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 EXTRA MILE |

September 28, 2011

Name: Major Mark Duber
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Hometown: Cleveland, Ohio
Milblog: Warbird Doctor Diaries
Email: markduber@gmail.com

The last four days have been peppered with small trauma here on the FOB, and orthopedic consult galore. It seems the injury of the week has been knee ACL tears; some soldier will stay in theater with this injury if their jobs allow easy activities, but most are infantry which precipitates a ticket home. Some soldiers have an obvious sense of relief when I send them home, but most fight me tooth and nail to stay in theater with their units. Their fighting spirit is greater than themselves and their fellow warriors are their family away from home; anything less than staying by their side is abandonment and neglect. I have to admit my respect goes beyond expectation to these motivated individuals and pushes me the extra mile for them. 

One of the traumas we had four days ago had a story like movies are made of. Three U.S. soldiers were medevaced to our FST after they were injured from an insurgent ambush in a valley within our region. Here is their tale:

Forty-five U.S. soldiers and multiple ANA (Afghan National Army) soldiers were given the task of clearing an “Insurgent Hot” valley from one side, while another group would clear from the opposite side. This group of soldiers was dropped in via Blackhawks the night before. They set up camp at the mouth of the valley and prepared for the following day. When dawn arrived they began their journey into the valley, alertness peaked and expecting the worse. Intel reports indicated that up to 100 insurgents lay hidden in the valley. 

The terrain was very rough, which slowed their movement greatly. After about an hour and a half they were ambushed from three sides. The initial attack is where the brunt of the injuries began. Two of the three soldiers we treated at our FST were in the middle of this ambush. One of them was the lead, and the second was the third soldier in the patrol. The scenario was intense; almost fateful. The third soldier in the patrol dropped one of his ammo clips and went to retrieve it. At the exact moment he was bent over an RPG (rocket propelled grenade) which was aimed and fired at him bounced off his back and hit the soldier in front of him square in the shoulder. When the ordinance exploded the two pounds of C4 that soldier was carrying detonated. 

The second soldier was killed instantly and the soldiers in front of him and behind him (the two at our FST) were hit with the blast and various propelled objects in the area. The soldiers in the area took cover immediately and an extreme firefight ensued. The injured three soldiers we got were the first of many to see us, 15 in total. It took three days for them all to see us because the firefight prevented multiple Blackhawk missions from going in and taking the injured.

With the help of Apache helicopters and air force F-15s and F-16s dropping thousands of pounds in bombs with no friendly fire incidents, the unit survived with only one U.S. casualty and one ANA casualty. The imagery of this story as told by these soldiers will stay with me forever; likely in my nightmares. Our surgical team was effective in treating them and many were able to return to duty to fight another day with their units.

Hearing stories like this is a real reality check. I’m relatively safe within the confines of this FOB while the real heroes are outside the wire risking everything. Some days my adrenaline get going and wants to be a part of the real fight, but then I step back and realize that these soldiers are partially fighting confidently because they know my surgical team and I will be there at their time of need. We all have our place in the grand scheme of life and right now I’m right where I belong.

REMEMBERING CPL. ROBERT R. GROSS |

September 27, 2011

Name: C.J. Grisham
Returned from: Iraq
Deployed to: Afghanistan
Milblog: Afghanistan War Journal

Pfc. Eric Mulder, chaplain assistant, 2nd Battalion, 38th Cavalry Regiment, Fort Hood, Texas, joins the rest of Charlie Company soldiers in a moment of prayer during the Aug. 19 birthday celebration and memorial for Cpl. Robert R. Gross at Forward Operating Base Spin Boldak, Afghanistan. Deployed in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, Gross, of Oldsmar, Fla., was killed July 16 by an improvised explosive device.

This story and photo come from Army SGT Marc Loi of the 319th MPAD. I’ve written about CPL Gross before and wanted to highlight this story, that shows our troops don’t forget our Fallen Warriors.

FORWARD OPERATING BASE SPIN BOLDAK, Afghanistan – Under a canopy tent just across from the dirt road many of their vehicles travel to and from every day, making the dusty trek into the town that serves as the final stop before entering Pakistan, the soldiers of Charlie Company sat, their sunglasses shielding their eyes from the lightly-colored, fine dirt that kicked up with each gust of wind.

