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.

DOWN AND OUT AT THE OAK LEAF LOUNGE |

June 30, 2011

Name: Charlie Sherpa
Embedded: with former unit in Afghanistan
Hometown: Boone, Iowa
Milblog: Red Bull Rising
Email: SherpaatRedBullRising.com


During the second half of my Afghan journey, I've been staging out of Bagram Airfield (BAF), while crashing out in style. Living quarters are "Re-Locatable Buildings" (RLB) -- semi-trailer-sized metal containers that have been stacked two high and 14 wide, and bolted together. Complete with corrugated steel sunshades and sandbag-bunker adjacent, the exterior aesthetic is something close to "20th century American penitentiary."

Each "block" has a central latrine on each level: six sinks, four shower stalls, two urinals and two toilets.

The floors of each "hootch" are wood-look sheet vinyl, and the walls are finished in light-colored paneling. There's one door and one window for each 20-by-20-foot apartment ("compartment"?), and bunk beds enough for up to six or eight soldiers. In the area in which I'm staying, most seem to house three or four soldiers.

I've stayed a couple of nights with some characters with whom Red Bull Rising readers may already be somewhat acquainted: An Army lawyer, a public affairs guy, and The Postman -- a combat engineer who does construction back in the world, so we always have something to talk about. Their hootch, nicknamed the Oak Leaf Lounge, has been carved into three smaller living spaces. Stand at the center of the compartment, take one step at any diagonal, and you'd be in someone else's "room."

Each guy has their own wall locker and bunk bed. The lower one is for sleeping, the upper for storage. Had I deployed with the 2nd Brigade Combat Team (BCT), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division, this is most likely the same type of living situation in which I would have spent my nine months in country.

The entry has been turned into something akin to a mud room, foyer, and family room. Someone took the doors off of a wall locker, and built from its carcass a combination bookshelf, entertainment center, and pantry. There are also three or four folding chairs, a dorm-style refrigerator filled with pop and bottled water, and a small flat-screen television.

Prior to deployment, back at Camp Ripley, Minnesota, the guys were plotting and plodding their collective way through an entire DVD collection of "The Sopranos." At the time, we joked that it was good counterinsurgency (COIN) training -- after all, what's a mafia story but a narrative of tribal leaders, criminals, and blood ties? During their months here in country, they've branched out, enthusiastically taking on "Band of Brothers," "Rome," "Mad Men," and "Spartacus." Manly men, watching manly things. At the Oak Leaf Lounge.

Sounds almost like an Army-sanctioned gentlemen's club, doesn't it? Make sure to stay for the burka show. Lots of T and A.

(That's Toes and Ankles, by the way.)

More importantly, the hootch's name appears on the painted wooden plaque The Postman's wife had made and sent over for his birthday. Apparently, the Postman had once mentioned to his wife the original "Oak Leaf Lounge" after the unit's National Training Center (NTC) rotation back in September. That "lounge" featured a cobbled-together pile of van seats, a broken sleeping cot, and a table of some sort, tucked away in the corner of a mass sleeping tent on FOB Warrior. A snarky public affairs soldier had lobbed the label in passing, like some sort of joke-grenade. But the name stuck.

"It's the best thing that anybody ever sent me," says The Postman. "The other guys wanted their own made, too."

It's become something of a tradition for visitors to have their pictures taken with the sign, and the resulting images are also proudly displayed. It's not exactly Afghanistan's answer to the World's Largest Ball of Twine, but it ranks up there on the short list of Tourist Traps on BAF, along with the "Pink Palace" headquarters building (that's another story), the Post Exchange, the Green Beans coffee shop, and the not-one-but-two Pizza Huts.

This week, the nightly floor show at the Oak Leaf Lounge included viewings of gladiatorial programs, including the "Spartacus" series. Lots of blood and gore and orgies -- entertainment for the whole family.

The first night I crashed on their floor the guys caught three rodents with the peanut-buttered mousetraps they set out around the perimeter of their hootch. Apparently, I'm like the Pied Piper of Bagram -- a mouse magnet, a rodent whisperer. I'm just glad someone didn't slip me a Mickey. Especially after I made the "I am 'Sparta-mouse'" joke a couple-hundred times.

Borrowing a line from the episode we'd just watched: "It was a great spectacle of blood." Followed, of course, by arguments about whose turn it was to dispose of the losers and reset the traps.

War is heck: Living in boxes, fighting the mice.

Just another day in paradise. Just another night at the Oak Leaf Lounge.

STANDING READY TO DO VIOLENCE ON OTHERS' BEHALF |

June 26, 2011

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

It's not the greatest of pics, but below is our Company Commander accepting a Meritorious Group Service Award from the State Department recently at American Embassy Manama Bahrain. As many of you may have surmised, 2011 has been a busy year for FAST Company. Usually I am not at liberty to relate any of our current operations but we've had a few red hot irons stoking in the fiery furnace of the Middle East. While some of you may recall we had sent a platoon to Cairo during the unrest in Egypt what you didn't know is we also provided security to American Embassy Manama during the same period. It's been a very dramatic spring for us. Your Marines have more than met the challenge as you will see below.

 

 

The citation reads as follows:

 

For meritorious service while providing reinforcement to U.S. Embassy Manama, Bahrain from 15 March to 5 April 2011. Fourth Platoon, Fleet Anti-Terrorism Security Team (FAST) Company Central Command ensured Embassy Manama was secure during a period of unprecedented violence and political unrest. The platoon's dedication, professionalism, and expert knowledge of security operations brought great credit upon themselves, Fleet Anti-Terrorism Security Team Company Central Command, Marine Corps Security Force Regiment, and the United States Marine Corps.


