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.

THE TRUTH OF THE MATTER |

August 31, 2011

Name: Erik Wolf
Stationed in: Gardez, Afghanistan
Hometown: Owasso, Oklahoma
Email: erik.wolf@us.army.mil

Framed Erik Wolf PHOTO I've thought for a long time about trying to conjure up words to somehow describe to you how things are over here. My past deployments have always afforded me the opportunity to give positive updates and "upbeat" themes to embrace. This deployment is different. Very much so.

The truth of the matter is that this has proven to be the single most challenging deployment I have ever known. From the time this whole mission started (over 18 months ago) throughout the past 45 days, this has been the most strenuous experience of my life on a great many levels, both personal and professional.

To date, we have lost seven of our finest. All were honorable men, aimed with a common goal; to execute the orders set before them, to accomplish the mission and to protect their fellow soldiers. They gave their lives in the course of this action. While all that sounds very gallant and noble (and it is) I can tell you with all assurance that it doesn't make the loss any easier.

I am an emotional man and not in the least bit ashamed of it. I wear my heart on my sleeve and those who know me, know I cannot feign happiness when I'm swallowed with sadness. For the past several weeks, this has been my proverbial "cross to bear."

I don't pretend to have all the answers about this deployment or the decisions made through each and every mission set before this. We have a saying: "It is what it is." We cannot change it. We cannot leave it. We must simply embrace the harsh reality that this is our situation and we must continue through it, despite the pain it inflicts. We don't have the luxury of sitting back in a comfy sofa and playing "armchair quarterback" with the direction or course of this war. We're stuck right smack-dab in the middle of this stench and we have two choices; breathe the stinky air, or suffocate.

I realize I have painted a rather bleak picture thus far but I must say It's not all bad. We have each other here, and believe me, we rely heavily upon each other to both preserve our lives and our sanity. This place can (and will) drive you hopelessly into despair if you let it. We find comfort in each others' company. I personally am blessed to have an amazing crew. My guys are, in my opinion (and the opinion of many others), some of the best in this Brigade. Through their professional and technical expertise, not only do they make my job immensely less difficult from the mission's standpoint, they each bring a unique character quality and sense of humor that keep things entertaining. Yeah. I've got a good crew. The best.

We pass the time (whatever "free time" there is after an average 16-18 hour day) playing video games, watching TV, working out, hanging out or collectively working on some weird project that only geeks think of. Saying that my guys "tell jokes in Binary" would only be a slight exaggeration.

They're Infantry Signaleers -- communications experts in an Infantry Battalion. They provide digital and tactical communications on the battlefield by any means possible. Which means not only do they ensure that our soldiers can call in to report their status, they ensure they can call for help when needed. They often going out to where the combat troops are, fixing things that aren't supposed to be fixed. They go into harm's way, mounting up with the other soldiers, driving through hostile fire and dodging IEDs just so they can get to a remote location and install a printer on a commander's tactical network.

They work on Satellite terminals, trying to lock in a transmit frequency, only to run for cover as rockets and mortars come raining down. They "man the wire" to defend against attacks, then turn around and go back to fixing and maintaining the network. They are presented with all manner of technical challenges, sometimes under fire, usually with little sleep, some of them without the "luxury" of running water or flushing toilets. Despite these odds, these guys can create digital magic out of a cardboard box, a paper clip and a pop tart. Don't ask me how they do it. Even I am amazed at times. I swear, if I ever hear someone from the Best Buy "Geek Squad" complain about the hassles of making a house call I'm gonna smack them square in the mouth.

I have to say (and I would be utterly remiss if I didn't), the men and women we serve with are amazing. Even in the face of such recent tragedy, these professionals "soldier up" and go back out, day after day. Facing the challenges and deadly environment, these individuals refuse to be beaten. Their resilience is unquestionably the most amazing thing to behold. How can they, after all they've been through, simply put their armor on, grab their weapons and go back out into the fray? Well, it's simple. They have no choice. Not because they've been ordered to, but because their professional commitment to duty and their personal commitment to each other won't allow it any other way.

