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.

ONE MORE SALUTE |

July 25, 2011

Name: C.J. Grisham
Returned from: Iraq
Milblog: A Soldier's Perspective

Framed CJ ONE MORE SALUTE Back in September 2008, we , interviewed author Jim Sheeler about his book Final Salute: A Story of Unfinished Lives on the You Served Radio Show. Sheeler wrote the book about Army Major Steve Beck, who served as a casualty assistance officer (CAO). It's a job I don't think I ever want, but many Soldiers actually sign up for the honor to support the families of fallen heroes. It's a very emotional and time-consuming job and I can't think of a job any more honorable.

This week, I was able to at least take a peek behind what these CAOs do as I had the privilege to escort SGT Charles L. Simmons to his final resting place. I worked closely with the CAO to ensure that everything was done according to the family's wishes. But this blog post isn't about me or SGT Simmons. It's about all the people that do so much for our troops behind the scenes to make sure that their final salutes are coordinated and that they receive the honors they truly deserve for their service.

I'll start with the Casualty Assistance Office since they were the first place I went after volunteering to serve as SGT Simmons' escort. I can't express how proud I am of the people whose responsibility it is to ensure that every aspect of caring for our fallen and their families is managed in a respectful, honorable way. Once they receive notification of a death, a tasking is sent out to a unit to assign a CAO. Units are tasked on a rotating basis.

I was immediately impressed at the level of knowledge that every person I spoke to had about the entitlements, procedures, funerals, and literally every aspect of seeing to the affairs of a deceased Soldier or family member. The case manager sat me down and briefed me on my responsibilities as the escort. I was instructed about all the aspects of serving as escort to the body: travel, movement of the casket or urn, placement of the flag, uniform setup, etc. And since my memory sucks, they provided me with a nifty booklet to read with all the information on which she had just briefed me, including all the necessary regulations.

A lot of preparation goes into getting a fallen Soldier ready for military ceremony. Besides the normal funeral home stuff, the Army purchases a brand new uniform in which the Soldier will be buried. It is adorned with brand new ribbons, medals, rank, etc. Once the body is dressed and ready for shipment, I come in. It is my job to double and triple check the Soldier and his uniform. I'm also supposed to ensure that the Soldier himself is presentable and dignified.

Once everything has been checked, we very carefully seal and load the casket into the hearse. At this point, a brand new, perfectly ironed flag is placed on the casket for the first time and won't be removed until it is folded and presented to the next of kin. Everyone from the funeral director to the driver is so extremely loving, and devoted to ensuring that everything is perfect with these troops. Unfortunately, they have a lot of practice near bases like Ft. Hood, from which Soldiers are constantly deployed. The escort rides in the hearse to the funeral home where the viewing or other ceremony will take place. I was really impressed with the care taken by the drivers and staff at each location. They don't drive too fast and every movement is deliberate and smooth.

At the funeral home, everyone takes extra special care during movement of the casket so that all the final details are correct. I perform another inspection of the body and casket to ensure that nothing happened during transportation. As with anything military, there is paperwork that is completed at this stage.

By this time, the Soldier's unit has usually conducted a formal memorial for the Soldier's battle buddies and other unit members. I was also impressed by the level of detail and care that goes into every memorial. Unfortunately, in less than a month, our rear detachment is already a pro at these -- having had to hold two of them already. The command team and staff see to every detail, from placement of the firing team to music to speeches and ceremonial orders. Everyone was very involved in ensuring that the memorial was as perfect as possible. The behind the scenes planning was draining, meticulous, and engaging. Everyone did their part, and when someone hit a roadblock, someone else stepped up to try and fix the problem.

The Army really does care about its fallen. Sometimes, the bureaucratic red tape may slow some things down or miss others completely, but the individual Soldiers -- from the troops to the commands -- really do everything possible to ensure that the family is taken care of and that these leaders are available to them any time. The rifle team was extremely professional and understood the sacred nature of their duty. The ushers gently led grieving friends and family to their seats and positions. I was honestly impressed and humbled by their actions.

