simplifying things a bit. There are so many gray areas because of the cities, the civilians and such, but you still must understand that aspect.

When you do have to go to war, however, when you do have to kill or witness death and sorrow, when you can't look away because it is a child who was killed and you are the only one who speaks Arabic and must go comfort the family who just lost their little boy, those memories seep into your soul. I began to dream about those things all the time. You see I have what is called PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder). It is what happens when you have seen or experienced something so traumatic that your mind has a very difficult time dealing with it. There are many symptoms (nightmares, insomnia, hyper-alertness...). I chose to write about those events. For me it was my attempt to put my daemons to rest. I still can't sleep very well and I think back to those days often, especially the day I had to see the boy killed.

I don't really know what else to tell you.

Take care XXXXXX

Zach

 

 

DECOMPRESSION |

April 14, 2011

Name: Scott
Returning from: Afghanistan
Milblog: The Sand Docs

 

At least they had the sense to not say "Welcome Home."

 

Kuwait is the place for in- and out-processing from the US Central Command. We have to complete something called WTP in order to get our tickets home. WTP, or Warrior Transition Program, is the navy's answer to stressed out sailors returning from combat deployments. In a few days, God and navy willing, we expect to board planes for Germany and the US. 

WTP Sign.

 

Our mission here is something called decompression. The navy's idea of decompression involves more living in open bay tents confined to a military base in a desert country with communal latrines. Feeling that stress relief? Now, we've been living in open bay tents confined to military bases in desert countries since being relieved two weeks ago but that is just quibbling. The good news is that they have some fast food chains and a bigger exchange and the weather is rather pleasant in Kuwait at this time of year.

Springle plaque from the memorial wall.

 

There is a nice tent that was erected in honor of CDR Charles Springle, a social worker attached to the 55th Medical Brigade, who was killed in 2009 by a soldier returning from Iraq. The tent has pergo flooring, an internet cafe, leather couches, and a large video game room with lots of realistic, multi-player war games (no joke) if you wish.

Springle Center.

 

Decompression might be a first person shooter combat game, say XBOX HALO 3. Comfy chair is naturally the key.


We have some suggestions for the WTP. First that we skip it altogether. (Denied.) Or that it be moved from a desert military base to Italy or Germany for some real R&R. (Not going to happen.) Or finally that they change the name to WTF (By that I mean the Warrior Transition Funstop. What did you think I meant?). Funny how no one listens to us.

One last sad note. I bought a fold-up camping chair eight long months ago while in pre-deployment training at Ft. Dix. Possibly the best $10 I ever spent. It has been with me through Ft. Dix, Kuwait, Kandahar, FOB Lagman, and back to Kuwait. Alas, its journey must come to an end. Regretfully I leave it behind. In honor of my chair, I present the three pillars of deployment: chair, cigar, dirt.

Iconic pose.

 


THIS SPACE IS IRAQ, THIS SPACE IS MY MEMORIES |

April 11, 2011

Name: Zachary Scott-Singley 
Returned from: Iraq
Milblog: A Soldier's Thoughts (about Iraq) and Nevadog (about life as a single father)

This space is Iraq, this space is the US Army, this space is my life, this space is the Government of America, this space is a country, this space is freedom, this space is occupation, this space is my life.

Welcome, everyone, to Iraq. Today’s temperature is a cool 119 degrees so make sure you drink lots of water on our walking tour. I will be your guide and let me tell you that you are very lucky indeed, for this tour is based on much that I have seen and done. My name is Zachary Scott-Singley and I will show you the day that changed my life.

First let's get some small necessaries out of our way. Your Happy Tour ballistic protection vest is only rated for impacts of 9mm rounds, and while I know they are heavy, folks, I wouldn’t say it if it isn’t important: you must wear your small arms protection inserts. Or as those of us who have been around here a while call them, your “SAPI” plates. The ones you have are the latest greatest, and are rated for armored piercing AK-47 rounds. That’s right, 7.62mm of full automatic fun. Last thing, you must wear your Kevlar helmet at all times as well.

Saddam was fond of his AK-47s, of all his rifles actually. This is a country which was once a totalitarian state, dominated by a man who used brutality to keep the peace between the Sunni and Shi’ite people, two factions of Islam which currently are awash in sectarian violence. I had a Shi’ite friend of mine tell me once, while deployed in combat, that Islam quit being about Allah the minute the Prophet Mohammed died. Once he died it was all politics.

We aren’t so different as a culture; just look at our good old Southern boys, the strong Christian ones who always vote Republican and who wave their Confederate flags with pride. Like Joyce Carol Oates writes in her novel I lock My Door Upon Myself, there are things that are proper and things that are not. A white woman with a black man in the early 1900′s was a scandal worthy of being murdered over, and the same can be said over here in Iraq about Sunnis and Shi’ites, in some tribes about men being seen with women, as well. I digress however, and we must be moving along. The day is hot and the hour is not.

