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.

CLOSE TO THE HEART |

May 27, 2011

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

Size0-army In keeping with a 42nd Infantry Division tradition that dates back generations, at 11:45am on the 14th of July, 2010 the Rainbow Division Memorial Veterans Foundation begins its annual Champagne Hour ceremony.

With a voice that trembles with emotion, Father Robert Weiss, himself a World War II combat veteran of the 42nd Division (Nicknamed the Rainbow Division in World War I), begins to read aloud to the assembled group of World War II, Iraq, and Afghanistan Rainbow veterans, the words of the poem " Rouge Bouquet":

"In a wood they call the Rouge Bouquet
There is a new-made grave to-day,
Built by never a spade nor pick.
Yet covered with earth ten metres thick
There lie many fighting men,
Dead in their youthful prime..."

Father Weiss, upon completing the reading of the somber poem, has brought tears to the cheeks of the veterans and their families assembled in New Orleans, La., where the ceremony was held last year.

The poem, originally written in 1918 by Sgt. Joyce Kilmer, a member of the New York National Guard's 69th Infantry Regiment, which served in the 42nd Division as the 165th Infantry, tells of a heavy German artillery barrage that occurred near the French village of Baccarat on March 12, 1918.

As a result of the German barrage, 21 Rainbow Division soldiers were killed, and 14 of them were entombed in a collapsed bunker. Their bodies were never recovered.

Today Kilmer is best rememberd for his poem "Trees" .

Sgt. Kilmer's "Rouge Bouquet " poem was so popular among soldiers in the 42nd Division, that it quickly became protocol to read it at the funerals of division soldiers when they were killed in combat during the battles of World War I.

Over 90 years later, this tradition of reading the "Rouge Bouquet" poem lives on during the Champagne Hour ceremony, which in July of 2011 will be held in Oklahoma City, Okla.

While all the division's World War I veterans have since passed on, the ceremony continues to hold its relevancy as World War II Rainbow Division veterans age and join their predecessors in "passing over the rainbow".

The names of currently serving division soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice in Iraq and Afghanistan are also read.

But the legacy of the poem is only one part of the Kilmer story.

On July 30, 1918, only months after writing the" Rouge Bouquet", Sgt. Joyce Kilmer, age 31, was himself killed in action near the village of Seringes-et-Nesles, France during the Second Battle of the Marne. As he joined his fallen Rainbow Division comrades in burial in the earth of France, his poem was read aloud at the gravesite.

But despite the tragedy of his death, the impact and relevance of Sgt. Joyce Kilmer on the Fighting 69th and the Rainbow Division did not end there.

Kilmer, who before joining the division had established prominence as a writer and poet, held a special place in the Fighting 69th's heart.

As a devote Catholic (who converted later in his life) Kilmer was carrying a crucifix at the time of his death. Today that crucifix is kept as a cherished relic that continues to influence modern day commanders of the 1-69th.

The Rainbow Division's armories are filled with collections of items that, for the most part, sit preserved in display cases and military museums. But the Kilmer crucifix does not sit statically displayed. Instead, it has been carried and worn by 1-69th Commanders for decades.

Because many of the early Fighting 69th leaders entrusted to guard Sgt. Kilmer's crucifix have long since passed on, establishing a clear chain of possession of the crucifix back to the death of Sgt. Kilmer is difficult.

But since the 1990s, the history of the crucifix is well documented.

In 2004, the Kilmer crucifix returned to the battlefield with the 42nd Rainbow Division when it was carried by the 1st Battalion 69th Infantry Commander Col. Geoffrey Slack, during the unit's deployment in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Today, in keeping with this historic tradition, the crucifix is carried by the current 1-69th Commander Lt. Col. James C. Gonyo II .

To Gonyo, the crucifix "has a connection for the Regiment and its leaders that is concrete and sacred to those that believe in it and its history."

"When I think of the sacrifice, loss and challenges that those who have carried it have endured, it is an overwhelming feeling to know it rests near my heart," he said.

The Kilmer crucifix is publically displayed only once a year by the Commander of the 1-69th , when the unit marches in the annual New York City St. Patrick's Day parade. Those who see it up close can attest to the signs of its age.

The small Christ figurine that adorns the cross has been worn down over the years, a product of countless patrols and battles.

Sgt. Kilmer's crucifix is a symbol of the historic Fighting 69th and the Rainbow Division. It transcends religion and time.

"I think it is also a special memento that people remember and that connects them to the traditions that we continue to this day. I am honored to be counted among the men who have been charged with the safe keeping of this artifact that has been involved in so much of the regiment's history", Gonyo said.