The award also lists the names of each member of the platoon. I also managed to get my hands on the endorsement nominating Fourth Platoon:

 

On 14 March 2011, the Gulf Cooperation Council sent troops of the Peninsula Shield Force to protect key facilities at the request of the Bahraini Government. The Bahraini Protest of 2011 had already been raging for over a month and the stability of the island nation was in question. Just days prior, elements of Bahrain's Ministry of the Interior had lost control of the streets and violence was spreading throughout the island. As a result, over one thousand armed troops from Saudi Arabia and five hundred police from UAE with some 150 armored and 50 light vehicles deployed across the Bahraini-Saudi causeway. Not knowing what the intention of this force was, Regional Security Office Manama saw this deployment as an escalation of force that required the embassy to react.

A platoon of Marines from Fleet Anti-Terrorism Security Team Company Central Command was dispatched on 15 March 2011 to reinforce the embassy. Fourth Platoon (A4) set up perimeter security, rooftop surveillance and a 24 hour Combat Operations Center (COC). Quickly establishing communication with its higher headquarters, A4 began day to day operations and successfully integrated into the existing perimeter defenses at the embassy.

Consisting of multiple post rotations each day, various physical security positions and over watch designated marksman positions, the platoon maintained a reactionary force capable of responding to any incident within the embassy compound within one minute. Further, the platoon went on to establish a secondary reactionary force capable of reaching the embassy from Naval Support Activity Bahrain within twenty minutes [this would be the reactionary force consisting of America's 1stSgt and a horde of brutes with hatchets]. This vigil was maintained on a 24 hour basis for over three weeks. As a result, Embassy Manama could continue its vital diplomatic mission without fear, knowing that a platoon of United States Marines was within its perimeter. Whether it was the conduct of random anti-terrorism measures including numerous drills or providing timely reporting to the Regional Security Officer, Fourth Platoon was literally a life saver.

The platoon continued to conduct these operations until 05 April 2011, when upon order of the Chief of Mission, they redeployed to Naval Support Activity Bahrain and subsequently returned to the United States. Embassy Manama owes the Marines of Fourth Platoon, FAST Company a debt of gratitude that cannot be easily repaid. They are truly deserving of this award and it is with great hope that it will one day adorn the walls of Marine Corps Security Force Regiment in recognition of a job well done.

Not a bad day's work if you ask me. Feel free to enjoy your week. U.S. Marines are manning the gates.  

 

Semper Fidelis!

AFGHAN LEGITIMACY |

June 22, 2011

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

What does legitimacy mean to any of us? The “birthers” here in the US claim that President Obama cannot be the legitimate President of the United States. But they have not picked up arms. Most of them still pay taxes. There have been isolated outbursts, including at least one military officer who refused to deploy based upon his belief that the commander in chief is illegitimate. Other than that, the legitimacy of the United States government is not in serious question.

For most of us, the legitimacy of our government starts when we leave the door of our house and head out into the public areas of our world. For most of us, the first line of contact with our government is the police -- and the tax column of our pay stubs. Both are reinforcement of the legitimacy of our government; local, state and federal. But the police that we see on our streets are not federal police. They are local police. Local elections have a greater impact on our daily lives than who occupies the Oval Office in a distant city. The point is that if we never had any contact with our government, how would it be legitimate to us?

Our government is not monolithic. Our paychecks demonstrate that the federal government can reach into our pockets to pay for the national-level services, such as defense. But it’s the local police who influence our daily behavior. When we are speeding, and we see a cop parked next to the road, we check our speed and slow down. That guy with a badge and a gun had an immediate impact on our behavior. That is, at a very basic level, legitimacy in our (American) context. Our government has the ability, whether we like it or not, to enforce its will upon us. We consider that will to be the will of the people. Our elected representatives set the speed limit that we are compelled to observe by threat of that police officer.

We have a national government, but we also have state and local government. Even our state laws are most often enforced by local government officials such as county, city or township police. When there is a question or a conflict, we find ourselves most often in local courts. Our perceptions of the local courts are overwhelmingly positive when it comes to issues such as corruption. While we believe that money does buy justice, we believe that boils down to being able to afford a decent lawyer, rather than in paying off a judge. Very few of us believe that the criminal courts can be bought through bribery.

We know that the government of Afghanistan (GIRoA) is beset by corruption. A massive and pernicious problem, it threatens the perception of legitimacy amongst the people. But, like us, Afghans decide upon the legitimacy of the government based upon their interactions with it. They are not interacting with the government in Kabul. They are interacting with the ANP, the District and perhaps Provincial governments, and the courts. Afghan legitimacy starts at the local level. This does not mean that corruption in Kabul need not be addressed. It means that more Afghans will be influenced by addressing issues at multiple local levels than by making fewer corrections at the national level.

Many military personnel who have experienced the maze of local corruption will tell tales of frustration in dealing with a governor or sub-governor who stubbornly clung to his network of corruption. Many of us experienced a lack of support from other international actors at the local level. The State Department and USAID were not often in evidence in 2007, for instance. One or two DoS representatives per province -- in the provinces where they were present -- just wasn’t getting it. We had very few USAID workers available in the provinces. We were working the military/security line of operation as hard as we could, but the governance and development lines were being defaulted on. The “surge” in Afghanistan didn’t just include a military surge, but a civilian surge as well. More civilians are needed, but there was still a great increase, and it has made a difference.