I'm sure when this whole thing is said and done you will hear a plethora of stories, some good and some bad. Some will question, or even challenge, the reasons and motives behind this mission. Others will support and defend it. But regardless of their individual positions on the matter you'll find one common thread. Not one of them really even considered their own personal beliefs on this war when they mounted up in the trucks to head out the gate. They did it without question because their Brothers and Sisters were getting in the truck with them. And not one of them would let the other go into harm's way without protection -- a "Battle Buddy". It's inspiring. Every time.

On a personal level, I must say that one of my greatest mainstays throughout this whole thing has been my beloved wife, Annie. She has, without a doubt, been the single most faithful supporter and partner I have. Despite her own fears and apprehensions, she looks out for me. She prays for me. She continuously worries for me and yet, despite that constant anguish, stays focused to sustain me in any way she can. Her devotion and love is unquestionable. When one of my most beloved friends, Kirk Owen, was killed in combat, Annie comforted me and, despite her own private horror and fear, went to the funeral to show support and deliver a personal message to Kirk's wife on my behalf. She could have chosen to stay home, but her devotion to me and her unwavering support compelled her to represent our home and to support her fellow sister of the military family.

Annie will be the first to admit that she's not perfect. Who among us is? What amazes me is that, despite my flaws, she still remains forever and devoted. After all the pain my chosen career has caused her, she supports and loves me. She is my hero. I love you Annie.

I'll tell you, the anguish and strain that military wives are forced to endure is beyond comprehension. Especially for the wives of this deployment. People are dying over here. Our people. Our wives don't have the luxury of watching TV, hearing about casualties, and then politely dismissing the news as "unfortunate" or "sad." For them, it is a horror they live with every day and every night. To spend their waking hours in dread, and sleepless nights in fear of that horrifying news that their loved one, their life partner, is gone. Or to hear the news, and for a brevity of a millisecond, be grateful that it isn't their loved one -- only to be immediately plagued with guilt and remorse; for they know that another spouse, one of our military family, is forever shattered. It is an unspeakable and horrible situation that they must face, and embrace, each day. As we here on the front face the war, our spouses and partners are every bit engaged in battle back home. Yet, they still keep our homes in order, still look out for us, impatiently waiting, hoping, praying and longing for that day when we return.

Yet there are those hidden among our "circle of friends" who cannot stop themselves from attacking. Those who have the misguided and twisted mentality that exploiting an imperfect situation somehow elevates their own sense of self-worth. I would submit this to you: Until you have walked the proverbial "mile" in a military spouse's shoes, kindly walk away and go on with your pathetic lives. You obviously have no real interest in ours. We pity you, but we don't need you. We have what matters most to us locked tightly in our hearts.

I have seen a great number of treacherous things -- tragedy, heartbreak, betrayal, death and destruction. Things that constantly pull at my soul and fight for my sanity. Emotional devastation and psychological horror. Yet, through all of this I can still hold my head up. I can still look at the horizon and see hope and continue on.

My Faith in Jesus Christ, my steadfast and loyal teammates of the Unit, and the unwavering support of my Friends and Family give me the strength and focus to see that this "hell" we are living in is merely temporary and, while prominently thrust into the forefront of my life, it is ultimately not the force that defines me.

I'll end on this thought: I honestly don't know how you will receive this message. I started out with every intention of giving you an "update," and yet somehow this message has transcended into a personal reflection and testimonial of sorts. I don't want to leave you with the impression that we (over here) are in helpless despair. We're not. However there are times when it hurts. Times when it simply sucks, and no words can adequately convey the moment.

I once had a Marine Corps Colonel tell me, "You know why they call it war, son? Because 'shit' was already taken." I think he summed it up nicely.

That's all for now my friends. Just needed to get that out. Know that we over here love you over there more than words can say.

 

THE PULL TO RETURN |

August 29, 2011

Name: Major Dan
Returned from: Afghanistan
MilblogAfghaniDan

 

Framed AFGHANIDAN Question 1

Kabul, Jan '11: With a few of the locals.
 
"When someone asks, I realize that I have about 30 seconds to condense years of frustration, painful memories, self-justifications, introspection, conversations with comrades, insecurity, guilt, resentment and humble prayers into an answer that is honest and accessible. Because the moment I open my mouth, interest and comfort begin to wane."