For these soldiers of 2nd Battalion, 38th Cavalry Regiment, 504th Battlefield Surveillance Brigade, Fort Hood, Texas, deployed here in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, many things were still the same. With country music blasting on the radio and hot dogs and hamburgers sizzling on the nearby grill, their leaders tirelessly flipping and re-flipping the food so familiar to their childhood, ensuring each piece was fit for consumption, it seemed nothing had changed. This was American soldiers relaxing; leaders taking care of their soldiers; a piece of home – an experience so familiar to the American culture they grew up embracing and later swearing to give up their lives for.

But just listen carefully – listen beyond the twangy, deep voice of Billy Currington on the radio, sizzling of the grill, soda cans being opened and soldiers loudly patting one another on the back – listen to the cracking in their voices and the pregnant pause between sentences, and a visitor, no matter how unfamiliar with the unit, would realize something was missing.

As they would later admit, that missing element was the laughter of a friend, the way he told stories and how he made them laugh. Missing was their buddy and confidant, fellow warfighter and the person they looked up to. Missing was the bodybuilder and athlete they’d grown to know and love, someone with whom they’d shared many of these same cookouts. Missing was Cpl. Frank R. Gross, killed in an IED attack on the unit’s first day of combat operations.

Aug. 19, on what would have been the Oldsmar, Fla., native’s 26th birthday, members of his platoon gathered here to celebrate his life, and in doing so, also opened the floodgate of emotions they’d held onto since losing him July 16, shedding away any bravado they might have previously put on regarding their close friend’s death.

“It’s still fresh,” said Pfc. Justin Forcier, a close friend and member of the unit to which Gross was assigned. “We still talk about him and the good times, but it still hurts.”

The first time they met, Forcier and Gross instantly clicked, sharing a love for nutrition and fitness. Later, the two grew closer as they became workout buddies, often sharing personal stories and ideas, with each acting as the other’s confidant. Just before they left for Afghanistan, Gross’s mother, Antonia, came to Fort Hood to visit her son, where they had dinner and created many more memories, Forcier said.

Those are the memories Forcier prefers to remember, he said, rather than the death of his friend. It is in celebrating Gross’s life – the fact that at 25, he’d already held a Master’s degree, that he was dedicated to his job and even more dedicated to America, that he was quick to volunteer for a task and even quicker with his wits, that the platoon remembers Gross for.

“He was very spirited,” Forcier said. “He was up for any – anything that life had to offer him.”

It was in that spirit that Gross joined the Army, his squad leader, Staff Sgt. Joe Cantu said, remembering the time Gross had told him he joined the Army because he’d accomplished other things in life, and wanted to do more for his country. Rather than joining as an officer – which he was more than qualified to do – Gross joined the enlisted ranks as “one of the Joes,” because he wanted to experience all the different facets the Army had to offer.

“He was very intelligent and highly motivated,” Cantu said. “On a personal level, he was quirky and easy to relate to. His sense of humor was one of his best characteristics.”

Another fellow soldier, Pfc. Anthony Rizzo, also remembered Gross for his love of life, and that although he always took his job seriously, the former high school baseball star was full of color and life.

“We used to have a lot of laughs together,” Rizzo said, cracking into a smile and then chuckled, trying to conceal the fond and private memories he had of Gross as he reminisced. “He had a short temper, so he’d be yelling sometimes, and we’d end up laughing about it later.”

But no matter how good the memories, no matter how many smiles talking about Gross brought to their faces, the soldiers also remembered the day as if it were yesterday. Just as quickly as he’d come into their lives, Gross vanished, leaving a space forever empty.

Rizzo, who was with Gross the day he died, said they’d talked earlier that morning before leaving on that fateful convoy. They’d caught up with each other, and right before they left, Rizzo gave Gross a Clif bar.

“I knew he was hungry, and that he didn’t like a lot of junk food,” Rizzo said, pausing at times to reflect on the day. “I had a Clif bar in my pocket, so I stopped and gave it to him.”

Riding in the vehicle behind Gross, Rizzo heard the terrible sound of the IED and witnessed it going off, flipping over the vehicle Gross was riding in.

“I saw when the IED hit,” Rizzo said in almost a hushed tone. “I wish I could have gotten out to help him.

“After he was airlifted out … I helped pick up some of the remains of the wreck, and I found the wrapper to the Clif bar I gave him,” Rizzo added.

“I was in shock,” Forcier said. “You don’t ever think that’s going to happen to someone really close to you – someone who’s a close friend. I am still in denial about it.”

Although he was not there at the scene, Cantu was the radio operator on the day Gross was killed and remembered hearing the call through the radio.