It is the escort's job to be present with the fallen any time someone will have access to them. That includes any movement, viewing, or modifications to the casket, uniform or body itself. This week entailed a number of ceremonies, including a viewing, Catholic rosary reading, funeral, and interment. It was an honor to be with SGT Simmons and ensure that he was never alone. Even though temperatures rose above 100 degrees and details were authorized to downgrade to Class B uniform, we didn't feel right doing so and remained in Class A's. We thought that it was more respectful to our brother in arms, and our temporary discomfort was worth showing him proper honors. And let me tell you –- it was hot. I think I sweated all the way through my coat!

The employees at the Central Texas Veterans Cemetery seemed to fully understand the weight of their responsibilities also. As we drove past a group of grounds keepers they ceased what they were doing, removed their headgear, and placed their hands over their hearts until we were well past them. They were busy preparing the ground in which SGT Simmons would be placed. The funeral home personnel also brought a couple coolers full of iced bottles of water for those gathered to pay respects to SGT Simmons.

I think the hardest part of the entire week watching the family struggle to deal with their loss. As the escort, I'm really supposed to keep my contact with the family at a minimum. So many times, I just wanted to go up and embrace his wife and kids and try to reassure them, but it wasn't my place. His daughter was only about 10 years old, similar to my youngest daughter. She seemed to take it the hardest and there was nothing I could do to ease her pain and suffering, though at one point I did get an opportunity to explain the meaning of the challenge coins that had been left for him by members of the command at the unit memorial. Because our Deputy Commanding General is Canadian, he has a unique coin that I explained to her. SGT Simmons' son is about 14 or 15. I could sense the weight he must feel upon his shoulders as he struggled to maintain his composure and prevent others from seeing him cry. Again, I wanted to reassure him it was okay to cry, but knew my place. It just broke my heart and I couldn't help but think of my kids were something to happen to me. Other than that brief explanation, my contact was minimal.

If you really want to know more about what goes into taking care of the families of our fallen, I strongly urge you to get a copy of Final Salute. It was my honor to render one more salute to a fallen comrade and end a week totally devoted to SGT Simmons' final hours in our presence. It's an honor to be a member of an organization that works so hard and so tirelessly for its fallen.

GOOD THINGS WILL HAPPEN |

July 21, 2011

Name: Joe Roos
Returned from: Iraq
Hometown: Worthington, Minnesota
Milblog: Just Glad to Be Here 

You should always be gracious. You should always work hard and be kind to people. If you do that, good things will happen.

It's easy to be gracious when people are treating you kindly. When you are kind and working hard, it is easy for them to treat you kindly.

I went to Anaheim, California in September, and I got treated so kindly you wouldn't believe it. But to be honest, I was being treated kindly as an aftereffect of a previous time when I had been treated kindly and given the opportunity to work hard.

I've been listening to the audio book Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell, and he talks about being given the opportunity to work. Sometimes, people don't even get an opportunity to work hard, and don't get an understanding that hard work pays off. Not only was I given the opportunity, but I had people treating me kindly the whole way, giving me opportunities so that I could see the payoff of hard work.

When I was in Iraq, my boss gave me an opportunity to do work. My boss, Lt. Col. Kevin Olson, is someone who I hold in the highest regard for a lot of reasons. One of them is that he's a guy who finds ways for his subordinates to grow, and create their own products -- shape their own destiny, if you will. In my case, my passion was obviously music. So I made this song about being a Soldier, and he created the environment where we could produce a music video.

You have to understand that "creating an environment" involves a lot of different elements. You can't just say "Create an environment." There's a lot more to it than that when we're talking about making an entire music video in Iraq.

-- There has to be equipment that, for a time anyway, is dedicated to the production.
-- There has to be a group of people that, for a time anyway, is dedicated to the production.
-- There has to be an information environment created to receive the video the way it did.
-- There has to be top-down support for the project.

And I got all of that.