The above is written by Jonathan Raab, a soldier with the New York National Guard, whose post A Soldier Answers the Inevitable Question: 'Why?' is an excellent summation of the motivations behind deploying again back to a place like Afghanistan. I think most of us can relate to the isolation that often accompanies being back in the States, whether in conversation with friends or strangers, or just in that "petty" or "self-absorbed" culture which seems to dominate our daily lives far too often. When it's already tough to feel that you've left the most meaningful work you could be doing, it eats at you.

This question -- "Why would any sane person want to return to risk life and limb in a war that has no clear objective and faltering popular support?" -- is one that I was asked repeatedly when preparing to return. And it is a question that I now ask a friend who's about to go for a very long stretch of time. While we've spoken so much that I already know the answers, I still am blown away by the willingness to fork over the next three years of one's life to a cause that, despite the best efforts of literally hundreds of thousands, is on shaky legs.

There is no easy answer. But we go anyway. And guys like Dave agree to go for years -- and dedicated friends such as John and Pam have already logged years there. Truly incredible people, all of them.

Framed AFGHANIDAN Question 2

So what's the latest on the mission?  The item below is based on an interview just last week with the commanding general of NATO Training Mission Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. Caldwell, the man responsible for standing up, training and equipping Afghan security forces. My thoughts on a few excerpts follow, because I can't help myself.

Afghan Forces Need Help Post-Pullout: Commander

Lieutenant-General William Caldwell indicated that several thousand international trainers could be needed to support the mission until at least 2020 in an interview with AFP.

"I'm very confident that the Afghans can in fact take the lead for security by December 2014 -- there's no question they can do it," Caldwell said.

I'm heartened to see the honesty about what the Afghan government needs from us, at a bare minimum, beginning to emerge. And I would still take any bet against our involvement being done by the end of 2020. As for the all-important "take the lead" by 2014, well... Expect some continued gymnastic semantics in order to demonstrate that a true transfer of security control takes place by then.

Some diplomats and Western officials in Kabul suggest it could be up to 10 years before the Afghan government can afford to fund its own security forces...

He put the figure for this at "maybe 3,000 people, uniform-type people, police and army" plus financial support to help the Afghan government pay for the security forces, possibly for another six years.

These are still incredibly optimistic -- probably completely unrealistic -- estimations, in my opinion. And that of anyone familiar with economics and/or the state of Afghanistan in 2011. But it's the nature of the beast, I suppose. Only in increments does a venture of this scale continue apace.

Framed AFGHANIDAN Questions Caldwell
U.S. Army Lieutenant-General William Caldwell.
(Photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Ernesto Hernandez-Fonte)

Finally, I've got to give a blog shout-out to my Army brother Steve in Kuwait (at the moment, I think -- they bounce around) on the occasion of his birthday this week. He sent a recap of his platoon's recent partnership training in Kazakhstan, which I take the liberty of sharing below. This type of cross-cultural combined multinational training happens a lot more than most Americans realize, but few and far between are those who've carried it out in the world's largest landlocked country!

Ah jaqse, brother. (He tells me that essentially means, "It's all good")...

 

Framed AFGHANIDAN Question 4

2LT Steve with Kazakh colleague Serj, Aug '11.


KAZAKHSTAN TRAINING EXERICISE UPDATE

     2nd Platoon recently received the opportunity to travel to Kazakhstan to take part in the multi-national tactical exercise Steppe Eagle, now in its 9th year. As the Kazakhstan Government celebrates its 20th year of independence, they held their most populous exercise to date, hosting troops from Great Britain, Lithuania, Kyrgyzstan and the United States to help their bid for certification into NATO. Our platoon arrived in the former capital city of Almaty on August 1st, and fell under the oversight of Army Central Command (ARCENT) who controlled all the logistics of the American ground troops, including a National Guard infantry company from Colorado with whom we shared our living space.

     During the first week on ground, 2nd Platoon spent time getting adjusted to new surroundings and temperatures (much cooler than Kuwait!), refining our tactics in preparation for the start of training, and getting to know some of the local Soldiers and cadets that occupied the compound with us. The Opening Ceremony for the training was held on August 8th and included a dazzling concert displaying various cultures of the local people, demonstrating their musical and artistic talents. The following day, our platoon received AK assault rifles with which to go through situational tactical exercises, which we did for three days before beginning the field training portion of the exercise (FTX). The AKs were definitely different (and much louder) than the weapons we are used to firing, but working with them was a unique experience for most every Soldier. During the 3-day FTX, we trained around the clock executing both day and night operations which included guard tower security, vehicle check point, quick reaction force, and patrols every other hour.