“When the call came through, I was the one taking it,” Cantu said. “It was really chaotic, but at the same time, I didn’t have the time to stop and process it.

“It wasn’t until about the next day that it actually hit,” he continued.

Although losing Gross hurt and losing a friend hurt even more, Cantu said he drove on, mainly because as a non-commissioned officer, his job was to take care of his soldiers, yet at the same time also accomplishing his missions. Like Cantu, the soldiers who were closest to Gross also felt the same.

“It’s always going to stick with us,” said Forcier. “We will always hold him close to our memory and our heart, but he would want us to focus on what we’re doing.”

Overall, the soldiers said the gathering was a celebration of Gross’s life, rather than a memorial, and also served as part of the grieving process, allowing them not only the time to reflect upon his life, but also to celebrate a life that was cut far too short.

“I think about it just about every day,” Rizzo said. “It opened a lot of our eyes on what we’re protecting and fighting for.”

With their food blessed by a chaplain – who reminded them to remember the good memories Gross created with them, the soldiers began talking among themselves again, sometimes bursting into laughter at the memories they had of Gross. As they broke the quietness and the sounds of joy and laughter returned, somewhere nearby, as if right on cue, the radio began playing another country song.

Though drowned out by the voices of soldiers, the nearby generators and other sounds often found on forward operating bases, the soft, distinct voice of Alan Jackson, along with its sweet, melancholy Southern accent repeated a chorus that, perhaps, the soldiers had taken to heart: “ … we won’t be sad. We’ll be glad for all the life we’ve had … remember when.”

THE POOP KIT |

September 21, 2011

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

OP Omar, Kharmah, Iraq, 2007. Fanatical insurgents brandishing AKs and RPGs. Diabolical bomb makers concocting recipes for home made explosives. Suicidal zealots handcuffed to the steering wheels of trucks laden with explosives barreling down a one way street to Gehenna! These are the dangers most often associated with deployments to hostile environments in the 21st Century.

Lesser known are the predatory varmints insidiously slithering, buzzing, and barking  about us on patrol or merely hovering nearby while we ineffectually bathe out of a canteen cup.

Those horrors are well documented here and other places and we thankfully need not dwell on them again today. No, I speak today of one of the most daunting experiences anyone deployed overseas in a combat zone has had to endure. Even the fiercest war heroes have blanched at confronting this villainy. Yes friends, I speak of the biological abomination that is the porta-john. 

At OP Omar the porta-johns were firmly sandbagged and in cover. Not for the protection of possible occupants, but to protect passers by from the denizens dwelling within the depths. These were known to occasionally snatch the unwary. 

Upon breaking the hatch of a porta-john one was never sure which would assault the senses first; the stench of the roiling contents or the swarm of flies just as eager to escape. Futilely, some would gulp a lung full of air before entering. I never met anyone who was able to last though.

During the summer, the atmosphere inside was akin to an abandoned sauna. Touching any bare skin to the inside surface was as risky as it was unavoidable in such a confined space. Not to mention the flies unfortunate to be sharing the space with you. There was neither rest nor room to be had. 

Then our Forward Air Controller, a helo pilot with the call sign 'Dong,' improvised a piece of equipment which would transform our entire deployment.  If ever there were a group of people dedicated to making life suck less, it's Air Wingers.

Dong and A1S. Who's awesome? You're awesome!

 

One fine day Dong produced what he proudly called the Poop Kit. It contained a number of items designed to significantly reduce the unbridled barbarity of the porta-john experience.

What were the items? A screwdriver, a can of aerosol deodorant, baby wipes, and hand sanitizer.

The screwdriver was used to lock the door of the porta-john with the broken lock. The logic here being no one used a broken john, so the likelihood of touching down where 200 other buttocks already had was minimal. Once inside, Dong would insert the screwdriver into the broken door handle mechanism and, voila! Privacy assured.

Before entering, Dong would open the hatch wide and stand outside spraying his can of deodorant into the john. This would send the occupying flies buzzing for cover as the air was replaced with aerosol spray. It also had the added benefit of taking the edge off the heady odors within.

Baby wipes were used on every surface that had the remotest possibility of coming into contact with human skin.

Hand sanitizer; we probably used so much of this during the deployment it may have made us all sterile.

Dong demonstrates the proper application of the Poop Kit's contents.

 

Praise and glory were heaped on Dong's name for the introduction of the Poop Kit by the few of us who adopted its use. Military historians have so far not recorded this ingenious item as we pretty much kept it to ourselves. After all, we wouldn't want everyone using the porta john with broken lock, now would we?