We see movement in Afghanistan. I saw it when I was there. General Petraeus’ latest reports indicate progress. I know that the official reports are taken with a grain of salt, but there is corroboration. The actions of the insurgents indicate growing weakness. Their tactics this year are aimed at making themselves appear to be larger than they actually are, focusing on areas where they are not necessarily strong, but where they would like to appear to have influence. This is an indicator that they have lost ground not only militarily but also with their ability to influence the population. My observation is that this is due to a greater balance in the application of effort across the non-military lines of operation on a number of local levels. This is the result of refocusing of efforts to the local level, a greater number of civilians present to work on the local level and a greater ability to work in some level of synchrony across the main lines of operation.

The use of consistent tool sets is becoming more widespread. Using ASCOPE/PMESII as the information framework makes it easier for units to to knowledge transfer during the Relief In Place / Transfer of Authority (RIP/TOA). This, combined with the growing use of the District Stability Framework (DSF), makes it easier for the military and civilian actors to synchronize actions across the lines of operation. Both tools are focused on the local level, and aimed at identifying, developing, increasing and protecting capacity at the local level. As indicated above, the local government makes the most difference in the lives of Americans, and it does the same in Afghanistan; only more so.

Afghanistan’s history is one of local governance loosely tied to a national government that is not very prone to micromanagement. The national government has not tended to be a strong influence in the daily lives of farmers and shop keepers in the little villages in the many valleys far from Kabul. This does not remove the pressure to fix what is wrong with the Karzai regime, often described as a kleptocracy. It does give some breathing room to the efforts to develop a national government that is capable of performing the basic functions required and as free of corruption as possible. With local governance improving incrementally, there is a cross-pollination of legitimacy that the national government benefits from. Coalition forces also benefit from progress on the local level, because they are then viewed as being supportive of a legitimate government, rather than tipping the scales in favor of one of two evils.

This year will be very challenging in Afghanistan. As described above, the insurgents are doing their level best to give the impression of being more influential than they are. There is a faint whiff of desperation in the air. There are most certainly areas where the insurgent is actually in better shape than he was two years ago; take the Korengal, for example. Whether or not the tipping point is near or has been reached will not be clear for some time. It is clear that there have been some important steps taken towards improving local governance, security and development. It is clear that the insurgents are under considerable pressure, and not just militarily. Local governance has a greater impact on the daily lives of Afghans than the national government, even a short distance from Kabul. The perception of legitimacy in Afghanistan is more predicated upon local government than the Kabul government.

A HARD TURN AT NAJIL |

June 21, 2011

Name: Charlie Sherpa
Embedded: with former unit in Afghanistan
Hometown: Boone, Iowa
Milblog: Red Bull Rising
Email: SherpaatRedBullRising.com

 

My reception at Bagram Airfield (BAF) last week was warm, jovial, and downright overwhelming. Soon after my arrival, the deputy commanding officer snatched me out of the brigade public affairs office, and plunked me down in front of the commander of the Iowa National Guard's 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division (2-34th BCT).

Jet-lagged and time-zoned as I was, I might've have been hallucinating a bit, but there may have even been hugs exchanged. Either way, it was a good vibe.

The brigade command sergeant major came into the office, and took a knee on the hard linoleum floor. Together with the brigade public affairs officer, we discussed my personal "rules of engagement" while traveling around Area of Operations (A.O.) Red Bulls: Mostly Parwan, Panjshir, and Laghman provinces.

"You've made an investment getting here," says Col. Ben Corell, 2-34th BCT commander. "I think we're invested in getting you back."

That means no overnight stays at Combat Outpost (COP) X, Y, and Z. That means movement by helicopter and not by ground. While Corell's guidance makes my wife very happy -- and I make sure he knows it -- I realize that it makes things here more difficult, both for his soldiers and for me.

Thinking back on it, my experience in the box National Training Center (NTC) was ideal training -- not only for the terrain and weather conditions, but for the administrative and logistical restrictions as well. Just because you see something nearby on a map, doesn't mean it's easy to get there.

Task Force Ironman -- Iowa's 1st Battalion, 133rd Infantry Regiment (1-133rd Inf.) -- is currently headquartered in Mehtar Lam, Laghman Province. I'd spent a memorable couple of days with Alpha Company at NTC last September, while the unit conducted a Combined Arms Live-fire Exercise (CALFEX). When Task Force Ironman asked what COP I wanted to see while here, I asked to visit Alpha Company again. That required a "hard-turn" -- two helicopter flights in one day to the same remote site.

Bottom line: Task Force Ironman moved earth and sky to make it happen.

COP Najil sits at the crux of three valleys. Afghan Security Guards man some of the guard towers and the entry control point, and a company of Afghan National Army soldiers live in a compound adjacent to the Alpha Company quarters. "They are our brothers," says Capt. Matthew Parrino, acting Alpha Company commander. (Capt. Jason Merchant, the Alpha Company commander whom I'd met at NTC, is on a couple of weeks of leave.) Most every operation is conducted "shoulder-to-shoulder."

Bad guys regularly harass the COP from all directions. Attacks range from 4 or 5 shots from a Soviet-made machine gun in the middle of the night, to full-on complex and coordinated efforts. The Red Bull soldiers point out that the bad guys no longer come at them as directly as they did starting in November of last year, when the Iowa unit first moved into position.

The bad guys are now more likely to rely on Improvised Explosive Device (IED) attacks , trying to stay out of the Red Bulls' reach. On the day that I am there, Parrino and I sit on the roof of the Tactical Operations Center (TOC), watching as a team of two Kiowa Warrior helicopters fly north to engage a reported Vehicle-Borne IED (VBIED, also called a "VEE-bid").