      We also got the chance to wear some civilian clothes and get to travel outside the training area on Culture Day. Starting on the morning of August 13th, we rode a bus to Almaty to see the War Memorial; then rode up to the scenic overlook site of Koktobe for lunch; and after visiting the vast marketplace in the city, we had a buffet-style Kazakh dinner and even got to enjoy a couple alcoholic beverages if we so chose too. In addition, right before the Closing Ceremony on the 18th, we enjoyed another “fun day” as the Soldiers broke down into teams and competed in Sports Day against the Kazakhs in soccer, volleyball, track, and tug-of-war among other events.

      Unfortunately we did have multiple cases of a virus-like sickness arise among the Platoon, and overall would have liked a bit more side-by-side interaction with the Kazakh Soldiers (both points were brought to higher command’s attention post-exercise). But we were all thankful for clean latrines, good food (with a lot of help of two of our Platoon’s 92G personnel “cooks”), ample internet access, and the overall experience gained from taking part in such a multilateral exercise. This is definitely something all of 2nd Platoon’s Soldiers will enjoy telling their grandchildren all about some day.


A CHALLENGE |

August 25, 2011

Name: GruntMP
Returned from: Afghanistan 06-07 and Iraq 09
Stationed in: Kuwait
Hometown: Enfield, CT
Email: stefancralph@gmail.com

This deployment seems to be slower, as far as interesting things that occur during my regular day-to-day. And I notice I'm not getting as many responses to the email updates I send to my friends and family as I used to. I've been trying to figure out what might be the reason for the lack of responses, and when I was reading an excerpt from a recent NPR series a lightbulb went off.

I completely understand how busy people are in their daily lives, but I think there's more to it than that. I think that after almost a decade people have become less and less interested in the two battlefields on which our nation is still sending Americans to fight. And I've decided to challenge you to prove me wrong by reading about what's been going on.

Below you will find links to five stories. The first three are from the NPR series. See if you can guess which was the one that triggered this email/post.

The fourth is an interesting snapshot of Americans who are serving, and the fifth one is really well-written piece on the death of Bin Laden. So, there it is -- a challenge has been made. I sincerely hope some of you respond by commenting on one of the pieces. 

Marine: "We're Starting to Fall to the Wayside."

A Teacher Leaves the Classroom for Afghanistan

For Some, The Decision to Enlist Offers Direction

By the Numbers: Today's Military

My Decade of Bin Laden


I hope this email finds you and all of yours happy and in good health.  Be Well. 

 

The Nation that makes a great distinction between its scholars and its
warriors will have its thinking done by cowards and its fighting done by
fools.
                                                                        --Thucydides

IN THE BLINK OF AN EYE |

August 18, 2011

Name: 1SGT (retired) Troy Steward
Returned from: Afghanistan
Milblog: Keeping An Eye on Afghanistan

Twenty-four years ago when a young Bouhammer was running around with his hair on fire, invincible and thinking nothing could hurt him, he had no idea what was in store.

The day in June when my parents took me to the Memphis MEPS station, I remember my mom being all sad and never more than an arm’s reach from a tissue. I could not understand why she was so upset. Hey, I was getting out of the house, and about to tackle the world as a man. I was not going to live with them and go to some community college or work some dead-end job trying to figure out what I wanted to be in life. I was going into the Army destined to be an Airborne Infantryman.

But boy was Mom upset. Dad was pretty melancholy himself. I was excited, ready for the challenge, ready to be my own man, ready to take on the world and be all that I could be. I remember later Mom telling me how she cried all the way home after dropping me off. I don’t remember what I said or what I was thinking but I am sure it was something along the line of “Sheesh mom, you gotta cut the cord sometime."

Now 24 years later…..I get it. I friggen get it!