-- We were able to shoot the video and edit it with top-of-the-line equipment and software.
-- The videographer I worked with, Johnny J. Angelo, is incredible. His level of skill and knowledge is immense.
-- There was news disseminated about the Red Bulls' operations in Iraq for an entire year to build the information environment before the video was released.
-- Everyone at every level of command was aware and supportive of the project.

Lt. Col. Olson created the environment. I just got an opportunity to work in it.

Fast forward to September 2010. Lt. Col Trancey Williams, another Minnesota National Guard Officer who I hold in the highest regard, submitted the video for an award.

This is a process in itself. The amount of specifically formatted documentation for a military award is daunting. Not just the sheer amount, but all the formatting that has to take place (every bullet point has to be worded in such a way that passes military scrutiny). And Lt. Col. Williams managed that for the submission of this award. He created the environment. I was just recipient of kindness.

People don't have to do this kind of thing. No one has to submit something for an award, and I assure you this particular submission was done of Lt. Col. Williams' own accord -- not because anyone was leaning on him for their own priorities. He submitted the work I did for an award because he was being kind.

In this case, his kindness came in the form of the painstakingly detailed work that goes into submitting a piece for an award. The benefit that I received from the fruit of that labor was incredible.

They flew me to Anaheim for the presentation of the 2009 National Guard Bureau Equal Opportunity Advisor of the Year Award, which is given out at the National Guard Bureau Equal Opportunity Conference. This year's conference was hosted by the California National Guard -- hence Anaheim.

And you wouldn't believe how well I was treated. Everyone treated me, the whole time, so incredibly kindly. They flew me to Anaheim and put me in a hotel room about four blocks from Disneyland. They let my family come with me to award ceremony (which is at a very formal military, Class A, dinner in the hotel) and treated my family with such openness. The Adjutant General of Minnesota even came to our table to chum it up.

I know I'm supposed to talk about sacrifice that it takes to deploy to Iraq, and the hard work that it takes to earn an award so prestigious as the National Guard Bureau's 2009 Equal Opportunity Advisor of the Year. But I can't. I'm just the beneficiary. It's almost as though I "Forrest Gump"ed my way through the whole thing.

I did something I love: I made hip hop. I did it about something I loved: Being a Soldier. And it was almost as though everyone else around me just created the path for me to do it. And once it was done, everyone created a path for me to be recognized.

And the entire way, even when I was working to create the element of it that I controlled, I was still the beneficiary.

I know the award is supposed to be because of the work I did to make the video, but I can't stress enough how much I am just a fellow who sauntered through the wide open doors. I can't stress enough how much I'm just the guy who was doing something he enjoyed. I can't stress enough how much I am nothing more than the beneficiary of the hard work of other people who created an environment for me to be nothing more than myself.

My hat is off to Lt. Col. Kevin Olson, Lt. Col. Trancey Williams, and Sgt. Johnny J. Angelo. In regard to this video that was put together and the accolades that have come from it, you are my benefactors.

 

Editor's note: You can sample/order Joe Roos's music here.

THE NIGHT BEFORE THE BATTLE |

July 19, 2011

Name: Garrett Phillip Anderson
Returned from: Iraq and Afghanistan
Hometown: Portland, OR
Email: GarrettAnderson0311@gmail.com
Milblog: Iraq/Afghanistan and More

I was tapping at the plastic keys of a guitar video game controller to The Beatles earlier tonight. I had a flashback and my hair stood on end, but I kept pressing the keys in a zombie trance. The music was from another generation and I was nineteen and stretched out on an olive drab cot with my hands behind my head while I listened to a Beatles anthology. My rifle was loaded and propped on the cot near my head. My body armor with its hand grenades was draped over my helmet next to the rifle. The battle was less than twenty-four hours away and I could feel a churning in my stomach and I understood that things were about to change, that my life would be different in twenty-four hours. The volume was set at maximum, my only escape from the moment.