Living conditions at COP Najil are Spartan, although the Red Bulls have made many improvements during the deployment. "I like to compare it to a camp up in Canada," says acting First Sergeant Tim Fiedler. "Except the fishing around here isn't as good." There's running water -- the Red Bulls have increased the COP's water-tank capacity -- and a brand-new shower tent. There's a kitchen-in-a-box the soldiers call the Red Bull Grill, which is one of only two such systems in country.

Meeting up with soldiers and buddies, I keep re-telling the joke about Col. Corell telling me -- way back at NTC -- that I should look at Afghanistan as a potential article for Better Homes and Gardens magazine.

Latrines, however, are still a little rustic. Urinals are "piss-tubes" -- PVC pipes stuck at an angle into the ground. Toilets are even more basic. As an entry-level job, local nationals are hired to burn the feces collected in cut-off 50-gal. drums; the smell over the COP is constant. Fiedler says that one of the Afghan youth working the latrine detail recently offered this observation:

"Americans sh-- too much."

The kid was promoted to a different job.

GENERATIONAL GAPS |

June 18, 2011

Name: Matthew Mellina
Returned from: Iraq
Email: matthew.mellina@gmail.com

We used to stand there counting stars. When the light would fade and fireflies began to shine, we headed to a nearby field and he assembled our telescope, my young hands not knowing what to do, and there we mapped the night sky. I am sure we were there for only an hour or two at a time, but I now remember those days as a perpetual night. I am not sure now what we talked about, or even what we saw, only that when we got home I had a book of glow-in-the-dark constellations to remember.

A snapshot of youth shared between a father and son.

A youth of H-O-R-S-E and science projects and fossils and Ditch Plains. A youth of Dirk Pitt and toy soldiers and road trips and Sundays on the soccer field. A youth far removed from bombs and bullets and the sands of a desert. Where Long Island was home and Iraq was not even a thought or consequence.

I left behind the joy of childhood and settled for adolescent views of rebellion, joining the military, just as my father did decades earlier. But never to follow in his footsteps. I knew some stories of his service. An Airman during the Vietnam era, he never deployed and never saw combat. He was tucked away in the safety of Colorado and Arizona and Germany, working on spy cameras for the Dragon Lady. Most considered him lucky for this, but I when it was my turn to sign the dotted line, I gave myself over to the romanticized heroism of Blown Away. Destined for the Army and Explosive Ordnance Disposal and a war I joined as an act of desperation.

I returned home four years ago only to have another war start. The one with self-sabotage and acronyms for diseases and a strange, creeping loneliness. Through the turmoil of return, my own son was born. I had hoped for a partner in my father who understood the military life, and maybe, just a small amount of what I’d been through. But I was still young and ignorant, and never truly understood the pain caused by my actions and the sleepless nights because of a son fighting a war 7,000 miles away. He gave his all to stand by my side as I have crumbled since my return, but still I turned away from him. The divide between us grew.

Every part of me regrets this gap. There was no similar ground we saw or felt. The military saved him and in the end it may be my downfall. Our differences aren’t just philosophical anymore, either. He watches his back and surroundings, but not as vigilantly as I do. Sounds make him alert, but the effect pales in comparison to my reaction. His world is organized, but not as obsessively. And he is comfortable. Comfortable in his own skin, and comfortable with what consists of time. I’m still searching and wandering for a similar type of comfort.

I have an urge to share my stories with him but I still hold back. Not for fear of what he would think of me but because I do not want to take away what innocence he has left, never seeing death and destruction as I have. We are generations separated by time, distance, and conflict. But as the stories slowly come out, and laughter and sadness collide, I’ve begun to formulate the path I have been on and where the beginnings of who I am began. In moments shared now, I can live and discover about who I am through who we are.

But still, I worry. Not just as a son, but as a father. I was told once, in a war thousands of miles away, that you can never be a man until you raise one. Now I know this to be true, as I raise my son.

I have created lists since his birth three years ago. Lists on how we are similar.

We become lost in the world the same way. Shoot the same looks. Eat the same way. We run like ducks. Our teeth are preferred to nail clippers. We blow bubbles with our own saliva. Our knees shake when we are spooked. We arrange our blocks in color and shape order. Our lips quiver when we cry. Our giggles are the same. We confuse baby pictures. Our eye color is just a shade off. We are each afraid to touch or look in the other's direction. Our bellies are not to be touched. We will both fart on you when prompted and are not opposed to burping at the table. Women are of an extraordinary interest to us. We feel the need to ring doorbells. Our hair cowlicks match. Climbing excites us but the descent may cause us to become petrified. We both love bouncy houses and Hershey’s Kisses. We love to read before bed and we leave the pillow with drool and creases on our face.

I am sure my father has the same experience in reflection when it comes to my youth and upbringing. That’s what bridges humanity and families. But what of this new bridge? I am afraid of my son. I’m afraid to hold. To comfort. To love. To discipline. I am afraid to disappoint. He is an undeniable part of me, and I am an undeniable part of him. Our similarities prove this. So I take in what I fail at, exceed in, and what I know I am to him. The rest will follow because it needs to, and I will not allow it any other way.