Last week as my wife and I were getting ready to leave home with our middle son and take him to the Citadel I found myself running around taking care of some errands. I also found myself having (extremely rare) emotional events. The day before we left, while by myself, I would just start crying. I guess it started hitting me. That my little guy was not that “little” guy anymore. He was about to embark on life. He would not be sitting in the living room anymore with his feet on the coffee table and me telling him to take his feet down. He would not be asking to borrow the car anymore. He would not be around to beat us terribly in Scrabble or any other game that his intellect provided him an unfair advantage. He would soon be crossing the sallyport into the Citadel barracks and being refined into more of a leader than he already is.

On Friday, which was his last free day before becoming a cadet, he and my wife and I spent a great day together. We ran around Charleston, SC, getting lots of the last minute things we needed on his packing list. We joked, we ran through a terrible rain-storm together and just generally enjoyed our time. I knew what was coming, I knew how it would be after we dropped him off on Saturday, but for the time being all was well and happy.

On Saturday morning, we spent our last few hours with him for a while. We helped him get moved into his room, and stuff un-packed, we walked around the campus, and even picked up some more last minute items. I was good until the loudspeaker announced that the parents had to leave and that all cadets were to report to their rooms. He turned, hugged his mom, and hugged me. I put a small memento in his hand, something to keep as a motivator, and I hugged him telling him how damn proud I was of him. I could not hold back anymore, the tears started to come. Once mine started, so did his and of course so did Mom’s.

He then turned and moved out quickly, following the orders from the loudspeaker.

It was then that I realized yet again how my parents felt 24 years ago. The pain in my heart and back of my throat was recognizable as I had experienced it before a few years back as we hugged my oldest son goodbye the day before he flew to Afghanistan.

But now I saw it, now I saw myself from the other side. I saw a young man ready to conquer the world, with a superior positive mental attitude (he spent the last few weeks professing the mantra “Failure is not an option”), and probably not sure why were sad. I realized later in the day it was not all tears of sadness, I mean some were because the last 18 years are gone and can never be reclaimed, but also tears of joy and pride.

He will do well in whatever he does, this I know. But boy what I would do to turn back the clock 18 years to that cool April morning as I held him in my arms for the first time amazed at the gift God had given us.

Let me close this by urging all who read this blog post whom have young ones at home to never take that time for granted. Try to soak up and enjoy every single minute that you can. Or else those moments will be gone “in the blink of an eye."

THINGS YOUR 1ST SERGEANT HATES |

August 15, 2011

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

Concerning promotion ceremonies…

The first of the month is always a fine time anywhere in the Marine Corps. Not only do we all get paid (usually), we also get to promote a few deserving Marines in whom we’ve reposed special trust and confidence.

This week we promoted one of our Marines to Sergeant, three to Corporal and one to Private First Class.

Framed AmFirst HATES 1
Cpl. Rehfeldt receives his warrant from the CO.

I normally begin the ceremony by calling the company to attention and have each of the platoons report their accountability: “All present or accounted for!” Then I about face and wait for the Company Commander to march on and take his position in front of me. Here I render the report and he will say: “Take your post!” or simply: “Post!” I then move in to my position to his left rear.

Framed AmFirst HATES 2
"Sir, do you like how I positioned myself to be in the shade while you remain blistered with ultraviolet radiation?"

Framed AmFirst HATES 3

 Next I will order: “Marines to be promoted, CENTER! MARCH!”  They march around from behind the formation and report to the CO.

 

 

  Framed AmFirst HATES 4

 

 Then I read the warrant authorizing the promotion of the Marine.

 

 

 

 

Framed AmFirst HATES 5

 Nowadays, Marines being promoted to an NCO rank or higher are given the privilege of requesting who they would like to pin on their new chevrons. This privilege is supposed to highlight the major step taken from a troop to a small unit leader and NCO. If you don’t think this is a big deal then you haven’t been paying attention. Here two of our Sergeants pin Corporal chevrons on a newly-minted Cpl Beeby.

 


Framed AmFirst HATES 6
Commanding Officer and America's 1stSgt exercise the privilege of promoting Private First Class Carrissosa.

It is at this point where I sometimes tighten my jaws at promotion ceremonies. I have witnessed promotions where those pinning the Marine remove the old rank insignia and disdainfully toss it away. I don’t know where this started but it strikes me as profoundly disrespectful. Tremendous feats of valor have been accomplished by Privates, PFCs and Lance Corporals throughout our history. These are not ranks to be despised.