Those interested in attending the 2011 Champagne Hour Ceremony and joining the Rainbow Veterans Memorial Foundation can find more information at http://www.rainbowvets.org/

GET LIVIN' OR GET DYIN' |

May 25, 2011

Name: Mike T.
Returned from: Afghanistan
Milblog: c/o Bouhammer's Afghan Blog

What I'm about to describe isn’t an isolated episode, it happens every day in America. I know all too many in my close circle that have lived through it and are standing stronger today because of it...

You can never imagine that it would happen, but with one short-sided comment or blaring scream you are there. A slam of the front door, a dropped phone call or the worst of all, that empty feeling that things would never be the same, are signs of an ending relationship. Somehow you promise to be respectful, but with a personality like mine, answers are what I am looking for. For her, it was the yearning for a different life. So how does it happen? I am not really sure, one minute you are toasting each other and the next fighting over the stupidest thing possible. Your anger grows and her despair is ever apparent. Your eyes are opened as if someone split your forehead open with a crowbar, that’s how amazing and dramatic the feelings you have eventually become.

So what’s the point of this whole thing? A year has gone by since I departed my old life, my ex-wife and a life that seems a blur in the rear view mirror. A friend was killed, a war rages and we are still here fighting for whatever we think is important. I walked out that door knowing deep down that I would never return, knowing that much time was wasted by pleading, arguing, negotiating for nothing.

I look back now and know that the decisions made were not easy for either of us. They had to be made regardless though, and now the outcome. What I find amazing is that no matter what, I will say one thing; I didn’t follow the typical path of an ex-husband. I left it, the ink dried and I packed my bags, grabbed the dog and went north. Not knowing what was going to happen, but the point of this is to let you out there know: Get Livin’ or Get Dyin’.

There aren’t any easier answers, but one tool we have in our kit is survival. I went through the bottle; I blamed myself, and everything in between. Without the very close circle of family and friends, I would be DEAD. Yes I said it, DEAD.

No one has the answers for you, I know that now. Whether it was putting a bullet in my own head or getting back on the plane back to Afghanistan, as a dear friend said, ”You’re dead already."

I will admit my mistakes, pay for my sins and most of all, understand I didn’t or wasn’t successful as a husband. I do know though, that was the longest drive to the most unfamiliar place I have ever been to. Home. After many long hours in the middle of the quiet night, I decided to go home. I had to open my heart, my hands and say I am sorry. Saying sorry has never been hard, the hard part is that it seems forgiveness has never come easy for those mistakes.

With all that behind me, we are now in May 2011 and I will admit that every morning I stare into the mirror and an overwhelming amount of pride comes over me. I survived; I wasn’t a causality or a statistic that most thought would become of me. I took all that I learned over the past 13 years and applied it. I got my shit together, identified the immediate threats, worked out courses of action and drove the fuck on!

I hold no ill will; it had to be done. Was it my way? No, but you can’t dictate how life is going to deal those cards, you just got to pony up and hope for the best. You dream that whatever it is inside of you will prevail, it will be positive! So like I said, you really only have one choice. GET LIVIN' OR GET DYIN'.

This is dedicated to all of those who stood vigilant in the night with me, answered the midnight phone calls and offered up sound advice and a good hug. You know who you are.

“What a shame to judge a life you can’t change." Dedicated to all those out there trying to figure it out after so many years of difficult service.

ZOMBIE PREPAREDNESS |

May 23, 2011

Name: America's 1st Sgt.
Stationed in: Bahrain
Milblog: Castra Praetoria
Email: [email protected]

The CDC recently posted on their Emergency Preparedness and Response blog Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse. How cool is that!

If you're ready for a zombie apocalypse, then you're ready for any emergency. emergency.cdc.gov
 I've been saying this for years!


While I'm pleased the CDC recognizes the undead threat (completely justifying my entire existence) and provides decent input on emergency preparedness kits for your home and family, I am somewhat disappointed too. At no time do they address tactics, techniques, and procedures to confront/evade the hordes of undead as they methodically advance, brutally satiating their hunger for human flesh and brains. The CDC's general emergency preparedness instructions are sound, but here in the Camp of the Praetorians we are inundated with A type personalities and our response to the plague of undeath is somewhat more predatory. I mean really, what kind of zombie preparedness plan doesn't even mention flamethrowers?

In an effort to help save humanity from succumbing to the zombie virus I offer some suggestions for items you may want to add to your emergency bugout gear in the event of the Zombie Apocalypse.

The largest debate between zombie aficionados seems to be about weapons. Arguments rage over whether it is better to carry guns or hand weapons. If guns, then what type? If hand weapons, what type? Is it better to have a weapon that helps maintain distance from the undead? I will attempt to simplify the final answer on this discourse and provide some illumination on the subject of weapons and weapons of opportunity.