I have the example of my father to follow. The man I once resented and now am jealous of. Someone who has been through it all alongside me, regardless of who I am or what I have done, and I will always have a shoulder. An example. On how to care for a family. On how to love unconditionally. On how to learn from your mistakes and fight for what you hold dear. Yes, my father has his downfalls but he is a man or the best damn example of one that I can find. Hearts fail and generations collapse, each making room for the next and hopefully greater one. As I raise my own child, I will impart what I have learned from my father. This is what I hold dear and I pray for, the day my son will ask me about my youth so I can whisper to never make the same mistakes. To never run. To face it all. To keep the world as his own. So I can never sit as my father has with the fear of burying your own. To raise him in the image of my father and hope I can live up to both of them.

 

Matthew Mellina is an Iraq war veteran and served as an Explosive Ordnance Disposal Specialist and Calvary Scout with the 4th ID from 2001 to 2007. He is an active member of the NYU Veterans Writer Workshop and spokesperson for the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA). His work has been featured on Newsweek.com.

STEPS FORWARD, AND BACK |

June 16, 2011

Name: Major Dan
Returned from: Afghanistan
MilblogAfghaniDan

Minaret of the great mosque of Mazar-e-Sharif, Nov 2010.


I've been working on this entry for more than a week, and still struggle with whether or not it's a good use of time and effort to blog about a place and experience that are further removed from my consciousness all the time. It's not that I don't still follow every development that I can out of Afghanistan, and it's certainly not that I'm lighting the web on fire with my pace of "updates" -- it's that I doubt that I can contribute a worthy narrative when I'm not there. So while my search continues for something purposeful on this side of the world, and really the clarity and peace to determine what that something may be, it seems backwards sometimes for me to attempt to revisit the past or even do my best to highlight its present from a vantage point in the States. It may just be my personal frustration, but it keeps me from sharing the trove of photos and stories I still have from this deployment.

Riders enroute to play buzkashi, Nov 2010.


It's been well over a year since I dove into the advisory role that became my life for most of 2010, and the debate in this country is again heating up over the anticipated drawdown of US forces (NATO allies and other Coalition partners each have their own internal pressures centered on the same question, of course). What everyone wants to know from those of us who've served in Afghanistan, it seems from casual conversation, is when the troops will come home, or (still) why we are even there. The cost appears to be mind-boggling, and the effort thankless when indicators are raised that point to failure or stagnancy. For every story of a successful counterinsurgency program in one district, it seems there is another of a worsening security situation -- and target dates for transition and the like seem to be based more on how much time can be squeezed from reluctant politicians, rather than realistic estimates of what it will take to leave a stable, functioning government and nation in our wake.

Residents of a village outside Mazar, Nov 2010.


In particular, the increased rate, audacity and lethality of attacks in the north of the country have many worried. I was personally shocked when I learned that the UN personnel killed in the post-Koran-burning riots of early April were in Mazar-e-Sharif, a city seemingly stable and safe enough to be in the forefront of complete transition to Afghan security and administration. The capital of the northern regions had effectively already been handed over, from what I could tell -- and politically that wasn't too surprising, given that it was the power base of the Northern Alliance, those most amenable to the current Afghan government. Massoud territory, to put it simply. But lately it's not moving in the right direction, as the assassination of police chief Gen. Daud Daud recently demonstrated.


"The Taliban are spreading like wild fire," said an angry Mohammad Jan, who had come from neighbouring Kunduz province.  "Try and take the road from north-eastern Baghlan province to Takhar via Kunduz. You are guaranteed a Taliban ambush."


BBC: Ominous signs for Afghanistan's north

Aftermath of the attack on the UN agency in Mazar.


Another story from last week points to how heavily dependent the Afghan government is upon US, UN and other international funding. While this is an issue apparent to anyone with an understanding of how we are proceeding to achieve stability, there is shockingly little knowledge of (a) how much we actually are collectively spending, (b) how little capacity there is for internally generated net revenue, and (c) how little we know about what plan there is, if any, to significantly change the situation by 2014, the supposed Year of Transition. Usually I try to vary my sources, but few news organizations are covering developments in Afghanistan with the regularity that the BBC is.

BBC: Afghanistan faces 2014 "cash crisis" when troops leave

US foreign aid -- now in "wheat" form!

 

While the conclusion that "misspent foreign aid can result in corruption" is the most hilariously obvious understatement of the decade -- and a mere fact of life in Afghanistan -- the need for "more scrutiny" of contracts is just as obvious and just as evasive, no matter how many Coalition positions are added to do just that. From what I saw at the level of senior advisors to government ministries, there are numerous initiatives around the country to start or re-start profitable enterprise, agriculture and trade...someday. There are very few that likely will fit that profile within three years. The obstacles are just too many. So once again, a note of caution: If you believe that by the big year 2014 that we'll be out of Afghanistan, in terms of troops and serious funding, without a total collapse of every gain we've made,then I've got a Tajik-Afghan Friendship Bridge to sell you. Name your price.

On the good news front, the rapid boost of literacy programs for Afghanistan's security forces is highlighted in this story. One of the lessons learned at NATO Training Mission Afghanistan is just how operationally crucial, how sorely needed, and how beneficial to all of society these programs can be. It's a classic example of what some observers call mission creep, but what others point out as a necessity for mission accomplishment. If you say that transition is the goal, but the forces to which you're transitioning can't count to ten or write down names, then what's the point?

NTM-A: Literacy enhancing ANSF training, professionalism

 

Could the pen actually be mightier than the sword?

OVERHEARD |

June 13, 2011

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

Some notable quotes recently overheard within my sight and hearing:

"Selfish, stupid, and bad luck tend to go together."
Of course, those afflicted with this tend to be blind to the fact. It's usually someone else's fault.