SHORT |

September 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 nineteen years old on my fifth night in the battle of Fallujah. We would camp in one of the houses that we had broken into. The machine gunners would sleep on the rooftop and take post when it was their turn; the riflemen would sleep inside and rotate to the rooftop and take post next to the machine gunners. Third platoon’s navy medic had ripped some bedroom doors off of their hinges and offered me one to sleep on. I accepted and wrapped myself in the thin blotchy camouflaged liner I used as a blanket. The riflemen slept on the concrete floor around us talking in their sleep. I tucked myself in and placed the radio handset to my ear, a plastic phone that made a noise like television static. I fell asleep.

The cigarette cherry burned like hundreds before it. Sometimes I would put them out on my hand grenades. I would talk about the girls back home I wanted to sleep with. Women in their late teens danced like strippers in my day dreams. We would swap stories and ammunition when it was time. When it was cold we would cuddle, grown men dreaming of young women. She sent me pictures once. She posed in front of an apartment wall, and I would pull them out of my radio pack and wish. I fell asleep.

Before the war, when I was young I would listen to music and write short fiction late at night. The computer screen would glow when the lights were off and I was alone, tapping away at a keyboard listening to the music of plastic on skin. Movie posters littered my walls and I would write to them. Girls would call so I would talk to them, and I wanted to be a man. In high school I was the lead singer in a punk band. A friend in our crew killed himself my junior year and I stayed up one night and wrote him down. I fell asleep.

A few days before I left for boot camp I went on a camping trip with my father and friends. From out of the grey Sierra Nevada flew two Marine helicopters. My father shouted at them, or at me, “Marines! Marines!” I felt an anxiety wash over me and I could hear the nearby rushing stream washing down from the mountains. The day before I left we went to breakfast and I could not eat. He dropped me at the recruiter’s office and we said goodbye.

The corporal gave me his old radio pack and I took his old job. He spent months training me how to use that radio. Knobs stuck out of the olive drab brick and I learned the trade. One day in Iraq I slapped him on the back and we laughed about the radio. He told me he was glad he didn’t have to hump it around anymore. Down the road I heard the gunfire. They pulled him out of the house after tossing their hand grenades. He had fallen asleep.

A black man handed me blue pajamas. I put them on and he noticed my tattoos. He asked if I was a Marine. I replied that I was and he noticed that I had noticed where I was, so he told me I would be one of two coherent men in the mental hospital that night. I slept in a room with two beds, two government issued pillows and two blankets like boot camp. The schizophrenic in my room talked to himself and paced in the moonlight. I stayed awake, afraid that he might hurt me.

KAF-TASTIC KILLER BUNNIES |

September 16, 2011

Name: C.J. Grisham
Returned from: Iraq
Deployed to: Afghanistan
Milblog: Afghanistan War Journal

My mission here in Afghanistan is very busy, with bouts of extreme boredom. There is always something to do here since our job entails tracking and managing personnel and equipment coming through Kandahar. We also manage the R&R program. Because there are constantly people coming and going or here for short periods of time, there ALWAYS seems to be something to do. Add to that daily briefings and issues that pop up from time to time and we’re a very fluid team.

However, there are some days that tend to trend towards the more boring and our workload is decreased enough to allow my guys to do laundry, clean rooms and spend more time in the gym. It also leaves more time to play Killer Bunnies!

If you’ve never played Killer Bunnies, you haven’t known fun and excitement. It’s a fast-paced non-collectible card game with a lot of moving pieces. It looks confusing, but once you play for a few minutes, it’s actually pretty easy. According to the instructions included in the Blue Start Deck and Blue Booster Pack box,

“The basic strategy of the game is to keep as many bunnies alive as possible while eliminating your opponents’ bunnies. Of course all the other players are trying to do the same thing which can get dreadfully vengeful, horribly nasty, hilariously messy, and just plain fun! While folks are trying to eliminate each other’s bunnies, each player is also trying to collect as many Carrots as possible.”

There are all kinds of whacky rules to the game. For example, there is a rule called the Two Twelve Rule which states that “the person who was born closest to February 12th goes first, and the play continues clockwise.” If two or more players were born equally close to February 12th, then whoever has the oldest living grandmother will go first. There’s even a funny disclaimer that pays homage to our military:

“In the great tradition of the United States military, all players in the game are referred to in the male gender. We are in no way negating or ignoring the vital importance of women in gaming and frankly, in our lives as both the mothers who bore us and the wives that support us. Absolutely no offense is meant or should be implied on any level of our menial XY existence, it was simply easier to compose the rules using only one gender reference. So please ladies, don’t get angry or hit us.”