I escaped to a place that was my own; I ran through my mind at full speed and knew that the place I traveled to was different than where the other Marines lying on cots were going. The CD player had been a gift from my mother when I was in high school. I used to have to take the public bus home after school, but sometimes I would spend my bus money on french fries and walk the two miles back to my house. The CD player would sing my soundtrack and I would look at the orange groves and the light the sun was casting, silhouetting their perfect columns and files and I would inhale the southern California sea air. I knew I was young and was excited about growing up. My backpack was always weighed down with the books I never read and a folder with assignments I never completed. On the face of the CD player I had ripped up and rearranged a sticker that once read “Skate Street" changing it to “Eat Trees."

The artillery pieces were positioned a few hundred feet from where I rested. They cracked off all night, killing people miles away. The room would shake and there was not enough volume in the world to drown out that racket. As I listened to my Beatles CD I could hear something that spoke to the core of my soul. It would be impossible to explain the feeling unless you have ever taken LSD. I could hear every note and the gravity of these notes moved me, and when I heard the lyrics I understood that what the Beatles had captured was youth, and my heart broke into a million pieces and came back together and I wondered what was waiting on the other side of the barbed wire. The artillery pumped rounds into the city, killing people miles away, and I listened to the Beatles. That was the last night that every member of my platoon slept in the same area alive. I hoped to the music that we would be spared, that I would be spared.

CHASING THE RED BULL |

July 13, 2011

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

Framed Charlie Sherpa CHASING Last month, I went to Afghanistan to visit my former unit in Afghanistan. Not as a citizen-soldier, but as a citizen-journalist. I embedded as civilian media, with an eye toward writing a larger history of the Red Bull. (I prefer the singular, because that's the 34th Infantry Division's official nickname.)

Having trained for the deployment myself, I thought I knew what to expect. Turns out, I was in for multiple surprises.

Granted, I was already a Red Bull fan when I landed in Afghanistan. And -- journalism and philosophy students take note of this thesis -- the embed process itself skews the reportorial view toward the perspective of U.S. soldiers, rather than Afghan power brokers, or the people they allegedly represent.

That said, here's a sampling of what I witnessed:

-- In Parwan Province, I talked to a platoon of young men that had spent more than 4 hours defending against a complex attack focused on a downed U.S. Army helicopter. After just completing a long night of patrolling by ground vehicle, they responded as a helicopter-borne Quick Reaction Force to Kapisa, a nearby province. Upon landing, they found themselves pinned down, but drawing fire away from Air Force rescue teams. Staff Sgt. James A. Justice was killed during that firefight. Some of the guys shared their stories with me, not because they were boastful or proud--although they have every reason to be--but because they wanted to remember Justice, and the sacrifice he and his family made. They also wanted to celebrate Spc. Zachary Durham, who was injured after deliberately exposing himself to fire while seeking out enemy fighting positions.

-- In Parwan, I saw other Cavalry troopers working to defeat the local network of insurgents that threatens Bagram Airfield ("BAF"). Attacks are down. Morale and motivation are up. They're still seeking out the bad guys around Bagram. 'Nuff said.

-- In Laghman Province, I saw Iowans engaged with a deadly enemy now often unwilling to show their faces in direct attacks. Iowa soldiers there routinely face machine gun and mortar attack, as well as Improvised Explosive Devices (I.E.D.). At the same time, they partner with their Afghan army and police counterparts, U.S. Air Force-led Provincial Reconstruction Teams (P.R.T.), and joint U.S. Air and Army National Guard Agribusiness Development Teams (A.D.T.). The latter specialty are comprised of citizen-soldiers and -airmen deployed as much for their farming-related talents as for their soldier skills. It is a unique mission to the U.S. National Guard. Together, these teams quickly flooded a newly created government district with development projects, after Task Force Red Bulls completed "Operation Bull Whip," the largest helicopter-borne "air assault" in Afghanistan in recent memory.

-- In mountainous but relatively peaceful Panjshir Province, I attended a conference in which local and national officials engaged with adventure-tourism experts and investors. The hard but beautiful land may soon appeal to weekenders from Kabul, which is only 2 hours away by car. Some experts thought the area nearly ripe for international tours focused on climbing, caving, hiking, and even kayaking. Panjshir is a vision for what other Afghan provinces might also one day be.