"The world just needs a good apocalypse; preferably something I could survive."
There are always conditions aren't there?

"Politicians don't care about honor or integrity except roll playing them during elections. That kid in high school who joined every dorky club, ran for student council, and sucked up to every teacher, yet treated unpopular kids like they were invisible, didn't just die like we all hoped. They naturally slithered into a profession built on rewarding the ego: politics."
Overheard during the recent political posturing over the budget crisis.

"I pretty much hate them for their indifference to weight standards, customs and courtesies, and general ambivalence towards concepts like discipline."
I have no idea what this is about.

"You can't get into Valhalla with a vasectomy."
Part of a conversation between a Marine I know and his wife. They have five kids. I didn't stick around for the conclusion.

Semper Fi!

GOING TO THE DOGS |

June 10, 2011

Name: Charlie Sherpa
Embedded: with former unit in Afghanistan
Hometown: Boone, Iowa
Milblog: Red Bull Rising
Email: SherpaatRedBullRising.com

 

Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan -- Since July 2010, a 3-year-old yellow Labrador Retriever named Sgt. First Class Timmy, along with U.S. Army handler and occupational therapist Capt. Theresa Schillreff, have reached out a helpful paw and hand to service members struggling with deployment stresses, whether those stem from combat experiences or problems at home.

"It's helping people understand that if I have 'X, Y, and Z' going on in my life, how can I cope with that and make sure that I can do my job, meet our mission, and not be sent home," says Schillreff, a member of 254th Medical Detachment, an active-duty U.S. Army combat-stress unit stationed at Miesau Army Depot, Germany. On Bagram Airfield, the unit's Freedom Restoration Center is a 3- to 5-day program that offers a restorative environment to critically stressed-out soldiers. "We really try to fit them up for success."

While soldiers catch up on sleep, nutrition, and physical fitness, the center also offers classes on anger and stress management, resiliency, positive thinking, and leisure and life skills. Staff includes psychiatrists, psychologists, occupational therapists, chaplains, social workers, and nurse practitioners. Service members from all military branches may be referred to the center by a healthcare provider or chaplain. They can also self-refer, although only with approval from a commander.

Timmy and 3-year-old Sgt. First Class Apollo, a black Lab, are the only two military therapy dogs in Afghanistan. The first such dogs deployed to Iraq in 2007, Schillreff says. Timmy and Apollo are part of an ongoing study on the effectiveness of dogs in addressing soldier stress downrange.

Under General Order No. 1, soldiers stationed on Combat Outposts ("COP") or Forward Operating Bases ("FOB") are not allowed to maintain "morale dogs" or mascots. That doesn't always stop soldiers from adopting animals as pets, however, which places those soldiers at risk of disease and injury. "My personal opinion on it is that we seek out affection and comfort, and that's something that dogs can do for us," says Schillreff. "We're trying to use it in a therapeutic way. Having the dogs with the combat-stress teams, you can still have that morale boost, but you have a dog who is well-trained, and who doesn't come with the risks of these wild animals."

Timmy wears either a Universal Camouflage Pattern (U.C.P.) uniform while on duty, or a similarly colored bandana during hot summer months. In addition to long walks and playing fetch, the calm and steadfast canine has made a hobby of collecting the uniform patches of those soldiers with whom he has visited. His collection includes the distinctive emblem of the Iowa Army National Guard's 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division (2-34th BCT), scheduled to return to the United States later this summer.

Timmy has been trained to be approachable and non-aggressive, Schillreff says. The dog was donated to the U.S. Army by America's Vet Dogs, an affiliate organization to the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind, Inc., Smithtown, New York. According to the organization's website, military therapy dogs placed in combat-stress clinics provide a supportive, non-judgmental presence to service members during interactions with healthcare providers. "The dogs' handlers have reported that soldiers have talked longer, and more meaningfully, to mental health professionals when the dogs were present."

While considered a service dog, Timmy's role as a therapy or emotional support dog differs from that of a "Red Bull" litter of psychiatric service dogs currently being trained by Paws & Effect, a Des Moines, Iowa-based non-profit.

"Timmy fits in to our mission in a lot of different ways," says Schillreff. "For the Freedom Restoration Center, he is here when we do our one-on-one interviews with service members. He is available during leisure time, to play. We sometimes have him in our classes with us, so there can be some interaction there as well. Just petting a dog helps lower your heart rate, which reduces stress. He can provide comfort to people just by laying at their feet ..."

"Our other mission with Timmy is with outreach and prevention. We do what we call 'walkabouts'--we take the dog for a walk. [...] We just go around and let people pet him and play with him. It's kind of a morale boost--he provides a comfort of home that people don't otherwise get--but he also gives us an 'in.' He opens doors."

Timmy's rank is something of a military tradition -- the animal normally outranks the handler. It's unusual for an officer to be lucky enough to be tasked as dog-handler, says Schillreff. Still, Timmy is unlikely to promote to major prior to Schillreff's return to Germany in July. Timmy has one more year on his 2-year deployment to Afghanistan. "I have never actually owned a dog before ..." she says. "I think I've had one of the best deployment jobs ever."

As part of his duties, Timmy occasionally attends memorial services, and mission debriefings after convoys have experienced significant injuries. At such times, Timmy serves as an easy-to-recognize, easy-to-approach reminder of available behavioral health resources. "Going out regularly helps us become familiar with units, so that when they do have hard times--a significant injury or death--they can call me up," says Schillreff. "Then we go out, and provide comfort and support."