The city we will be walking through is Abu Ghraib. It's a little-known fact that the prison where the infamous scandal of abuse occurred was actually named after this city. Unfortunately that is not where we will be going today. Our tour will be a simple one; we are already getting close. Let us stop here a moment. I want to point something out to you that one doesn’t get to bear witness to while watching events unfold on the news from the safety of your home. 

Does anyone smell anything? You do? That mixture of burning trash and human excrement -- that is the smell of war. That distinct scent can bring the memories back in a snap. To me it is amazing how many Third World countries share that exact smell. Iraq was not always like this; not until Saddam got his hands on this country did things turn so far south. He squandered the riches of this oil-soaked land. Mesopotamia, the birthplace of civilization. This is Iraq. I have personally been inside the second oldest Christian church in the entire world, near Tikrit. I have lived in the palaces of Saddam, have swam in his artificial lakes and have shot his soldiers as they fought me.

Such clashing of ideas, of power between the various classes, the rich and the poor. Under Saddam the Bath party were the elite, with the privileges of power but also the trappings of politics, and the poor were the stepping stones for them to ingratiate themselves unto Saddam. He was like Stalin in his own way, Saddam was. Peter Kenez states that “Stalin came to be isolated from Soviet reality. He formed an imaginary picture of the world around him, largely on the basis of movies and newsreels made for him.” Saddam did this as well. He did it so well, in fact,  that on August 2, 1990 he convinced himself that his sovereign neighbor Kuwait belonged to him and invaded, thus sparking off Operation Desert Storm, also called the First Gulf War.

All the ghettos I have seen remind me of this place where we are. You see, we are in Iraq, but we could just as well be in the ghetto in DC in the summer, or perhaps in Baltimore, MD. You might even have a better chance here than you would there.  Last time I was here in uniform I was under President Bush’s Stop Loss plan. I was one of the many soldiers who had served my time in this space -- in the Army, in the Military of the United States and in Iraq. Even though it was the end of my enlistment I was involuntary extended (stop-lossed). I had killed enough people, not in a video game, but life and death where nobody comes back with another life, except maybe Dick Cheney.

I didn’t know at that time that my future life was going to include the divorce of my wife or that I would be a single father. I didn’t know that in the space and time of Iraq I would change from a boy to a man, celebrating my 22nd and 25th birthdays here. I also didn’t know that Iraq would change, from when I invaded in 2003 to the civil unrest and deaths of 2005-2006, and then 2009 when we handed their country back to the Iraqis. I was still in this war zone and yet it would change so drastically during these deployments. I was young and naïve. We all are.

I want to ensure that while I give you my point of view you draw your own conclusions, for we are all our own people. That being said we will continue our tour. Looking over to that point on our right hand side, we have one of the main roads, Highway 11, which will take you right to Al Anbar province and all the way to Jordan if you keep going. It is a tough ride, because every little hole, every bit of roadkill, pile of garbage, or bit of debris is possibly being used to conceal an improvised explosive device, or IED. Some of the deadliest ones involve parked or broken-down cars because they can hold so much more explosives. Ah, the IED. My old friend, my old enemy. The improvised explosive device has taken friends from me, has stolen them right out of the space of the living. 

It is nothing like the movie The Hurt Locker, where lone EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) teams run all over Iraq doing whatever they want to, leaving the base at night and drinking all the time. Space is governed. Space is maintained by both sides, by the insurgents of which there are many, Al Qaeda, the Sunnis, the Shiites, foreign fighters of all sorts and sizes, the Iraqi Police, the Iraqi Army, and of course by the US forces.

We speak of spaces here, we speak of time and of awareness of this time, and yet we do no real justice for those who occupy the moment. There are eons of time to be had if the bureaucrats in D.C. would only slow down and come visit us in Iraq or Afghanistan for a few days. Those moments when we see death, when we meet him and know that we are going to die. Those moments are lifetimes long. And yet the bell on the NYSE must still ring on time. My kids grow up while my friends die, and this whole time the Tea Party members are screaming for Muslims to reform or for worse.

Nobody really gets it. Just like in New York City. Only those who lived there can really judge or understand what it means to experience the changes of a city like that. Those of us in combat are the same, but it feels like every time I turn on the news or read the news on the internet, I am told how to feel as a soldier, as a vet and as a Federal employee. The civilians here are different too; Iraqis are aware that life is cheap, not because they don’t value their lives or the lives of those they love, but because of the constant danger they live in. The kind of danger that a Washington bureaucrat will never know. 