We sort of adopted the Killer Bunnies as our unofficial mascot here. I even commissioned some patches to recognize those who play the game with me in a combat zone. The green bunny patch signifies that a Soldier has earned his Killer Bunnies Combat Patch. But, the one everyone has their sights set on is the Blue Killer Bunny Champ Combat Patch.

Every Saturday, we tally up who has won the most games the previous week. This gets interesting because some weeks we only play one game and some weeks we’ll get to play more. Doesn’t matter -– if only one game is played then the winner of that game wins the patch for the week. Each week, the number of wins is rolled into the final tally that will go towards the last game of the year prior to our redeployment. The person with the most wins of the deployment will get to keep the patch forever Of course, everyone that played will get to keep their green KB Combat Patch!

In other news, I got my first care package from my wife today which included my large Texas flag. This flag has flown over the City of Temple and reminds me of home. I have a similar flag that was flown over the Capitol on my birthday (which also happens to be Texas Independence Day) hanging in my office with a certificate from my State Senator. I don’t want anything happening to that one, so I keep it only in safe places.

We’re doing well here, but it’s hot. At least we don’t have to really worry about hurricanes and earthquakes, though. We’re keeping busy and my troops are staying motivated. As a matter of fact, one of them just returned from a couple of days at Brigade HQ and completed a promotion board for Sergeant. She was selected, so we look forward to hopefully pinning on her stripes while we’re here!

McFLURRY |

September 14, 2011

Name: J.P. Raab
Returned from: Afghanistan
Returning to: Afghanistan
Hometown: Rochester, NY
Milblog: With a Bible in My Ruck
Email: jpraab@gmail.com

Specialist McFlurry is in his late thirties and doesn't look a day over fifty.  He's short, stocky, has a wrinkled face, teeth blackened from years of coffee, tobacco use, and a liver and kidney system undoubtedly pickled from years of hard drinking – habits developed on active duty and refined during his years as a correctional officer.

He's been in the Army a long time, and he likes to remind us of that every chance he gets. In the National Guard, it's not uncommon to see older guys (even veterans) in the lower ranks. On Active Duty, soldiers get promoted up or they get promoted out. But if you wanted to stay a Specialist E4 (“the best rank in the Army”) for twenty years in the National Guard and retire at that grade, there's nothing stopping you.

“Let me tell ya about this one guy I had to deal with,” his stories begin, or “There was this time in Korea, we were out on this field exercise, trying to dig sh----r holes,” or, more often, “So this one chick I was banging back in the early nineties...”

Laughter erupts from the platoon, usually followed by a chorus of “Shut the f--- up, McFlurry!” or “I love you, McFlurry!” When the Suck Factor is high, boredom is rampant, and the training is tough, it's good to have someone to turn to for a laugh.

“Tell us a story, McFlurry!”

Admittedly, his commentaries or his accounts are not always welcome. Sometimes soldiers will literally shout him down, while sometimes others will stand up for him because, well, they're bored as hell and want to laugh with – or at – someone.

“McFlurry, finish the story,” my squad leader said one time, “and it better be funny, otherwise I'm gonna kick your ass. Don't just start out with something funny and then bumblef--- your way into something stupid. Finish strong.”

Regardless of rank, McFlurry will usually mumble something offensive under his breath: “Pretty-boy mumble mumble telling me I ain't funny mumble mumble."

“What?” my squad leader snapped.

“Uhh, uh-huh, nothing big Sarge!” McFlurry said, smiling and looking away.

“Tell the G—damn story!” someone yelled.

From there, McFlurry's story – like all of his stories – meandered down a complex and ever-winding path of vulgarity and self-deprecation. McFlurry isn't the best storyteller, but he knows how to make everyone laugh. In that way, he's good for morale. Even though he often presents himself as a disgusting slob with his dirty face and pound of dip sitting not-so-snugly in his lower lip, he enjoys the attention, even negative attention, and relishes the chance to be the platoon (and company) clown. He's an older man among the young, and spending time with us is his way of recapturing some of the magic of his prime.

It is no surprise, then, that when our battalion S-3 (Operations officer; the man in charge of much of the battalion-level planning, sort of a right-hand man to the commander) wandered through our circus tent in search of soldiers as part of a “sensing session” (getting on-the-ground opinions and observations), that McFlurry of all people would be the soldier to meet him.