That's great stuff, but the Red Bull ain't done yet.

These Red Bull soldiers -- as well as those in Paktiya and Kabul -- have achieved plenty and sacrificed much. There's a National Guard saying that "deployment doesn't end with a homecoming parade." After they return from Afghanistan, many of our citizen-soldiers will be challenged to successfully reintegrate with their families and friends, to find employment (more than 21 percent of the deployed Iowa soldiers indicate they will not have civilian jobs waiting for them), and to overcome physical, emotional and mental obstacles stemming from their service.

We should give these modern Minutemen more than our momentary notice. They have answered our country's call, and we should stand ready to hear theirs. Their stories, too.

"Attack!"

SOME THINGS I LEARNED IN COMBAT |

July 11, 2011

Name: Garrett Phillip Anderson
Returned from: Iraq and Afghanistan
Hometown: Portland, OR
Email: GarrettAnderson0311@gmail.com
Milblog: Iraq/Afghanistan and More

 

False motivation is still motivation!

If Gunny says, "Don't do it," someone will.

An empty house is a safe house.

Never piss off your Corpsman.

Night-vision goggles require light to operate.

If you don't know where you are, the enemy does.

The extension will come as soon as you pack your gear.

"Help!" is not a proper situation report.

Never trust a radio operator.

"Errr..." is the proper response to everything.

Many dependent wives are not dependable.

The site count is never up.

Interpreters do not speak English.

Dear John letters are good for morale when read out loud.

The MRE beef tastes like the MRE chicken; neither are beef or chicken.

If you follow the instructions you can heat an MRE by leaning the cardboard pouch on "a rock or something."

A rat-fuck is good if you’re pulling one; a goat-fuck is bad if you’re in one.

If it requires batteries to operate, it’s already broken.

If you don’t know what it is, set it on fire.

Foreign troops will always pull the trigger to test the safety.

The only thing you weren't forced to do was sign the contract.

Combat is not a videogame!

You cannot accurately hip-fire an M-203 grenade launcher.

There are no respawns in combat.

Auto aim is off.

Friendly fire is on.

 

BIG CHANGES AFOOT |

July 06, 2011

Name: Major Dan
Returned from: Afghanistan
MilblogAfghaniDan

 "There will be some battles, there will be suicide attacks, and bomb attacks. But we in the Afghan forces are prepared to replace the foreign forces and I'm confident the army has enough capacity and ability."
-- Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi, on the coming transition period.


Framed AfghaniDan CHANGES 1

Reuters, 6-29-2011: Smoke billows from the Intercontinental Hotel

Within one week of that statement by my dear colleague Gen. Azimi, Spokesman for Afghanistan's Ministry of Defense, came the latest test of that resolve -- an assault on Kabul's iconic Intercontinental Hotel. The Los Angeles Times story linked below provides details, most troubling of which may be the accounts by witnesses of some police fleeing the scene rather than fighting the insurgents. As always, I caution those trying to understand the security situation there to separate army from police, a practice made all the more difficult by the insistence of the training command responsible for their collective development to lump them together into a vague "Afghan National Security Force" category. As we often pointed out in my office, we are not the "Armed Force" of the United States, and that doesn't even take into account law enforcement -- so why we foist a strange term on their makeup of security forces is beyond me.

AFGHAN TALIBAN SENDS MESSAGE WITH HOTEL ATTACK (Los Angeles Times)

Framed AfghaniDan CHANGES 2

More significant than the most recent attack, though, is the drastic change in war -- er, counterterrorism -- policy just announced by our administration in the US. If the early speculation is correct, it amounts to a complete and total re-imagining of how we plan to combat our sworn enemies in the not-too-distant future. My initial reaction is that limiting our effort, at least in Afghanistan, to strikes of a "targeted, surgical" nature appeals to most of the American public (at least those aware that we are at war) who are weary of a long conflict and its costs and sacrifice, and to a largely risk-averse leadership anxious to see fewer Americans return in coffins. My concern, however, is that abandoning an approach of more carrot than stick will greatly fray the trust between coalition members and the Afghans -- the very trust desperately needed to obtain intelligence that will deliver "enemies of Afghanistan" to justice, rather than settle old feuds between families or tribes. The fewer boots we have on the ground (both military and civilian), the harder it is to tell when we are being played by one side or another.