James Howard Kunstler speaks of American civilians, of American children. Listen to the difference in the spaces they occupy: “Suburbia. Sprawl. Overdevelopment. Conurbation (Mumford’s term). Megalopolis. A professor at Penn State dubbed it the 'galactic metropolis.' It is where most American children grow up.” In Iraq we simply have the impoverished living in hovels and small apartments, and those well off,  who can afford better, who can afford some level of protection, albeit not much when things as a whole are so violent. What you own is within your steel and concrete gate, anything outside and anything else is anyone's to take or destroy.

Ah, here we are. Please excuse my wandering mind. Now folks, you are probably asking yourselves why this spot, this busy roadside spot in the dirt next to what is the outskirts of the city of Abu Ghraib, in one of the deadliest places for Americans let alone Iraqis to be. Let me show you. You see that house? Doesn’t look like much, does it. But you remember how I was talking of the difference between American and Iraqi civilians?  The difference between soldiers and bureaucrats?  Soon you will see this difference very clearly. 

Let's focus on the metal front gate connecting to the sand-colored concrete gate surrounding the property. You see that home?  It was at that spot in the summer of 2003 that I was also standing, like you, wearing all this heavy equipment, carrying in my hands my weapons, and paying attention to every little detail as best I could. I was inside of that gate, questioning the residents about a rocket attack we had been hit by near this area the day before, when I heard automatic gunfire. We are fighting a war here, so while that is not uncommon at all, the proximity of it was alarming. As you can see, from inside the gate you can not view the road or the pathways leading to this house, so I took cover right there at the corner of the gate.

It was just a gate, and looking back at ourselves we can see that we all have our hypothetical gates up. The Iraqis would pool their trash just outside their property gates; anything outside of their living area was not theirs. All their trash, rotting, burning -- this is the smell. On one side of the gate the house, and the family would make believe like life was safe and okay, while on the other side the harsh reality bit into their very olfactory glands and gave visual cues as they opened their gates. Life was real. This protected space is not a thing. The rest of the world still exists and you are a part of it. Hell, I am here, a soldier knocking down your door because you shot rockets at me and mine last night. How real is that?  I won’t shoot you, but I will question you and find the truth. As I digress I want to mention bullets. Bullets which are fired. They shoot and are gone, nobody thinks of the consequences.

It turns out that one of the soldiers who was on that raid with me had opened fire. He shot up a black truck over there, by those corn and grass fields just east of us about 300 meters away. I didn’t know this soldier, he was from a different unit, but since I was the only Arabic linguist it was now me and him and a couple other guys who were sent to investigate this truck he had shot. The soldier who had opened fire said he saw the truck drive by a couple times and saw someone with an AK-47 in the back of it. Yeah, the same kind of weapon that your vests are rated for stopping.

That day we ran over almost to the fields, but today, since this is a walking tour, I think we shall walk. As we got closer, right to about this spot, we stopped. There were two .50 caliber gun-trucks (you know them, the Humvees with the machine-gun turret on the top) that had driven up to this spot behind us. Walking towards us were four Iraqis. One of them was carrying something in his arms, some kind of burden. It is a dead boy. They are screaming at us in Arabic, asking us why we did this. The soldier who had shot the boy is screaming too. Screaming for a medic. I see the child’s broken skull, see his shattered head. No medic can fix this. The man holding the body of the child, I later find out, is the boy’s uncle. He was a carpenter who was watching the boy for his brother who had gone to the market. His shirt is both pristine white and a mess of crimson red, both wet and sticky with his nephew’s life blood.

The child is dead.

The huge hole in his head is there. I see this from above the whole scene, watching myself and everyone else play out their parts. For a few seconds this happens and then I am back in my body. It will be my first and my last out-of-body experience. The space and time I occupy was what the military would call a Joint Environment in that instance. I was there, present for the child, for the uncle and also watching it from an ethereal sense. Come on up, see what I saw. You are a father, you believe in Christ, and you see this child murdered but also see that his killer has made a horrible mistake. You break yourself apart, leave one piece always there on that roadside. Move on and leave the other shattered pieces of your soul along the way to help you remember the burden you must bear.

“I am sorry,” I say in Arabic. It is at this time that I feel I am outside of my body. I’m watching all of this unfold, watching even myself who is still speaking in Arabic to the boy’s uncle. Watching the soldier who had shot and killed this child call for a medic to fix it, but there is no fixing. When I close my eyes to this day I still see those beautiful pieces of the child’s skull glistening on the man’s shirt and face. The bone was so startling white like the boy I imagine that they were pure. Pure and so very wrong because they are broken. Broken like I am now, broken like the soldier who had shot the boy was. So very broken. The uncle, his once immaculate white shirt is now crimson red. This is the blood of life that pumps for this boy's head, for thoughts he will never have.