I was sitting on my cot, trying hard not to fall asleep, when I looked over at the entourage of officers and senior NCOs in crisp, clean uniforms stop at Specialist McFlurry's garbage-strewn bunk.

Shirtless, sweaty, grungy, and with a giant dip in his lower lip, McFlurry slowly stood up to the position of attention. He looked somewhat uncomfortable as the officer asked him questions.

“What the hell is this?” I said to myself, sitting up. I watched without looking like I was watching – a skill all soldiers develop in Basic Training. After several minutes, McFlurry sat back down and the procession marched on to find some other soldier to bother.

I got up and went over to McFlurry's bunk.

“What was that all about?” I asked.

“Oh, just the S-3,” he said. “Asked me what unit I'm in, and about my family and about the training.”

“What did you tell him?”

“Told him the family's good, the training's been alright,” he answered.

“Did he say anything about the fact that you're sitting here with your hairy chest out, covered in dirt?”

“No, didn't seem to notice, actually. He was a nice guy.”

“Well, if someone had to represent Alpha Company, I'm glad it was you, McFlurry. You're the face of the American fighting man.”

“Thank you, Sergeant,” he said, smiling, sure that there was a joke in there somewhere.

“Carry on, hero,” I said, walking away and shaking my head.

If you have never been in the military, you probably have never met him. But if you have served – especially in a combat unit – you have. Guys like him keep the Army (or the Marines, Navy, or Air Force, for that matter) fighting. Everyone has a job in the Army. There's no Military Occupational Specialty designator for “Platoon Clown”, but there should be. It is just important a role as Rifleman or Medic.

I'm not sure what all of his reasons are for being with us, but I know that many months from now, we're going to need a good laugh. And we'll know where to look for one.

 

Jonathan Raab is a spokesman for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America who is currently preparing for his second deployment to Afghanistan with the New York Army National Guard. You can follow his blog at www.withabibleinmyruck.blogspot.com.


FIVE AND TEN |

September 12, 2011

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

In September 2006 I wrote this:

"Five years and one day ago was September 10th, 2001 and I had just flown in to Boston-Logan Airport that day to begin another week with my client. I was an independent contractor at the time and was working on a large project for Sun Microsystems, Workscsape Inc, and General Motors. The week of 9/10/01 was a week of system load testing and performance testing. So I flew in during the morning and went to the client site. The testing started at 6:00 PM and went until about 4:00 AM on 9/11/01. After the testing was over I went to my hotel and fell fast asleep. Prior to going to bed, I shut off the ringer on my cell and set the alarm for noon to I could get up, get ready and back into the office for the next night’s testing.

"I know it was very tough for people to watch the events on the morning of 9/11 to unfold before them and it essentially numbed our nation. However I think the way I found out was very tough, if not tougher. I woke up with my alarm, and immediately noticed that my voicemail light on the phone was blinking. I remember thinking I was glad I had turned that ringer off.

"I opened my phone to see multiple missed calls from my wife, brother and parents. I also saw a few text messages that told me to call home ASAP. My heart dropped as the first thought was that something had happened to one of my parents. I called my wife who told me to turn on the TV. As I did, she was rattling off what had happened with planes into both towers, both towers down, one plane into the Pentagon, one plane crashed near Pittsburgh (where my brother and his family lives), the country under attack, planes being grounded, etc., etc., etc.

"This is where I experienced what I call information overload. My mind honestly could not handle what I was hearing from my wife and seeing on the TV. She was telling me the towers were down, but my mind was seeing pre-recorded images of the towers standing and burning and I was arguing with her telling her “They are not, I can still see them standing." My mind could not comprehend what I was seeing. It was a very emotional and confusing moment. After I hung I up, sitting on the end of the bed in my hotel room, I wept… just plainly wept. Crying for my country, and my fellow Americans. As I drove into the office, I was on the phone with my National Guard unit trying to make contact with someone and angrily asking what I could do and when we were being called up. The next day I was flying about 90 mph down the I-90 back to Buffalo…"

***

The difference between five years after and ten years after is that when I wrote the above post I was in Afghanistan, at war. I was there as part of the retaliation for those attacks. Now I am a contractor working for the Army supporting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As I look back at both milestones and think about all the time between, it hits me how much has changed since 9/11/01. My life is completely different today than it would have been had those attacks never happened; not only my life but pretty much that of everyone in the military today, or anyone who has been in the military at any time in the last 8-10 years.