WHITE HOUSE UNVEILS RETOOLED PLAN TO HUNT AL-QAIDA (Miami Herald)

Framed AfghaniDan CHANGES 3

I'll say it a million times if I have to: Beyond a core group which mainly hides safely in Pakistan, the Taliban today is not one cohesive entity, as it's often thought of and may once have been. It's often a moniker of convenience, more akin to a collective term for an array of those who have an interest in bringing down the Afghan government or taking over regional control, whether it's fundamentalists in the South, arms dealers on the Pakistan border in the East, Uzbek separatists in the Northwest, or any other insurgent group. It takes a great deal of conversation on the ground by many participants, leading to long relationships built among the community's influencers, to sort out who is who and what the various agendas really are. While this report focuses on al Qaeda, its implementation in Afghanistan specifically may mean what many of us someday expected; a pullback from nation-building and a reborn reliance upon "light-footprint" death from above.

The big lurking question is, again, how ready are the Afghan military and police forces for vastly increased responsibility?  The answer, I'm afraid, is not very. As I observed back in 2006, it will take generations of effort to stand a chance of leaving a nation capable of fending off takeovers from within and from its often-nefarious neighbors. Abandoning that, while perhaps necessary from our national self-interest, will most likely have dire consequences for its survivability and the protection of its women and minorities -- and that should at least be acknowledged by those making the decisions.

Framed AfghaniDan CHANGES 4

NCO graduation ceremony, Camp Ghazi: October 2010.

Another point worth mentioning is that Transition is so much more than just training forces to ably fight the enemy. It is everything imaginable, from introducing basic hygienic practices to the slaughterhouses which feed the army to teaching handyman maintenance to unskilled workers. It is rudimentary literacy training (as often detailed), not to mention administration, communication, logistics, etc. The list goes on. A recent story from NTM-A highlights how early in that process we still are:

COALITION PLANS FIRST BUILDING TRANSITION TO AFGHANS


Framed AfghaniDan CHANGES 5

That must be the clearest day ever in dusty Kandahar.

On an entirely different subject, this week marks my younger brother's deployment to the Middle East as a 2nd Lt in the Army, and I couldn't be prouder of Steve. He's mature beyond his age, and he'll need it as a platoon leader taking on various training missions in a few different countries. It's a strange feeling being on the other end of a deployment in the family for the first time in many years. It's not me off to parts unknown, it's the kid who arrived when I was beginning high school! If he manages to blog on his experiences, I'll certainly link to it. He's in for an interesting adventure over the next year.

Framed AfghaniDan CHANGES 6

January 2011 -- Year of transition for our family, too.

Last year at this time, I wrote of how I better be doing something special for the Summer Solstice, and visiting him during his last days before leaving Fort Lewis was exactly that. In fact, we caught the legendary Solstice Parade in Seattle's Fremont neighborhood, and then ushered in the longest day of the year with in Olympia (WA) with my good friend from NTM-A, Chief Gordon. There are worse ways to greet the Summer than catching up with an outstanding leader over delicious craft brews and standout bluegrass music while wishing my brother a safe and successful deployment. As our dad is fond of saying, Vaya con Dios, hermano!

Framed AfghaniDan CHANGES 7

Crusty major & fresh-faced lieutenant -- Seattle, June 2011.

 

Framed AfghaniDan CHANGES 8

Good times in the Pacific NW with Chief Gordon.


Framed AfghaniDan CHANGES 9

April 2011: Reuniting with my director Dave Beeksma in LA.
The highly inappropriate backdrop for two Afghan hands was my idea.


Framed AfghaniDan CHANGES 10

Just because...



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