When it comes to hand weapons there are those advocating for the judicious use of baseball bats and others for machetes. Let's get some things straight first:

1.  There is a difference between a weapon and a weapon usable tool. It is wise to consider a tool's primary function when deciding its violent application in any given situation. If its primary intended design and use is for a battlefield then generally you can't go wrong even against zombies.


2.  Everyone knows you can only eliminate zombies by killing the brain. When debating a weapon's effectiveness against hordes of undead I always consider the likelihood of traumatic brain injury caused to a regular human. In the example of a bat vs. machete I suspect more people would receive a traumatic brain injury from the bat. It would be quite a feat of strength to sever someone's head in one or two blows of a machete. Hammer a few nails into the bat and you're really in business.

3. In any situation involving violence against zombies, werewolves, aliens, or the Taliban, America's 1stSgt generally relies on the tried and true mission of the Marine Corps rifle squad as the formula for success: Locate, close with, and destroy the enemy by fire and maneuver, or repel enemy assault by fire and close combat.

With these points in mind I have listed a few of my preferences below for zombie apocalyptic war gear.


Here we have a Cold Steel Trenchhawk, my personal preference for close quarters plague victim  elimination. This was designed solely to brain another human being, which makes it the perfect hand weapon for our purposes. I am also told by blacksmiths who work forges at the historical Williamsburg, VA smithy that tomahawks are primarily an above the neck weapon. Functionality and history both back my claim, making this my hand weapon of choice during the plague of undeath.


Pictured here is another great piece of gear. The Applegate/Fairburn smatchet (short for smashing hatchet) is 16.5 inches of pure combat blade. It is based on a Welsh fighting knife from WWI. I personally know of a Marine colonel who smacked someone on the top of the head with the flat of the blade knocking them unconscious. Again, history and practical application make this a preferred weapon particularly against filthy zombie scum.

Let's move on to weapon usable tools. By this we mean a contrivance whose primary function and design is not warfare and the destruction of human tissue.

Above we have a Dead On Tools 14-inch wrecking bar. It's primary function is to chisel, smash, crack and chip away at tile, brick, and serve for other pry bar uses. Dead On Tools advertises it as "the baddest, meanest utility bar EVER. The Annihilator will make short work of the most difficult jobs!" Presumably this could include the cracking open of zombie skulls. It also might be handy as you try to break down doors and such while evading the undead menace.



This is a Dead On Tools shingle hammer. I included this to point out how I believe a hammer is probably the single best expedient hand weapon in the "arsenal" of the average person. One has to consider the amount of brain damage which can be inflicted with a nice hammer, vice any other expedient weapon.

On firearms: I will keep this simple as there even more arguments raging over firearms than zombies. Considering the average person couldn't hit the side of a barn with a handgun I am going with the shotgun as number one zombie elimination and defense weapon.  If you miss the head you are bound to hit something and let's face it, the human body can only take so much punishment before it falls apart, undead or otherwise.

I am partial to the Saiga 12 in this instance. It is a semi-automatic, magazine-fed shotgun which makes me shiver with delight. Load this monster up with a 20 or 30 round drum magazine and you just may be able to save your entire neighborhood single handed!

And finally...




There are a lot of haters out there when it comes to the use of Japanese swords against the undead. But we should remember these weapons were specifically designed to separate people from their limbs and heads. Pictured here is an odachi. It is 70 ounces and at a length of 57 inches guaranteed to slay any creatures stalking your neighborhood. If you see the pictures at the top of my blog you will notice I have some modest training with these weapons and can cleave the &*#%$ out of any undead spawn in the blink of an eye.

At any rate, I hope this helps you round out your Zombie Apocalypse Preparedness Kit thereby making you harder to kill during the next outbreak.

Semper Fidelis!

LIFE AFTER IRAQ: 10 LESSONS ON TRANSITIONING OUT OF THE MILITARY |

May 19, 2011

Name: Don Gomez
Returned from: Iraq   
Milblog: Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America
Twitter: http://twitter.com/#!/dongomezjr

Framed Don Gomez 10 LESSONS Ten years ago this April, I enlisted in the U.S. Army. Since that time, I jumped out of airplanes, crawled, marched and ran thousands of miles, blew stuff up, met some of the most amazing people on Earth and served two tours in Iraq with the 82nd Airborne.

Five years ago this week, I got out. Since then, my life has changed dramatically. I've gone back to college on the Post-9/11 GI Bill, worked and interned in the private and non-profit sectors, earned a Truman scholarship, studied abroad in Egypt, advocated for fellow veterans on Capitol Hill, married the woman of my dreams and graduated from the City College of New York with a degree in International Studies. Now, six years removed from combat patrols in Iraq, I'm attending graduate school in London.