I wonder how many friends', past soldiers', and comrade’s lives would be different simply in their still being here, and not buried six feet deep. How many people I know who have been wounded in combat, would still have all their parts, pieces and wits?

As I look back it is not just reflecting on the sad day ten years ago, it is also trying to imagine what my life would be like without the friends I have developed as a result of my deployment, my work today and especially my blogging. My blogging friends, all milbloggers, are a major part of my life and some of the closest friends I have ever had. It is almost like having a wife and kids for several years, then trying to imagine what life would be like without them, and trying to imagine what life was like before them.

I have a hard time remembering what the Army was like before 9/11; before the war-footing we took on in October 2001.

Ten years ago today, at this exact moment, I could not have begun to imagine where I would be today. And I really can’t even guess where I will be ten years from now.

I hope and pray that the pain and anguish which family and friends of those lost ten years ago experienced has been dulled. But I wish and pray that the patriotism America experienced ten years ago would come back and be felt again.

DEAR MR. PRESIDENT |

September 09, 2011

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

Dear Mr. President,

We veterans are dying, eighteen a day after the war by our own hand. We come home but we never left the holes we fought so hard to defend, and the holes in our head are our dead and dying comrades beckoning us to join them because coming home has become a worse fate than the wars we fought. We signed up to serve our country and put our lives on delay for the mission with little to show for it upon our return. We could go to school with the GI Bill as long as we are sane and able to focus on schoolwork, but I can hardly focus on this letter I am writing and basic tasks become pointless.

Last year my unit dropped me off for a thirty-six-hour mental health evaluation at the Portland VA. I was provided with pink pajamas and was evaluated in a setting that would make any suicidal human want to drown in their own vomit. Homeless veterans of different eras were mumbling to themselves, some wandering in endless circles. I was as a veteran humiliated by my own vulnerability and weakness and felt interrogated by civilians who could not possibly relate to my situation, having never served.

A normal person would have assumed they were in prison; the food was terrible and we were not allowed outside for a walk or a smoke, which having picked up the habit in the service became too much for me to bear. I had the feeling that the civilians running the show knew that Vets smoke, and that Vets will check themselves out if smoking is prohibited. I was verbally disappointed in the program offered and upon my early release was told by a staff member, “If you don’t like it, talk to your congressman.” I was not within capable faculties to start a conversation with a congressman. I just wanted to be left alone.

I later spent three weeks at the Seattle VA for PTSD treatment and when I returned home nothing had changed. I don’t think there is a cure for wanting to put a bullet in your head after your life has been turned upside down by elements so far out of one’s control. What we need is an ease from the pressure. When we leave the service we need access and priority to jobs, good jobs that pay enough money to raise a family. We have spent an equivalent amount of time that one would for a college degree, been tested in much more extreme forms, and at the end of our career we have nothing to show for it.

My answer for this problem is that the VA mental health system needs to be reformed, and it can be by the very people it is supposed to support. I do not trust civilians to handle my mental health counseling. They are too easily influenced without understanding the consequences of their incompetence. A program should be implemented to send interested veterans into the counseling field without having to spend four more years in training. This would open a gate that would provide jobs for Veterans that can help the Veterans of their conflict until the last of us leaves the earth. The only civilians in the VA should be doctors required for surgery and dispensing medication. All civilians should be overseen by veterans who would be working at appropriate GS levels.

The Vietnam Veterans need to be separated from the Iraq and Afghan Veterans, as I found that our group sessions are prone to re-traumatize Vietnam Vets and that we have different issues as we come from different worlds. There should also be a program that can be ran by Veterans after discharge from active service, in order to keep accountability of those they served with from their own unit to make sure that their comrades are not slipping through the cracks. We trust the people we served with.

Claims should take one month, no longer. The mountain of paperwork and years it takes to file a claim is obviously put there as a roadblock to discourage veterans from following through. If our country cannot afford to pay for our services after our service they should have never sent us to war, and the idea that eighteen veterans commit suicide every day is ample evidence that we have been failed. Our blood and our pain is in your hands. We gave so much for so little in return.

HUGGY LADY |

September 06, 2011

Name: C.J. Grisham
Returned from: Iraq
Deployed to: Afghanistan
Milblog: Afghanistan War Journal

One of the first impressions that Soldiers get as they leave for combat from Ft. Hood is a young lady affectionately known as “Huggy Lady.”