Back in Kaneohe Bay I had a SSgt toss a Lance Corporal chevron into the grass during a promotion. Immediately following the ceremony the SSgt aided me in combing through the grass to find it. When we were successful I explained there were a lot of good Marines buried in Arlington Cemetery bearing this insignia. It would be ignoble of us to callously cast aside something they bore honorably in combat.  Our mantle is something we pass down to worthy successors not hurl into the dirt to be forgotten.

It hasn’t happened again in my presence, but if it did someone would find themselves subject to a nose to nose counseling from America’s 1stSgt.

Framed AmFirst HATES 7

                                                 Because Marines like this deserve better.

 

Semper Fidelis

NOT-SO-SHAGGY DOG STORIES |

August 11, 2011

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

When I embedded as media with 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division units in central and eastern Afghanistan last May, one day's escort was showing me around one of the larger coalition military bases. The base was big enough to comprise a number of "camps" inside the security perimeter. (Think villages or suburbs inside a larger city.) While I had a pretty long leash, journalistically speaking, a couple of the camps were strictly off-limits. Blank spots on the map, because of the secret-squirrel stuff happening inside.

"That one over there is Special Forces," my handler said, waving as we drove by. "They won't talk to you."

Knowing my growing interest in military therapy and service dogs, he added: "They keep dogs there."

My ears pricked up, and the escort sensed it. "Don't even think about it," he told me. "The dogs are Special Forces, too. They won't talk to you, either."

We laughed to ourselves, and continued on our way.

I was reminded of the conversation while reading this once-around-the-world narrative from the Aug. 8 New Yorker magazine. The article regards the nighttime U.S. helicopter raid into Pakistan May 1, in which a U.S. Navy SEAL (which stands for "SEa, Air, and Land") team killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. According to the article, U.S. President Barack Obama subsequently visited with team members at a May 6 meeting at Fort Campbell, Kent.:

When James, the [Red Squadron, 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment] commander, spoke, he started by citing all the forward operating bases in eastern Afghanistan that had been named for SEALs killed in combat. “Everything we have done for the last ten years prepared us for this,” he told Obama. The President was “in awe of these guys,” Ben Rhodes, the deputy national-security adviser, who travelled with Obama, said. “It was an extraordinary base visit,” he added. “They knew he had staked his Presidency on this. He knew they staked their lives on it.”

As James talked about the raid, he mentioned Cairo’s role. “There was a dog?” Obama interrupted. James nodded and said that Cairo was in an adjoining room, muzzled, at the request of the Secret Service.

“I want to meet that dog,” Obama said.

“If you want to meet the dog, Mr. President, I advise you to bring treats,” James joked. Obama went over to pet Cairo, but the dog’s muzzle was left on.

WHAT HAVE I DONE? |

August 08, 2011

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

Combat duty is a natural part of today’s Army. For nearly ten years, our country has been sending its sons, daughter, brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, moms and dads to hot spots like Iraq and Afghanistan (and Libya?). I deployed initially in 2002 to serve as part of what we hoped would be a convincing reason for Saddam to step down and free his country without violence. Due to an injury sustained during an artillery strike outside As Samawah, I haven’t been back into combat physically since late 2003.

In all honestly, I could have stayed home and remained safe until I retired. I could have easily never seen another day in a combat zone due to that injury. While preparing for this deployment to Afghanistan, I was given a medically non-deployable status during Soldier Readiness Processing (SRP).

I feel like I’ve sat on the sidelines too long, though I couldn’t really help it. After returning from Iraq, I was sent to Operations Group at the National Training Center (NTC) as a Senior Trainer for Civilians on the Battlefield and stood up the Counter-IED Task Force. For the most part, this was a non-deployable position and I had fought hard to stay with the 3rd ID who was deploying again in 2004, to no avail. At the time, the IED play at the NTC was nothing more than a pop and someone telling you that you had just hit an IED. By the time I left, we had created more realistic Behicle-Borne IEDs (VBIEDs), IEDs, and the signatures and sounds that usually accompany them. Back in 2006, I created a video of just some of that training:

Note: This video was cleared through Army Public Affairs and Operations Group leadership back in 2006 prior to being published.