People say I've made a "successful transition" out of the military, given the range of problems new veterans are facing as they leave service in Iraq and Afghanistan. As a veteran, however, I don't like this label. It suggests that once the transition is made, that's it. All problems are solved. Instead, I would say that I'm "successfully adjusting" to life after military service. And to borrow the title of a couple of good books, this adjustment is a Forever War. I'm still doing it every day.

Looking back, there are key things I've learned that every veteran now making the adjustment, or planning to soon, should consider. This is the quick and dirty. The bottomline up front. The things to know and do that can make the adjustment a lot less painful. They may not work for every veteran, but they worked for me.

1. Your military service will define you, whether you like it or not. With less than 1% of the population serving, you are part of a tiny minority who have shouldered incredible responsibility. If you served overseas, to many, you are exotic. People around you will find out you served (trust me) and will define you by your service. When you raise your hand in class, people will refer to you as the "military guy" or gal.

2. Adjusting successfully depends on a strong support network. In the military, we succeeded and failed in teams. It's no different on the outside. Family, friends, and peers will not let you fail if you put your trust in them. I put my trust in IAVA and CCNY's veterans group. You can do the same joining a veterans organization to learn from your buddies who are on the same journey.

3. Have a plan. This is critical. My senior NCOs used to laugh at anyone who said they were going to get out and "go to college." They knew how easy it is to say that, but how it's a whole separate matter to put the work behind that statement and make it happen. Don't just get out of the military and take time off. It's tempting, especially after multiple, yearlong deployments. Strike while the iron is hot. Start applying for school or work before you get out of the service. Plan to minimize "dwell" time to maximize immediate available resources.

4. The little things you learned in the military will make you successful on the outside. Class starts at 0900? Show up at 0850. Iron your clothes. Be respectful to the people around you. These little things will set you apart and lead to success. The most important thing I learned from my service was how to negotiate a bureaucracy. You would be surprised by how many qualifying students won't apply for financial aid simply because of the paperwork involved. If you served in the military, you have earned a PhD in Bureaucracy Negotiation. Put it to work!

5. Seek out the things that make you uncomfortable. There is a civilian-military divide that exists in this country. What are you going to do about it? Often, veterans come out of their military bubble only to rush into the veteran bubble. Talk to people who share different and opposing views. Dispel stereotypes of veterans by being a respectful, model citizen. Join a club or society. Do the things that give your stomach butterflies.

6. Now more than ever, be humble. Don't be obnoxious about the fact that you served in Iraq and Afghanistan. No one likes it. Not the military, not veterans, not civilians. Just don't do it. Don't be "that guy."

7. No one is going to do the work for you. Whether it is filing a claim for an injury at the VA or getting your Post-9/11 GI Bill started, there are a host of benefits which you earned waiting to be unlocked. The system for getting them isn't always easy to navigate, and it can be frustrating and infuriating to wait for answers. In the end though, it's your benefit. Get a cup of coffee, block off an hour or two, and knock out the paperwork and applications.

8. Know when you are taking on too much. Many of us have big plans and, after serving in a combat zone, it's easy to feel like we can take on the world. Ambition and drive are great, but so are setting realistic expectations and maintaining sanity. If you're going to school full-time and have a full-time job, maybe you should wait until after you graduate to start that business or non-profit you've been thinking about. No one can do everything all the time. Know your limit.

9. Know when to ask for help. At some point or another, you're going to need someone to talk to. Whether it is about money, health, family, or your service, know it's okay to open up. The network you have around you wants to help. Let them know when you need it. They will go through hell to help you, but they can't do it if you don't let them.

10. Never forget where you came from. Whether you loved serving or hated it, for most of us it was a life-altering experience. Take it, embrace it, and use it to help you get to where you want to go next in life.

After I returned from Iraq, I learned these ten lessons the hard way -- but they continue to work for me on a daily basis. Of course, there are countless other great lessons that I've left out and I have plenty more to learn in the years ahead. But whether you are a veteran, a military family or a friend, pass them along. We're all in this adjustment together.

Don Gomez is an Iraq war veteran and member of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. He served two tours in Iraq with the 82nd Airborne Division in 2003 and 2005. You can follow him on Twitter @dongomezjr.

 

DON'T YOU KNOW THERE'S A WAR ON? |

May 17, 2011

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

During his children's sermon earlier this week, our pastor asked those present to name those places in the world that seem to need an extra portion of God's love. Each time someone called out a location--adults were encouraged to participate, too -- he'd place a pink construction-paper heart on a world map held between two acolytes.

Here's what people came up with:

  • Australia (floods)
  • Brazil (rainforests)
  • China
  • Canada (eh?)
  • Haiti (Cholera, earthquake, flood)
  • Japan (earthquake, meltdown)
  • Libya (revolution, U.S. military involvement)
  • Washington, D.C.