Again, in Arabic, “I am sorry, it was an accident.”

“How do you accidentally shoot a boy. I am a carpenter. I have wood in my truck. You can search my truck, I have nothing.”

Feeling guilty because the Officer in Charge wants me exactly to do this and here he is holding his dead nephew, I say, “Thank you, we were wrong. I am sorry. I’m so sorry. This shouldn’t have happened. How old was he?”’

He answered me not with his age, but with, “His father needed to go to the market, I was to keep him safe. I am his father’s brother.”

It feels like it is just the two of us now even though the commotion is all around us. “Please know that I am sorry.”

The boy’s mother now walks up and her sorrow is fresh. “Sorry?  Sorry won’t bring his life back. Your sorry won’t bring him alive. You being sorry? That is what you are?  You shoot my boy and you are sorry? You come in with your guns, your tanks and you kill. And now you are sorry? Where is my son? Why can’t he live?"

You all are with me as the black lieutenant arrives. He has an Army Ranger combat patch on his right arm which makes me feel reassured and nervous at the same time. At this point I was pulled away from the forming scene to go and look in the truck and field for the weapon that the soldier may have seen. On one side is corn and the other is tall grass. This very corn and grass we are now standing near.

Here is where the truck was. There were so many bullet holes but only one of them mattered, the one that took the boy's life. Walk with me now. You see, this corn is part of my memories as well, can you feel the blades of the husks on your sweaty skin?  The way it sounds as it swishes against you in this too-hot time and place? Like we are standing now, that soldier and I stood. Right here in this spot. He keeps looking at the truck with the holes in it and at his hands and over to the body of the boy he had just killed. There was no weapon. He had just thought he had seen one.

Take a moment and sit here. You can hear the cars, feel this unbearable heat and the weight of all this armor, drink from your canteen, I ask of you, and imagine back to that day. It was at this spot in the cornfield that I offered him a drink of my water. He looked at me. I had not ever spoken to him before that day, before that raid, and I did not see him after, but in that moment his eyes looked lost and distant. He was so grateful for that water and I could see that he was to be haunted. I did not know that I was going to be haunted as well, or for so long. He looked me in the eye and whispered thank you. I think he was surprised that anyone could love him or even offer him something. What he had done was an accident.

I will walk with you all back to the tour bus now, but as we walk let me say this. People ask me about war, ask me if I have killed and what it is like. War has broken many many things, it has cost me much and others even more.

Let's speak of spaces, where once a life was. I had occupied it, and now I may still occupy this space but life and soul no longer occupy what you have left. I am here, as I have always been, tough, and strong, and tenacious but always alone. It is funny how things happen, but I have seen the blind and the dead, seen life end right in front of me. I have seen love and anger; I have seen the hurt and the whole. The only difference I can discern about all of it is that some want life more than others. It has nothing to do with intelligence or with time, but rather with a hard-headed will. I have committed violence, and while that is not my first response to situations I feel that it may be a suitable response to some.

You still smell that smell? The smell of war, the places on this planet where broken things are. War zones are junkyards for broken souls, but those broken souls have more heart than many civilians I have seen back home. Iraqi civilians I have known have shown more compassion than the people I call my kin at times. Monsters are real, they exist in all the dark places and they will destroy you and leave you still standing with the things you see and do. Where once one soul existed I now have a broken spirit, and myself like those who enlisted with me are resolved to take this to the end. I love those I have lost and I love those I have served with. Iraq has been the venue for the quilt of my service and for that I am grateful. I want all of you to enjoy the rest of your day. I hope you take my words as you hear them, listen with your hearts, and whatever rings true, keep.

 

WORKS CITED

Delany, Samuel R. Times Square Red, Times Square Blue. New York: New York UP, 1999. Print.

The Hurt Locker. Dir. Kathryn Bigelow. Perf. Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, and Brian Geraghty. Voltage Pictures, 2008. DVD.

Kenez, Peter. A History of the Soviet Union from the Beginning to the End. New York: Cambridge UP, 2006. Print. Page 173.

Kunstler, James Howard. The Geography of Nowhere: the Rise and Decline of America’s Man-made Landscape. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993. Print. Page 15.

Oates, Joyce Carol. I Lock My Door upon Myself. New York: Ecco, 1990. Print.

Uncle Saddam. Dir. Joel Soler. Perf. Qusay Hussein, Saddam Hussein, and Uday Hussein. Rive Gauche International Television, 2000. DVD.