After NTC, I was assigned to a very rewarding unit on the east coast. I had a few opportunities to deploy to a Joint Interrogation Facility in Iraq in 2007, but then John McCain succeeded in redefining the definition of “acceptable” interrogation training. Because I had gotten my training through a DOD contracted company (which taught the exact same principles of interrogation that the Army did) and not through an actual Army school, I was suddenly pulled off my deployment because I was no longer “qualified.” Thanks, Senator McCain for such a remarkably stupid overreaction to media ignorance!

I left this job to take a 1SG slot in Alabama. The unit I was in had too few of them and this was a route that I wanted/needed to go. Unfortunately, this job, while very important, would also be one from which I wouldn’t deploy. Our mission was a domestic one. Another two years had gone by.

I began to wonder if there was a reason -- beyond the physical -- that I wasn’t deploying. My wife and I discussed this and I felt strongly that if I was meant to deploy, I would. But I was at least still going to position myself for the best opportunity to do my part.

People often ask me why I want to go back. It’s a valid question. Why would anyone want to put themselves in harm’s way? Even better, why would anyone want to put their families through that?



 

Members of Provincial Reconstruction Team Zabul patrol in Qalat City, Afghanistan, Aug. 3, 2011. PRT Zabul is comprised of Air Force, Army, Department of State, U.S. Agency for International Development, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and U.S. Army Corps of Engineer personnel who work with the government of Afghanistan to improve governance, stability and development throughout Zabul province. Photo by Senior Airman Grovert Fuentes-Contreras.

The answer to the first question is easy: I’m a Soldier. I want to do my part. I tire of watching my friends and fellow Soldiers go in and out of danger 3, 4, 5 times while I’m sitting on my one deployment. I didn’t join the Army to interrogate a pencil sharpener or Powerpoint document. I joined to defend my country ! I joined to become a better person. It’s cheesy, but I really joined for patriotic reasons. I was earning a nice $50-100 per hour as a mobile DJ in Florida. But, it wasn’t rewarding to me. Something was still missing. I can’t sit back and watch everyone else sacrifice so much.

The second question isn’t so hard to answer. Of course, I don’t want to put my family through this. I know that every day for the next year they will worry about me. If there is any change in our communication schedule due to a blackout, missions, or just heavy workload, they will worry more. Why hasn’t he emailed like normal? Why didn’t he text or chat? And for the next few days, they will cringe at every knock on the door and wonder who’s in that car coming down the road.

My kids will have to navigate life for a year without their father. To adults, a year might not be a big deal. We’re in our comfort zone and most days are Groundhog Day. A year can go by with no major changes or missing much. But to kids, that year is a long time. To my oldest daughter, that’s a year where she’ll be learning to drive, starting to date, and wondering what to do with her life in the future. She’ll miss that fatherly influence (whether or not she admits it) in determining whether or not she should bring that boy home or accept him as a boyfriend. And she’ll turn 16. To my son, it’s his last year before moving into high school. He’s maturing and puberty is hitting full force. There are “man questions” to be asked and answered. And to my youngest daughter, she’s losing her daddy for a year. She’ll be getting her ID card for the first time, opening her savings account, and turning 10.

Why would anyone volunteer to do that?! I still don’t have an answer. I had the perfect opportunity to say I had done what I could and the Army wouldn’t let me deploy. I could have just stayed back here and had a fairly easy year with little responsibility, and been home to see my family every night. I wouldn’t have missed all those things in their lives. I could have accepted the SRP finding that I was medically non-deployable. I could have accepted the CENTCOM waiver request to deploy anyway that was denied. I could have said, “I tried.” Instead, I was determined to be with my troops and help my unit with its mission. I was determined to “do my part.”

I don’t want glory, honor, or any other reward. I don’t even care if I never leave the wire as long as I’m there to support those that do! I recognize that Master Sergeants don’t get to kick down doors anymore. We don’t get to negotiate the streets, collect vital information, or really do much of what we were trained to do years ago. There will never be a Fallujah 2003 mission for me again. That’s for the young guys. It’s their turn. But I can make sure that those guys are taken care of, have every possible tool at their disposal to accomplish that important mission, and stand as a guide and mentor for them.