I'm all about crowdsourcing the word of God, but I couldn't help notice two places apparently no longer on our radar of good intentions: Afghanistan and Iraq.

Framed Red Bull Don't You Know cover Maybe it's war fatigue. Maybe it's a political climate, here in the homeland, that encourages demonization over democracy. Maybe it's a national media that's too easily distracted by squirrels. Maybe it's the fact that so few U.S. citizens seem to be or know people in uniform.

Whatever the reasons, good people sleeping peaceably in their beds at night are glazing over the so-called Global War on Terror.

Even the ones that are paying attention might be in danger of getting the wrong idea. Take, for example, the current deployment of the Iowa National Guard's 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division to Afghanistan. There are roughly 3,000 citizen-soldiers on the deployment, and all have their own stories. Some directly engage both friends and enemies on a regular basis. Others might spend most of their year-long deployments "safely" behind the walls of a friendly military base.

Arguments over who's got it worse or who's more important miss an important target: Every soldier serves. Every soldier misses out on a year or more of life at home. Every soldier is daily sacrificing something by walking in those boots.

There are also 3,000 different stories told to friends and family. Some buddies of mine, for example, won't tell their spouses if and when they've gone "outside the wire" -- left the relative safety of a military fortification. What they don't know won't hurt 'em, they say, and if the wife thinks I'm safely behind a desk, everybody's a winner. Other friends, on the other hand, go out of their way to talk about being at the "tip of the spear."

(There are so many self-nominated "tips of the spear" downrange, one has to hope that someone is actually holding that figurative weapon, and pointing it in the right direction.)

I've recently heard from other Red Bull friends, both downrange and here at home, who are frustrated with the apparent lack of understanding that an Army deployment isn't all puppies and candy.

"I think it is that they want to be informed but they don't want to hear bad stuff," one Red Bull recently wrote via Facebook. "It's like our families think that we just sit around, relax, and just enjoy the air. Every time I talk to anyone back home they act like this is some sort of vacation for me."

To their respective organizations' credits, recent reports from Midwestern newspapers have begun to crack potential mis-conceptions here at home, offering people a clearer-eyed and closer view of a conflict otherwise too easily forgotten.

An Omaha World-Herald team, for example, recently encountered a couple of concrete reminders of how soldiers live daily at risk. First, there were the blast-marked walls of a Combat Outpost ("COP"). Then, there was a padlock on the "Morale, Welfare, and Recreation" Internet café.

A Des Moines (Iowa) Register team recently noted the effects of an Improved Explosive Device (I.E.D.) attack on a Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected (MRAP, "em-rap") vehicle.

It's not a vacation. It's a war of some sort, conducted on our behalf.

Pay attention. And pray for an extra portion of providence.


Image used in this post: Cover of "Don't You Know There's a War On: Wartime Slogans and Sayings" by Nigel Rees, to be published July 2011.

VERWANDLUNGEN |

May 12, 2011

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

I have tried to write here countless times in the last few weeks, each time making my way through only a few sentences before deciding to stop. Maybe words aren't enough. Or maybe I just can't find the right ones. Either way, I feel stuck on a page on which I have so much to say but no way to say it. 

I haven't been sleeping well for months, probably since I came back from leave. Something about that quick taste of normalcy and comfort refuses to be suppressed. This must be good, I think. Even when I can sleep, I find myself dreaming slightly modified scenarios of what I usually experience throughout a regular day -- walking around on the base, doing work in my office, eating repetitive meals, occasionally going on a patrol, maybe drinking coffee, or some combination of these. Consequently, I often feel as if I haven't slept at all, since my dream reality and real reality are nearly identifical (maybe in the dream world I get two cups of coffee!). 

It's almost over. My life is about to enter a period of wonderful transition, and yet I can't help but wonder what it's all been worth. At the end, I will have spent almost a full year of my life in this place, and I struggle with the meaning and purpose of it all. When I joined the Army, this is what I wanted. I wanted to come to Afghanistan and experience conflict. I thought it was the right thing to do, the right place to be. But after so many months staring it in the face, I'm struck with the sobering thought that I never found what I was looking for.

For almost a year I have been stuck in time, perhaps relativistically, moving only slowly as the rest of the world continues at a frantic pace forward. I am Gregor Samsa, minus the whole cockroach bit. Everything else transforms and changes its seasons as I walk the same path of rocks and dirt and gaze at the same distant dark mountains. For others, babies have been conceived and born, relationships ended and begun, troubles encountered and forgotten, obstacles overcome, demons exorcised, families reconciled, countries changed, homes lost, redemption found, acceptance, rejection, and life in general doing what it typically does for those who live it.