 

COLUMBIA ROTC FORUMS |

April 06, 2011

Name: Matt Gallagher
Returned from: Iraq
Milblog: Kerplunk

THE COLUMBIA ROTC FORUM

So, here I am on a Sunday morning, nursing a mild case of the Irish flu, watching reruns of Beverly Hills, 90210. And then I get sent this link, a New York Post story on how an injured Iraq vet was booed by his fellow Columbia students at a forum discussing ROTC possibly returning to campus.

So much for following the travails of Brenda Walsh.

First, I wasn't at the forum in question. Maybe it really was as bad as The Post makes it sound. Then again, it's The Post. Second, I don't really qualify as a Columbia student right now, since I'm in the midst of switching programs, possibly/maybe staying there, maybe not. That said, I did spend some quality time there last semester, both with fellow vets and just normal undergrad/grad students. And as someone borderline obsessed with civ-mil relations in our time, of course I have some opinions on what went down!

The overwhelming majority of Columbia's community is no different than America as a whole -- they're intrigued by veterans, unsure of what the right questions are at first, and grateful in a "Thanks, hollow caricature man" kind of way. Then, just like the rest of our nation, in-depth, nuanced discussions bridge gaps otherwise thought impossible. So, my initial reaction to The Post piece -- much ado about not(h)ing. (Shakespeare joke. A lame one, admittedly.)

That said however, there is a strain of thought in the Columbia legions that they must be against anything military-related, because they are Columbia, after all. This is a leftover from the 60s, when Columbia became Columbia with their in/famous Vietnam protests. Some of the faculty still walks around viewing the world through this black-and-white prism, and occasionally one will stumble across an undergrad who feels the same way. Or, more accurately, feel like they need to feel that way, because they Wikipedia'ed Columbia after getting accepted, and a perverted sort of romanticism followed. It's as organic as most anything else in 2011, i.e. a regurgitated derivative from an age deemed more "real" and "authentic." These kids are clowns, obviously, but certainly not indicative of the student population as a whole.

We'll see how Columbia responds to all the bad publicity this garners. On Twitter, Alex Horton expressed desire for an editorial in the student newspaper denouncing the hecklers, and I'm expecting one. Just remember, before the inevitable anti-Ivy League backlash occurs, that Columbia has gone above and beyond their fellow Ivies in terms of GWOT veterans outreach. The last numbers I saw had more than 300 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans on campus. That matters a hell of a lot more than a couple of discontents acting out some hippie fantasy.

Update: I reached out to some friends who were there, and while they said The Post piece was sensationalized, the heckling "still happened." Silly, soft posers. They can't even find something new and generationally-appropriate to protest.

Update 2: As predicted, the Columbia Spectator wrote an editorial in support of ROTC returning to campus. Good for them. Wish they had directly responded to the heckling incident, though.

 

OBSERVATIONS FROM THE THIRD AND FINAL ROTC FORUM:

Those of you that follow me on the Twitter Machine already know I attended last night's town hall on the possible return of ROTC to Columbia's campus. I got lured there by the possibility of fireworks and the promise of post-event Guinness. Though this event lacked the heckling of the last town hall meeting, there were plenty of passions on display -- muted hissings and snide laughter were almost as prevalent as Princess Leia anti-imperialist speeches.

My take: ROTC should be allowed to return to Columbia, though it's no guarantee the military will find it worth their while to sustain a program there. I also found that most of the anti-ROTC speakers didn't have any idea of what ROTC actually is, or what it's relationship is with a college that hosts it, but that's not really their fault. To quote Staff Sergeant Bulldog about fobbits, "they just don't know any betta.'"

Some random observations and opinions, in the order found in my notepad. Be warned: red herrings, strawmen, and crazy people were abound!

-- The event was hosted in the Altschul Auditorium, in Columbia's International Affairs Building. (Better known as SIPA, School of International and Public Affairs.) University police and some dude in a suit were checking IDs at the door; one had to have a school ID (or presumably, media credentials) to get in the door. (Did I use a now-expired school ID? Why yes, yes I did.)

-- My guesstimation: over 300 people in attendance.

-- Provost Claude Steele gave the opening remarks, acknowledging the "robust crowd." He walked us through the process -- these town halls are for members of the Columbia community to express their recommendations to the Task Force on Military Engagement, made up of five students and four faculty members. From there, the Task Force writes a report and makes a recommendation of whether or not to reinstitute ROTC on campus to the Columbia Senate, sometime in early March. After that, the Senate will vote, which will "inform" the President of Columbia and the Board of Trustees. So yeah, a lot of red tape, just like anywhere else.

-- There were lots and lots of calls for civility before the microphones were opened up to the public.

-- My informal number-crunching showed that 22 speakers expressed pro-ROTC sentiments, 27 expressed anti-ROTC at Columbia sentiments, and 2 expressed some other thing entirely.

-- One early anti-ROTC speaker cited Cadet Command's ban on using Wikileaks as a research source as evidence that cadets wouldn't be able to fully commit themselves to academia.