"People stop by all the time to visit him, media included," says Schillreff. "That's the nice thing about him. He doesn't discriminate. He doesn't care who you are or what your rank is. When he puts on his uniform, it says, 'I'm doing my job. I'm here for you.'"

GUNS AND CHAPSTICK |

June 08, 2011

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

Tim O’Brien wrote a book titled The Things They Carried.  It’s a revealing look at what soldiers in Viet Nam carried throughout the war, and what those things said about their personalities, opinions, and expectations of a year in combat. O’Brien’s book speaks to the fact that soldiers are indeed master packrats focused on survival through the effective utilization of the knickknacks and accoutrements of war. But physical items are not the only thing soldiers pick up and carry along the way.War is also a supplier of emotional experiences, and soldiers must shoulder the weight of this mental baggage that they carry on the inside. 

Most of the physical items we carry are owned by the government, like body armor and weapons and helmets. These are unceremoniously returned to Uncle Sam as we out-process from  military service. 
But the emotional baggage is ours to keep, and stays with us as we transition back to civilian life. These memories are packed deep inside our own private museum of war experiences. Sometimes the outside world gets a peek at these painful artifacts when they rise close to the surface, manifested by bouts of depression, fits of rage, and tears of remorse and guilt.

I’m like most combat veterans in that I keep my handful of secrets private out of fear that they may alienate me from my social circles. If I was to line up my friends and family, and tell them all my post-war idiosyncrasies, I would likely be the recipient of an impromptu intervention, resulting in me being dragged off to a mental hospital for further evaluation.

A good case in point is the anxiety I still feel today,  three years since leaving Afghanistan, of being outside arm's reach of a weapon. This fear of an impending enemy attack is something I haven’t admitted publically to, because even I know that it’s an absurd fear that a squad of Taliban may be laying an ambush for me in my suburban middle class neighborhood in upstate New York. To hear me confess this fear of an impending Taliban attack, frankly, sounds crazy.

So given this sense of insecurity, I got home and bought the exact same model of combat shotgun we carried in Afghanistan. The shotgun helped allay my fears at home, but it wasn’t enough. I still felt vulnerable when I wasn’t around the gun, so I took further action. I purchased an M4 carbine rifle, complete with a combat reflex red dot site, just like the one we had over there. And to finish off my trifecta of re-armament, an M9 pistol, identical to the one that never left my side for a year of duty in Afghanistan.

For over a year, I illegally carried the concealed pistol on my person, or kept it handy in my work truck.  Eventually I sobered up to the criminal ramifications of such a foolish action, and got the proper permit to carry the gun legally.  The combat shotgun was stuffed under my bed’s mattress in case the Taliban attacked at night. And the M4 carbine rifle, complete with its combat reflex red dot site, is positioned at the ready in my office.

No one, not even my wife, knew that I had woven this three-part security blanket of weapons to cover me from home to work, and all points in between. No one knew, that is, until a couple months ago when I was speaking to a group of young student veterans and their faculty advisors at a local college.  One college student, who was an Iraq war veteran, was confessing that he felt alienated and vulnerable being back home, unarmed and defenseless. In an attempt to show him that he wasn’t alone in this fear, I revealed the secret of my weapons stash.

Right after I said it, I realized I had gone too far and had likely just scrared my audience of students and professors. I expected the friendly crowd to lean back in their chairs and nervously eyeball their shortest path to the exit door.

Instead, my awkward confession triggered a response from others with similar confessions. One student stood up, reached behind his back, and pulled out a large hunting knife that he had been carrying concealed on his waist. He said that the day the Uncle Sam made him turn in his M16, he began carrying this knife. Not a day had gone by since he returned from war that he didn’t carry that knife for a sense of security.

Then on the other side of the room, a professor spoke: “I’ve never told anyone this story in my life." He reached into his pocket and pulled out a tube of chapstick. He held it high above his head for all to see. His began his confession on the day he left his job as a police officer and he had to turn in his pistol that he had carried daily for years. Stripped of his firearm, he moved to carrying a concealed knife with him everywhere he went. After a couple years of carrying this knife, he mustered up the courage to transition to his lethal tube of chapstick. The small tube was a regular part of his daily wardrobe. On days when he forgot it, he would turn the car around and drive back home to get it. It was a security blanket item that he had trained his mind to accept as a protective talisman. It had the power to ward off any threats and danger, all the while providing  the peace of mind that previously he had needed a gun and knife to achieve.

In hindsight, I see how the dialog from this classroom conversation reads just like a chapter from O’Brien’s book. Spontaneous confessions of stories we the warriors never told, out of fear that you the civilians would never understand. The revealing of weapons long hidden under mattresses, concealed under belted waists and jackets, and a chapstick security blanket that soothed an anxious and weathered pysche. All of which were a painful yet cathartic acknowledgment that, in the end, for better or for worse, the things we carried were now carrying us.

 

MAJ Tupper, a longtime contributor to The Sandbox, is the author of Greetings From Afghanistan: Send More Ammo and Dudes of War.

WE APOLOGIZE FOR THE INCONVENIENT |

June 05, 2011

Name: Charlie Sherpa
Embedded: with former unit in Afghanistan
Hometown: Boone, Iowa
Milblog: Red Bull Rising
Email: SherpaatRedBullRising.com

 

The dining facility lunch lady is saying something in sign language to me. She points to the Camelbak I'm wearing, then folds her hands as if in prayer. She repeats the gestures a couple of times, while saying in English: "No backpacks ... please!" The request is routine, but I find the delivery a little unnerving. I begin to suspect that the lunch lady was bothered by something other than my personal hydration system.