Since 2003, Ms. Elizabeth (her real name) has been present at virtually every departure of Soldiers leaving the base for a combat zone. She began as a volunteer with the Salvation Army alongside the USO. Eventually, the Salvation Army role was reduced and the USO took over. Huggy Lady asked to be allowed to keep showing up and has done so.

She told me that she gets her name because she makes sure that not one Soldier deploys without one last hug. It started a few years ago when a Soldier asked for a hug before he left. Then, another Soldier said if that guy got a hug, he wanted one too. She quickly realized it would be unfair to give just a few select Soldiers hugs and vowed from that moment on to ensure that every Soldier got one.

She’s a fantastic lady and shared some great stories of motivation with the troops prior to the briefings. I was selected to be the Chalk Commander and was in charge of the group of Soldiers deploying. She got the fun briefings, while I was relegated to giving the brief that informs the troops that, even though they are carrying firearms onto a chartered jet, there WILL BE NO “knives or knifelike” items on the plane. No hazardous materials, lighters, etc. Yes, it’s true. Soldiers going into combat must surrender their knives and Gerbers prior to boarding. They can put them in their checked luggage, they just can’t be on their person.

Anyway, Huggy Lady is just the sweetest person on the planet. It doesn’t matter what time of the day a unit is deploying, she is there so send them off with an affectionate hug. I just loved her. And I made sure that I got four hugs. I hope I didn’t set a new standard!

THE SUCK |

September 02, 2011

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

Dedicated to Mike Mooney -- Semper Fi

When I was sixteen years old my father told me not to tell his visiting Vietnam Veteran friend that I had an expressed interest in joining the Marine Corps. The story went that while Mike was in Vietnam his younger brother (and my dad’s best friend) Mark would receive a copy of Leatherneck magazine in the mail, which he assumed was from his brother in Vietnam, encouraging him to join. When Mike returned home during a vacation Mark told him that he was considering joining, so Marine Mike choked brother Mark in a heat of passion and convinced him to explore other career opportunities. It was mandated that you sign up for a subscription to the magazine as a recruit in boot-camp, and Mike had forgotten about it until the incident.

That day my father was going to ferry Mike and Mark to the “Moving Wall," a mobile replica of the Washington D.C. Vietnam memorial that has the names of the fifty eight thousand servicemen killed during the Vietnam War etched into black granite. When they arrived I sat nervously in the kitchen, fearing being choked out by Mike, but eager to learn something about his experiences because I felt that they could help me.

At some point Mike asked me what I was going to do after high school and I blurted out, “I am going to join the Marines.” Mike looked baffled and sat a long pause in what seemed to be deep thought and then asked me, “Why in the hell would you want to do a thing like that?” Or something to this effect, as he was known to be less elegant with the Queen’s English and more likely to speak Marine.

I don’t remember what I told him. It is possible but unlikely that I gave him a patriotic bit about service to the country that had birthed me, and knowing myself as a teenager I think I probably told him exactly what was on my mind. Mike sat with his cane propped on his chair and returned to an awkward pause and then he nodded and said, “You’re going to be alright. You will make a good Marine, I can tell.” I almost fainted and said no more about the service. Instead we talked about life and then got into the car to visit the Vietnam memorial replica on display at the local park.

Mike made his way to a dugout that faced the wall and took a seat. I sat with him, and my father and Mark went to see the wall. “I don’t need to see that thing,” Mike said and we sat. When my father returned he asked if Mike wanted to take a look and the old Marine stood his ground and refused, so we sat together in silence as my dad returned to the wall. I looked at the replica from the dugout and could see that the white names seemed neverending.

As we sat there it was just a small wall on a baseball field but at the same time each name was a guy who had gone to high school and had wanted to live but died instead. Mike would have known names on the wall but would not confront them because they were not just etched markings in granite, they were his friends. Mike had carried a radio and fought in Hue City Vietnam, a famous Marine urban battle. In three years I would carry a radio and fight in Fallujah Iraq, which would be compared to the battle for Hue.

So we sat in the dugout, and now I think about how Mike died about five years ago, and about how he would take a phone call from me late at night while I was stationed in Camp Hansen Okinawa, a base where he had also been stationed. A few times I would receive packages from Mike with gifts inside -- his lucky Marine Corps money clip, and a book on jungle warfare dated 1968. In about thirty years, when the next war kicks off and some punk kid tells me that he’s thinking about joining, I won’t choke him out either. Some people need to get what they ask for when they really think they mean it.


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