-- Every single History professor that spoke called for a return of ROTC to campus. Every single Anthropology professor that spoke called for the continuation of the ROTC ban on campus. Thoughts, pop philosophers?

-- A Poly Sci professor implored Columbia to influence the military through ROTC, i.e. change from within, and said the military shouldn't just be led by West Pointers and graduates of "East Jesus State." This earned some laughs, but raised elitist bells with a lot of people, and deservedly so, methought. (Whoa! Methought actually passed the spell checker! Weird.)

-- Columbia MilVets cited the latest vet statistics: 340 GWOT veterans are currently at Columbia, with approximately 200 of those being in the undergrad world. This is the most in the Ivy League.

-- A pro-ROTC speaker, a girl from San Antonio, talked about her Naval Academy friend walking around Columbia in his dress whites, and being yelled at and told to go home. Maybe it was after Labor Day?

-- Everyone in the audience was trying really, really hard to be civil, but it proved impossible, so a series of Clap Wars ensued, including one buffoon in front of me banging on his desk.

-- It seemed like the most trotted-out argument for the anti-ROTC speakers was that the military's current ban on transgenders violates Columbia's anti-discrimination policy, and that ethically, Columbia can't invite an organization onto campus that so openly violates this policy. No offense to my transgender brothers and sisters out there, but are we really having this conversation? Only in New York City. (Also, taken from a Tweep -- stop moving the goalposts. First it was DADT, now it's this. What's next, the military discriminates against midgets and fat people?)

-- A veteran student restated the "there are people out there plotting to kill you" line that got the injured vet heckled last week. Snickering follows, and an Anthro professor waiting to speak said "No, I don't think that's the case," to those around him.

-- Great quote from a Marine Iraq vet, talking about how the military is not perfect, but improving, and that Columbia needs to recognize such: "The nature of progress is there's no end to it."

-- One undergrad girl claimed the military is responsible for creating our enemies, through our foreign policy pursuits. Was this accusation vague and nebulous -- of course. She's not entirely wrong, but lost in her passion was nuance. She'll grow out of it. Probably.

-- There was a call for an executive branch within the military, to counter-balance the military's chain-of-command structure. This would've come in handy during the downfall of the Kaboom blog, don't you think?

-- "What freedoms do the military uphold, and for whom?" A rhetorical question asked by a speaker. She went on to say that the military doesn't protect freedom, but open debate and dialogue do. At this point my ears started to bleed.

-- A breakthrough! Speakers on both sides agree that the faux-controversy last week generated by the article in The New York Post was unfair, as it was four seconds in an otherwise civil 2.5-hour debate.

-- The Task Force got absolutely reamed by speaker after speaker. Claims of lack of transparency and that it was set up to push ROTC through, regardless of public sentiment. The funny part was watching the four members of the TF present just have to sit there and take it. Brutal. (But also funny.)

-- A graduate student asked for more transparency regarding what ROTC provides students. At this point, despite my promises to myself to not speak, I try to get in line to share my ROTC experiences at Wake. (I.E. yes -- we were students first and cadets second! We went to class and wore civilian clothes and drank beer and everything. We also didn't hold the Board of Trustees hostage to meet our demands of a 24-hour bodega.) Unfortunately, they'd already capped the lines, so I couldn't speak. I avoided the temptation to ironically yell out "My voice will be heard!" and instead returned to my seat and ate Doritos.

-- By and large, international students spoke out against ROTC, and the U.S. military, in general.

-- Apparently, ROTC will "militarize" the campus of Columbia. I LOLed.

-- Another grad student argued that Columbia already allows vets into their classrooms, so clearly, they've done enough. "The school of General Studies ... is where they can go to unlearn what they learned in the military."

-- A note, addressed to "future Matt:" You turned down Knicks tickets for this. On Carmelo Anthony's debut. Idiot.

-- A SIPA econ professor told the Task Force "It looks like this is going to go through, no matter what we say."

-- An honest to God "no blood for oil" chant. 2003 called and demanded it or something.

-- A Columbia law student and Iraq vet talked about his ROTC experience at Cornell. Thank Allah.

That's it. I stayed for the whole thing, despite myself. I begrudgingly admit that the Forum was worth my time, and I thank the Task Force on Military Engagement for hosting it. If nothing else, I was reminded that another side of the debate exists, and they are vocal, passionate, and engaged. I'll leave it at that.

(Okay, one more thing -- think the anti-ROTC protestors would support a return to the draft? Let's channel that derivative outrage into something worthwhile!)