Today, my family left for a vacation they’ve put off numerous times because my deployment date kept getting pushed back. They couldn’t wait any longer, because school is starting soon. This time, they had to leave before I did. By the time they get back, I’ll be in Afghanistan. While those men and women are family, they probably would have been fine without me. They probably wouldn’t have shed a tear not being able to see me for a year. Instead, there was a tearful goodbye to the kids and Emily as we gave each other our last hugs and kisses for a year. For the first time, my kids saw their dad cry. It was a gotcha moment as Chris called me out for all the times I told him I had no tear ducts when he asked if I ever cry (only Emily has ever seen me cry). What have I done? Why did I fight so hard to do something there is a possibility I wouldn’t return from? How could I cause all these tears?

I am blessed with a strong family that understands the sacrifices our troops make on a daily basis. We have a strong faith in each other and in God. If the worst happens, we know that we will still see each other again. It doesn’t make that potential loss any easier to accept, but it’s one of the ways we get through. I have great kids who step up when they have to and a loving and intelligent wife who is able to care for and explain things to them. In some ways, I think this year will be easier on them. One less parent to get upset about fighting, cleaning rooms, bedtime, etc. One less husband to clean up after and have steal the body pillow in the middle of the night.

What have I done? I hope that what I’ve done is left behind enough of myself that my kids choose the right in my absence. I hope I have left behind a little voice in their heads about what right looks like. I hope I have left behind enough love and devotion to last the entire year. The other day I taught Chris how to change the oil in the van. I hope I have left behind enough of those little life lessons to sustain them individually and collectively as a family. But that doesn’t make leaving any easier. On any of us.

CHURCH BELLS SING SUICIDE |

August 01, 2011

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

The songbird singing on my windowsill will come and pass to be replaced by another and I will never notice. The old bird will come to rest in a shrub to be devoured by the cat, or maybe on a crowded sidewalk to be stepped over by the busy people of the day and I will have forgotten his song. Corporal Hunt killed himself two weeks ago in his Texas apartment. I didn’t know him but I could feel a lonely connection in deeper parts of my heart, and his story that made CNN headlines could not be shaken out of my head so I clocked out early today to write this.

Everything is so different out here, and it has been years since my last deployment. After my first hospitalization for an attempted suicide I took a trip to Eastern France with my father to do some book research. We were on a Marine Corps battlefields of WWI tour hosted by former Commandant of The Marine Corps General Michael Hagee. Wandering through a well-kept cemetery in the hamlet of Belleau, France the General lit up and guided us to a tombstone. “Here it is!” He exclaimed.

The General proceeded to tell us the story of Sergeant Streicher, who after his discharge in WW1 returned home to New York. He saved up enough money to take a trip to France and returned to the town of Belleau, where he had fought. The former Sergeant asked the mayor if he would be allowed to live in Belleau to be close to his friends buried in a nearby military cemetery. The mayor granted his request. Sometime later Sergeant Streicher wandered out to the wood line where he had fought and shot himself.

The Pentagon will not consider Corporal Hunt a war statistic, nor will they count the untold other number of post-military-service suicides. Sometimes I am walking through a parking lot checking the stubs to make sure that people paid for parking, and I will think about all of these cars driven by all of these people and how they do not know that I served and that even if they did they would not care. I am a dead sparrow on the ground being stepped over, and the weight of this thought is debilitating. I have sought help and sometimes I feel alright, and other times I am walking through this never-ending parking lot and it seems like I will never be able to leave. I always want everyone to know what my dead friends meant to me and what they should mean to their country, but I don’t know how to say it.

Today I was walking through a cemetery in Eastern France. I was joined by Sergeant Streicher and Corporal Hunt and my dead great Uncle Private Joesph Otto Turley, who was killed on the last day of WWI. We were researching his story. Private Turley tugged my arm and walked me to the church where he had died. The French sky was grey and the old church was simple. Sergeant Streicher took hold of the rope of the bell and told me that when I didn’t know what to say it would be a good idea to ring the bell. The four of us took ahold of the rope and gave it a yank and it sang, “Another dead Marine!” The ringing thundered through the world, Corporal Hunt was smiling and we had known each other. We sang together, “Listen up you motherfuckers! Listen you passers-by! Another dead Marine!” I shut my eyes and pulled the rope and when I awoke I was the only one ringing the bell.


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