Later, I ask the media liaison whether there is indeed a no-backpack rule, and whether it has anything to do with the suicide bomber threat.

"No," he says. "Just part of the protocol."

Like any communal activity, life on a Forward Operating Base (FOB) is chockfull of rules. Some of them are unwritten. Others are posted on nearly every available surface. The no-backpack rule? Turns out it was hidden in plain sight, amongst a shuffle of other notices about meal times, proper footwear, and people selling things they no longer need.

Waiting outside the dining facility prior to an evening meal, I happen upon a flag display. Each previous U.S. Army rotation on this FOB has commissioned a marble placard with the unit's emblem, and the name of its commander and command sergeant major. The unit markers are arranged beneath flag pole. Because it offers a quick summary of those units who had come before, I take some snapshots of the display.

Suddenly, a first sergeant appears. We'd worked together for a couple of years while I was in uniform, and he has a familiar smirk on his face. He asks, "What are you taking pictures of?" I point at the display.

"Base Ops just called about some guy who was taking pictures and measuring out distances to the dining facility," he tells me. (There's a big camera in the sky that Big Brother Base Ops uses to keep tabs on things.) I roll my eyes. "Hey," he says, "at least they're paying attention."

Here's a selection of signs posted on various FOBs here in Afghanistan. Some seem to have lost something in translation, or to be overly specific--particularly given illiteracy rates in these parts:

-- "No dip or urine bottles." If you don't know what these are, don't ask.

-- "Do not defecate in the showers. If there continues to be an issue with defecating in the showers they will be closed." Note: This sign appears in both English and local languages.

-- "No dumping, washing, rinsing of coffee, tea, etc.--and pick up your cigarette butts!" This sign is posted on a tree.

-- "If you hear 'Rampage' or 'Alamo' over the loudspeakers--STAY PUT! We will come get you." If they say "Oxenfree," you apparently have to find them.

-- "Afghan Style Toilet." Note: This sign appears in English only. Which may explain why, on one particular day, the floor of my 'U.S. Style Toilet' is so ... messy.

-- "Military personnel are authorized two (2) take-out Clam Shell Trays. NO CIVILIAN is authorized take-out meals." Given the way it's capitalized, I'm pretty sure some military person really wanted to make "Clam Shell Trays" an acronym.

-- "Disinfected water. Not for drinking."

-- "IAW ["In Accordance With"] Ventcom Circular 40-1 and with the approval of CENTCOM, all shell eggs must be cooked thoroughly. Food service personnel are not allowed to cook or serve "over-easy," "over-medium," "over-light," or "sunny-side up" eggs. Eggs will be cooked or served "scrambled," "fried-hard," or as an "omelet" only." What's with all the underlines?

-- "Bottom line: Be alert. Know what sector you are in. Follow your unit's plan. Stay alive!!!!" Four exclamation points? They must be serious!!!!

-- "Machine out of order. We apologize for the inconvenient."

THE THINGS I CARRIED |

June 02, 2011

Name: Charlie Sherpa
Embedded: with former unit in Afghanistan
Hometown: Boone, Iowa
Milblog: Red Bull Rising
Email: SherpaatRedBullRising.com

With apologies and acknowledgements to the bound-for-Walden-Pond Henry David Thoreau and the bound-for-Vietnam Tim O'Brien, here's a partial laundry list of my potential laundry downrange:

Things I Packed for the Trip:

  • 3 pairs of antimicrobial underwear.
  • 3 pairs of antimicrobial socks.
  • 1 inflatable travel pillow.
  • 3 long-sleeved shirts.
  • 1 short-sleeved shirt.
  • 2 pairs of desert-tan cargo pants.
  • 1 pair of stone-colored convertible pants. (At least once during the trip, I plan to walk around Afghanistan wearing shorts, and loudly yell "I am not wearing pants!" We'll see how many sergeants major come running.)
  • 1 pair combat sandals.
  • 1 pair hiking boots.
  • My "go-to-war" laptop computer.
  • My six-shooter coffee cup, with dry-powdered reloads.

*****

Things I Did NOT Pack:

  • Anything made of cotton. I miss the feel of it already.

  • My "deployment copy" of Henry V. While it's once more into the breach for me, this time I opted to replace my usual hip-pocket inspirational with some military-themed science fiction. I used to read a lot of David Drake ("Hammer's Slammers") and Orson Scott Card ("Ender's Game"). I figured that a couple of mass-market science-fiction paperbacks would: (a) fit into a cargo pocket; (b) provide easy distraction from half-day layovers in foreign airports; and (c) avoid barracks discussions about how much Shakespeare does or does not suck. Besides, I got suckered in by this John Scalzi title: "Old Man's War." Don't know why.

  • My Kevlar helmet and vest. When I still worked at the Magazine Factory, my fellow workaday editors and I were appalled to hear about upper-crust editors-in-chief who sent their luggage via overnight delivery, rather than be hassled by carrying-on or checking-in. Schlepping a gym bag full of heavy-but-still-breakable bulletproof plates on my way to Fort Irwin, Calif. last fall, however, convinced me to send my gear on ahead, courtesy of U.S. Postal Service. As a bonus, now I don't have to worry about them being "confiscated" along the way.

*****

Things I will do while overseas:

  • Embed as civilian media to cover the current deployment of the Iowa National Guard's 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division.
  • Attempt to post occasional reports to the Red Bull Rising blog.

*****

Things I Promised Household-6 I would NOT do while overseas:

  • Take any unnecessary chances.
  • Grow a moustache.


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