Note: Matt Gallagher (aka Lt. G) was a frequent contributor to The Sandbox during his deployment. His numerous posts include IN MY ARMY, A DIFFERENT WORLD, iWAR, and CRANK DAT IN IRAQ. He is also the author of the book KABOOM: EMBRACING THE SUCK IN A SAVAGE LITTLE WAR.

GUN SAFETY 101 |

April 04, 2011

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

The week has been notable for a rash of accidental, self-inflicted gunshot wounds by ANA troops. Three incidents in the past week, to feet, legs, and even the abdomen. Invariably they were just cleaning their weapon when it went off. We have been trying to envision how one holds the weapon to accidentally shoot oneself in the stomach while cleaning it. Let the imagination run wild.

Over the past few months we seem to have a gun accident about every other week. We have seen the double shot, which passed through the arm and then the mandible with the round coming to rest in the mouth, and the buddy shot, as in "Whoops, sorry about that buddy." Then there was the chemistry experiment. This involved throwing some M-16 rounds into a fire, no doubt in a quest for the Nobel Prize in chemistry. The chemist only suffered a leg shot rather than death, dashing our hopes for the Darwin Award.

One of the theories that has been postulated to explain this rash of accidents, is that the Taliban have employed a secret plot. Namely, pose a threat, ensure that the other side arms themselves, and sit back while they slowly knock themselves out. At our current rate, this would seem to be a viable strategy.

Normally the last thing you would ask of a medical team is advice on weapons handling. It would be boring stuff like lock it up and keep it out of reach of young children. (We have no comment on the question of whether some of the personnel issued weapons here constitute young children.) However, in light of the current streak, I'm interrupting the regularly scheduled blogging to offer the Forward Surgical Team's Gun Safety Tips as a public service announcement to anyone willing to listen. They are:

Rule 1 - DON'T SHOOT YOURSELF.

Rule 2 - DON'T SHOOT ANYONE ELSE.

We realize that Rule 2 is not completely feasible given the mission so it has been reworked for the combat theater.

Rule 2 (Modified) - UNLESS YOU ARE IN A FIREFIGHT WITH THE ENEMY, DON'T SHOOT ANYONE ELSE.

Rule 3 - DON'T THROW SPARE AMMUNITION IN A CAMPFIRE.

Following these three simple rules will keep you, your buddy, and inquisitive chemists safe from accidental gun harm. Good luck. Now back to the regular schedule.

One of our junior officers demonstrates the empty chamber weapon cleaning technique.

 

 

LITTLE BIRDS |

April 01, 2011

Name: Owen Powell (aka "Sgt. Roy Batty")
Returned from: Iraq
Stationed in: Fort Hamilton, NY
Blog url: opowell.wordpress.com

It’s funny how things work out. A couple of years ago, while I was deployed to Iraq, I wrote an article for U.S. Cavalry’s On Point website. Called “Rock Stars of Baghdad," it was about Blackwater’s helicopter unit that was stationed nearby in the Green Zone. I was at a tiny base just across the river, called FOB Shield, nestled inside the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior compound. Blackwater flew little Framed Batty LITTLE BIRDS Hughes Defender 500 helicopters to scout out the routes for their diplomat security teams, and we were fortunate enough to see them often. We called the helicopters “Little Birds," after very similar helicopters that were flown by the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, or SOAR, in support of Special Forces units all around the world. We knew that many Special Forces members went on to work for Blackwater after they had retired from the military, and given the extraordinary way that the Blackwater Little Birds were flown, we suspected that some of the 160th SOAR pilots were flying the helicopters that buzzed us almost daily.

And what flying it was! I’ve never seen helicopters fly that way, before or since, and neither have you—unless you are a Green Beret or one of the few lucky enough to see Blackwater in action. They would appear on top of us, as if magically summoned, a black flash and a scream of an engine, literally at tree top level and flying incredibly fast. And the maneuvers! Jinking left and right, and then climbing into an impossible vertical hammerhead, only to wheel about and race back down, pulling out at the last second — and all the while with men standing outside of the cockpit, scanning with machine guns for any sign of insurgents. As I wrote in my piece, “You can’t help but feel like you are in a really good action movie every time you see these guys, and how could you lose when you have guys and toys as cool as these on your team?”

Fast forward three years. Andrew Lubin, one of the editors from the now-shuttered On Point website, forwarded an email to me from Deonna Laguma. She said that she was involved in writing a book about the Blackwater Little Birds, and wanted to know if she could include my article in it. I didn’t know much else about her, but I certainly remembered the élan and esprit de corps of the Blackwater pilots, and I felt honored that she would think of my old article. I immediately wrote back to her, enthusiastically saying yes, and then...nothing. Time went by, and I forgot about the interaction.