A year is a long time to wait for life to start again. But start again it will.

OSAMA BIN LADEN, BIH |

May 09, 2011

Name: Major Dan
Returned from: Afghanistan
MilblogAfghaniDan 

"We will be relentless in our defense of our citizens and our friends and allies," President Obama said. "And on nights like this one, we can say to families who lost loved ones to al Qaeda's terror: justice has been done."


First, and most importantly: Bravo Zulu ("well done," for those not of the sea services) and thank you to the Navy SEALS, CIA operators and whoever else took part in, planned and gathered intelligence for the risky covert operation which delivered this enemy of civilization to justice.

The "BIH" in this post's title is in place of the traditional RIP (Rest in Peace). I'm using it as shorthand for "Burn in Hell." If you think for a moment of the nearly 3,000 victims of September 11, the sailors of the USS Cole and possibly the families of the Khobar Towers, the hundreds killed in the embassy bombings in Africa, the thousands killed by the Taliban under his financing, the 2,340 service members of 28 nations killed in Afghanistan since 2001, and the 140,000 or so service members there now, half a world from their families (not to mention the thousands of civilians for which I don't have the numbers) -- it was really just one incredibly wealthy, warmongering, murderous Wahhabi "prince" responsible for setting it all in motion.

This is unusual terrain for a writer who tries to relate firsthand experiences, or at least sound off only on that about which he may know something insightful, but as much as everyone who cares about peace and justice has wanted to see Osama's demise for the past decade or more, I remain convinced that this development is mainly symbolic. That does NOT mean that I dismiss its significance for that reason. The symbolism that he embodied is still very powerful, and perhaps he was more involved still in al-Qaeda operations than we guessed.

I mean to say that from the perspective of one who has deployed to Afghanistan twice over the past five years, bin Laden has not been relevant to operations there. He certainly was on my mind back in the aftermath of 9-11-2001, when I lived in the vicinity of New York City as it reeled and then rapidly recovered from the attacks. And understandably, those in the Fire Department, the Police Department, and the Port Authority Police who were there -- not to mention, anyone at all who lost loved ones that day -- would have thought of the cretin more often.

In short, he may have been why we were there in the first place, but he did not define what we were doing there...not for the past nine years, anyway. 

Operation Enduring Freedom, for all intents and purposes, ceased being about catching Osama bin Laden sometime after his escape at Tora Bora in December of 2001. Fun fact: It was largely because of that particular complex that our nation's talking heads smugly parroted the notion that he was hiding in a cave ever since -- while most reasonable analysts have concluded for years was that bin Laden was in a safe house somewhere, and most likely in Pakistan.

And OBL was really never a topic of conversation among those of us serving even near the border, which made it all the more absurd when some visiting journalists would claim to understand an operation and its environment, only to go on camera or go to print immediately speculating about Osama's location as if it had anything to do with the mission at hand. Now that he's been taken out in the mansion he called his hiding place, we can quit wondering about his health and whereabouts, and maybe -- just maybe -- focus on clarifying what we seek to accomplish in Afghanistan and how we can best go about it.

Today I got to sleep in, then bike for hours into Colorado mountains, then watch my Mets (finally) take out the Phillies after 14 exhausting innings, and during the game, hear the news that bin Laden is dead. My comrades still in Afghanistan go about their business, as do the tens of thousands on patrol in deadly environments each day. I wish the big news meant that we can declare "Victory!" and call 'em all back pronto. But again, this fight hasn't been about him since its earliest days. Still... Good riddance, ruthless murderer. And keep working to secure a peaceful and stable Afghanistan, brave men and women of the Coalition, and brave Afghans who seek a better future.


"Bin Laden was not a Muslim leader; he was a mass murderer of Muslims." -- President Obama

 

MAKING MONSTERS IN THE PT ROOM |

May 06, 2011

Name: America's 1st Sgt.
Stationed in: Bahrain
Milblog: Castra Praetoria
Email: [email protected]

In the Marine Corps we are immersed in a culture of physical fitness (among other things). I always say when Americans "send in the Marines!" they expect a certain product. This product not only includes a physical prowess defying a number of inviolate laws of physics and medicine but also a neat and professional appearance. It's a look easier to pull off when your shoulders are wider than your waist. Many regard physical training as a mandatory chore designed to lessen their quality of life just that much more. Some figure it doesn't pay to attack a hill if half way up you are noisily blowing chow all over your boots and can't employ the machine gun. Others have it in mind they will be more able to overcome the enemy if they make themselves bigger, faster, and stronger.

Here's the real reason we conduct physical training. Ready?

We are, in fact, making ourselves harder to kill. A healthy, well fed, fit human body is more capable of surviving and functioning while immersed in the various diseases, illnesses, infections, etc, one encounters in theater. Not to mention being able to survive combat wounds or just running down the block draped in 100 lbs of gear during the balmy desert summer. Bracing!