Last week, I got a book in the mail. I opened the package up and found a hardcover edition of You Have to Live Hard to Be Hard: One Man’s Life in Special Operations by Dan Laguna, with Michael S. Wren. And there on the cover, in full color, was one of Blackwater’s Little Birds, with what I initially thought was the Iraqi MOI behind it. Talk about bringing back some memories! I eventually figured out it wasn’t the MOI, but one of the buildings on the Green Zone, right next to Blackwater’s home, LZ Washington. There was no mistaking the Little Bird, though. Looking at it, I could almost hear the incredible scream of its engine in the distance, like some ridiculous radio controlled toy on steroids. I immediately opened the book and started reading.

It's a quick read, written in the straightforward, matter-of-fact style used by military authors like Tom Clancy, Dan Brown or Clive Cussler. The book starts off almost right away with an account of the worse day that Blackwater Aviation had to endure in Iraq: the shootdown of one of their Little Birds, and the killing of the crew by insurgents. I had written about that day in my article, and I can still remember the absolute disbelief that my squadmates and I felt when we got the news. To us, the Little Birds were bulletproof, invincible—untouchable in that action hero sort of way. It was like hearing that Arnold Schwarzenegger got killed in one of his movies: it just didn’t happen. Put it this way: I have no pictures of those helos, because they moved too fast to capture with a digital camera. How could anyone ever shoot one down?

And that was where the book got personal. First, it was written by Dan Laguna, the brother of the stricken helicopter’s pilot, Art Laguna. Dan was there in Baghdad, also working for Blackwater’s Aviation unit, and was in the rescue mission. It’s very rare that you get an account of a combat mission written by someone who was both there and a family member, and seeing the events of that day through Dan’s eyes, as he searched in vain for his slain brother, was touching in a way that I did not expect.

The other thing that got me was the pictures. No, not the black and white pictures in the middle of the book — the pictures that filled in the blanks of that military-style writing. It's one thing to read Black Hawk Down or some war novel, and to have the narrative clip along in that dry “just the facts, ma’am” way, knowing nothing about the location or the people involved, and to recreate the action in some cerebral version of a movie theater. It’s something else entirely to relive those events with the sights and smells of a place that you spent an unpleasant year and some change in; places you know and remember vividly, even when you don’t want to. Places that you’ve lost fellow Soldiers in, and what it felt like to have someone you know killed; instantly, brutally, and with that horrible sense of absolute finality.  

There were a number of times that I just had to put the book down, and walk away.

Ultimately, the book was uplifting, in a real way. A good segment of it focuses on another helicopter crash; one that the author suffered through while in the 160th SOAR. Dan recounts his recovery from severe burns and injuries in vivid detail. To hear how this man fought back through incredible pain and suffering to return to Active Duty and to keep flying Special Ops was honestly moving to me. It just drove home something I knew already—that it takes a special breed to go into Special Forces; a drive that surpasses certainly anything that I could muster.

That’s not to say that I didn’t have a minor gripe with the book. I would have liked to see a lot more detail about Laguna’s time in Special Forces, and especially with the 160th. Little is known about this highly classified unit and their missions, but, after all, the book’s subtitle is "One Man’s Life in Special Operations," and there is precious little actually about Special Operations. Now, I understand that Laguna is legally bound not to write about classified missions, but surely with some paraphrasing or changed names or timelines it would have been possible to include some of 160th’s incredible exploits.  Things like Operation Acid Gambit and the rescue of Kurt Muse from Modelo Prison in Panama by ‘Delta Force’ have been written about extensively by people like General Colin Powell, and clearly involved the 160th SOAR. There’s any number of missions that are publically known to have been carried out by the 160th, spanning across 30 years and places like the Persian Gulf, North Africa, Kuwait, Iraq, Somalia, Syria, and Afghanistan, and it would have been awesome to get the personal perspective of the a pilot who surely was intimately familiar with those operations.

Still, the book is a great read, and an uplifting one. More than just a recounting of experiences and technical details, it gives us a glimpse of what it takes to be a true Warrior—physically, spiritually, and emotionally. It is a sad truth of today that less than 1% of the American public has a direct member of their family serving in the military. It’s vital for a balanced society that we understand what our service members go through, respect what it takes to be a Warrior at the tip of the spear, and honor those who have gone in harm’s way while we sit, safe and ignorant of their sacrifices, back at home. 

Dan and Art Laguna are those men. 

That a few of my words would be included next to their struggles and achievements is beyond belief to me, and an incredible personal honor. It just goes to show you: it’s funny how things work out.

 

"Sgt. Roy Batty" was a frequent contributor to The Sandbox during his 2006-2007 deployment. His numerous posts include COMBAT EXISTENTIALISM 101ROADSIDE BOMB, ALARM CLOCKGOT THEM I.P. BLUES, and BONKERS.

 

 

 


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