I was told a story once about an interview of Japanese POWs during WWII. The Japanese Imperial Army had thought they were fairly invincible and their defenses impregnable. They were asked at what point during the campaign they felt they might be in trouble. Turns out while machine gunning Marines down as they landed the Japanese noticed the wounded and dying still trying to advance and crawling forward despite their wounds. The Marines were coming. They were hard men to kill. 

I'm not suggesting a superior PT program won the war in the Pacific, but being hard to kill certainly is a force multiplier. In an effort to remain so I often encourage Marines to come workout with their 1stSgt in the afternoon. Workouts with America's 1stSgt have a reputation not only for being cruel and unusual but quite competitive as is our nature. For their part, Sailors in our vicinity want no part of what we are up to when it involves perspiration and demonic levels of physical pain.

We get paid for this!

 

In these photos we are gleefully destroying each other in a joy filled PT session. The name of this particular workout changes as it is named after whomever achieves the lowest score and is known as the "       " Challenge. This is a shame best avoided as it marks the namesake as the weakest member of the tribe. Each of us has 15 minutes to complete as many rounds as we can of:

3 Pull Ups (chest must touch the bar)
6 Chest Slapping Push Ups (hands must slap the chest while in the air)
9 Jumping Squats
 
The Challenge is the kind of workout which on the surface seems simple enough. Then about one minute and thirty seconds into the workout the victim realizes he has made a grievous mistake and has placed his mortal life in peril. On this occasion the stakes were particularly high as the current namesake openly challenged one of his peers to a head to head competition. Naturally, this brought all the meat eaters and we all part.
Nose to nose clapping push ups with a little encouragement from yours truly. 

As the workout progresses it becomes increasingly difficult to keep proper form. Chests miss the bar here and there and chest slapping push ups degenerate into clapping face plants. Awesome! 

Ugly but acceptable technique.



Although this appears to be the end of the workout, there are actually 10 minutes to go.


Flogging for one? This way sir.

The end of this particular Challenge was inconclusive as it resulted in a tie, with 15 rounds completed each. While others spent the day on the couch mashing bags of potato chips into their pie hole, FAST Company forged some ruggedness, tested a little character, and enjoyed the camaraderie. Sounds like a day seized to me.

Semper Fidelis!

DECEPTIVELY SATISFYING |

May 04, 2011

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

If your understanding of our mission in Afghanistan was that the entire operation was to capture or kill bin Laden, then it will seem as if the mission has been accomplished. All of our problems have been solved. Finis.

Closure? Ummm…

Not that the death of bin Laden isn’t a good thing. The monster is dead -- or is it? I have often said that bin Laden was a poster child, a lightning rod for those who share his world view. Those people are still alive. All of the pieces that have been assembled over the years are still in place. I’m sure that morale is currently low and anger is correspondingly high. Bin Laden was, indeed, more than just a poster child. But he was obviously not exerting the same degree of command and control that he had at one time. Al Qaeda was still plugging away, doing the things that al Qaeda does.

What does this mean to Afghanistan? Well, I’m sure that morale is higher amongst the troops. My morale is higher -- in a way. The question of whether or not this is a game-changer remains to be seen. Is this going to change what the local insurgent commander or shadow provincial governor in Afghanistan does? Probably not. This is waaay above his pay grade.

I’ve had the opportunity to speak with a lot of Afghans about bin Laden. They never viewed him as being their main problem. Sure, bin Laden supported the Taliban. Al Qaeda funded, recruited, equipped, trained and fielded a “brigade” that fought against the Northern Alliance in the years prior to 9/11. That much we know. Al Qaeda and bin Laden were shielded from the rest of the world and provided for by the Taliban when the Taliban controlled most of Afghanistan. In recent years, al Qaeda wound up with better relations with the Haqqani network than they did with the Quetta Shura Taliban. At least it appeared so. Admittedly, al Qaeda’s actual presence in Afghanistan was limited to a couple of hundred individuals. Afghans have more immediate problems with people who do intend to stay there and rule them, such as Gulbuddin and Mullah Omar.

I don’t think that the death of bin Laden is a game-changer in Afghanistan.

External support for the Taliban and/or their affiliates may suffer in some way, but I’m in no way convinced that this will be disabling to the Taliban, et al, in any meaningful way. It does not change the threat to Afghanistan from the Taliban, Haqqani and Hizbi Islami Gulbuddin (HiG). Nor does it defeat the criminal patronage networks. It does not magically improve the capability of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA). The degradation of even al Qaeda remains to be seen.

The many Afghans I had the opportunity to speak with over the years I’ve spent in Afghanistan expressed concern that if we ever did catch up with bin Laden that it would be to the detriment of Afghanistan. Already, there are calls in Congress to abandon Afghanistan. While this is predictable, it is shallow and short-sighted. These calls have been coming from a not insignificant group for some time.

Once the complexity and difficulty of Afghanistan became clear, the “good war” came under fire. Most of us who were personally involved in Afghanistan while it was still the “forgotten, good war” (as opposed to the “bad war” in Iraq), knew that the goodwill towards Afghanistan would wane as the nature of the conflict proceeded to baffle the minds of the ill-informed and idealistic. Now there is a more plausible reason to declare victory and abandon Afghanistan to its fate, as if it will never again influence the world it is a part of. This opportunity to cut and run will not be wasted, and it will likely gain adherents rather than lose them.

It boils down to the struggle between two schools of thought. One contends that the world hates us (particularly Muslims), and that they have good reason to. This school believes that withdrawal and accommodation will assuage this hatred. This school of thought argues that instability does not impact other nations, and certainly is not a threat to the national security of more developed countries.

The other school of thought agrees that instability, in a globalized world that is only getting smaller, has the demonstrated ability to provide festering grounds for non nation-state actors who are now capable of exporting violence on a scale that was formerly the realm of nation-states. Japan used six aircraft carriers and over 400 planes to cause a similar number of American dead in the attacks on Pearl Harbor; this compared to four aircraft-cum-cruise missiles acquired for the price of a few airline tickets on 9/11. That was not the last attack, nor has Afghanistan been the only country to harbor such plotters. But we have seen what “leaving Afghanistan to its fate” has accomplished for us.

Predicting the future is impossible. Could the “Mission Accomplished” crowd be right? I don’t have a crystal ball, but I don’t agree with them. So my answer is, “No.” What we have done in the past was not successful.

So what does the death of bin Laden mean?

It means that we have had some measure of revenge. We have had some resolution for part of our anger. We have cut the head off the snake, and whether that snake is a hydra or a cobra remains to be seen. Many insurgent leaders have been killed in Afghanistan, only to be replaced by less reticent commanders who were more brutal than the ones who we killed. Will that happen with al Qaeda? Only time will tell. We cannot predict that.

More damage may be done to al Qaeda by the “Arab Spring” uprisings in the Middle East than by the death of bin Laden. Al Qaeda has called for uprisings against the regimes in power for years. Al Qaeda wished to inspire general uprisings based upon Islamic rage, not upon the principles of personal liberty and government accountability. The uprisings of the past few weeks in the Middle East were not at all what al Qaeda and bin Laden wished to inspire. If regime changes in the Middle East replace repressive regimes with an opportunity for hope, the very hopeless rage that drives young men into the arms of al Qaeda will come unglued. The death of bin Laden is icing on that cake.

The final results of the Arab uprisings in the Middle East are far from clear. This could still all go horribly awry. The United States has an opportunity to support the development of enduring institutions, non-military institutions, in these countries. In our recent history, our first answer has been to provide military assistance. But the lack of responsive, accountable institutions has been a key factor driving the disaffected to seek solutions to their problems that often wound up being religiously driven. Who can save you from hopelessness? God. Whatever name to use to refer to God, when the world is too big and too hard, many seek explanations and solutions from religious leaders. Christians have had many such as Jim Jones and David Koresh. Muslims have had such leaders as well, and those who find themselves seeking solutions to the intractable problems of their world are drawn to them. Bin Laden counted on these people as his recruiting base.

What happens if this base suddenly gains hope from another source? What happens if they create and sustain institutions that provide accountability and responsiveness? What happens if the governments and economies of these countries begin to offer opportunities and hope? Bin Laden was already beginning to lose his appeal. Now that he is dead, his survivors in al Qaeda will have to deal with this lost traction.

Our struggle remains with competing visions of our role in the post-Cold War world. The death of bin Laden does not end that argument, but will add artificial lubricant to the side which espouses self-centered navel gazing above striving to find a productive way to add to stability in a shrinking world.

GODSPEED, SSG MICHAEL LAMMERTS |

May 02, 2011

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

The video below is about a funeral that happened just the other day. As you will see, many in western New York turned out to honor SSG Michael Lammerts, a soldier/husband/son/father who lost his life to a murderous act. An entire school stopped classes and came out to the road to honor this soldier. This is what living in a small community is all about.

SSG Lammerts was on his third combat tour (first one to Afghanistan) and was mentoring Afghan border police when one of them turned on the Americans and killed SSG Lammerts and one other soldier. It is tough enough to lose a loved one to an enemy, but somewhat anticipated. It is much tougher when one of those we are trying to train and mentor and empower turns on us and slays our soldiers.

 


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