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.

DR. TABATA, WE HATE YOU! |

October 27, 2011

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

As the senior enlisted ninja in the company, it often falls to me to devise ways to develop our young non-commisioned officers in preparation for the various leadership challenges they will inevitably face. In my opinion, physical training (PT) is one of the least effectively used tools in our professional development toolbox. Last week I decided to hone my NCOs with a little light body maintenance.

"Alright men, now turn around and kick your partner dead in the crotch!"

 

Simply thrashing a group of Marines into the ground is pretty easy and not a method of instruction I prefer. If they are simply getting their doors blown off without learning anything then I figure I've passed up a great training opportunity.

I like to ask Marines why we PT at all. Their answers are inevitably: "To be in shape." "Be fit." My personal favorite is: "To look good naked, 1stSgt!" I appreciate the honesty.

The bottom line is we conduct PT in order to make our bodies harder to kill. Never mind the idea of being fitter and stronger than your enemy. Fit, healthy bodies tend to survive being shot, blown up, infected, and other rough treatment. It's only natural the Corps would develop a culture of physical fitness within its ranks.

There are only three exercises I absolutely hate: running, pull ups, and crunches. Coincidentally, these are also the three events comprising our Physical Fitness Test (PFT). My aversion to those three exercises probably has to do with 20 years of repetitively running, pull uping, and crunching. Another pet peeve of mine are PT sessions specifically geared toward passing the PFT. These take the form of long runs in formation followed by a max set of pullups and two minutes of max crunches.

In my ongoing effort to battle monotony and expand the minds of Marine NCOs I try to take a different approach to PT and let learning occur while training. This time I decided it to introduce them to the esteemed Dr. Izumi Tabata and his interval. Of course, my version included rubber rifles and full cammies.

I had them sprint with their rifles for 20 seconds...

"We hate our liiiiiiiiiives!"

 

...then rest for ten seconds in the prone.

"Oof! I miss pull ups."

 

This was a great workout. They repeated this scheme of maneuver for eight rounds jumping up and running again and again. The keen observer will note this somewhat resembles how one might move on a battlefield. Hmmm...

"What happened to the ten seconds?"

 

We don't even have to do push ups if I just make Marines simply keep getting up off the ground.

"I think I'd rather be getting shot at."

 

Despite what you might think, four minutes of sprints can smoke even the fittest if they are putting any effort into it. I brought the Marines in and we set the rifles aside for part two. Oh yes, there was more!

"I don't have positive feelings about this."

 

For the second half we did Tabata intervals again. This time one Marine would fireman's carry the other for 20 seconds then during the 10 second "break" they would switch out. This is called hell.

It is unclear who is getting the worst of it in this picture.
"Dude wait, I think I'm gonna honk."

 

Ideally for training purposes Marines are matched up with someone of similar height and weight. One of my sergeants drew the short straw and had to partner up with my Company Gunny. He's in the large land mammal category.

"Gunny...if you... ever really get... wounded... I'm not sure... you're going to make it."

 

To my regret I jumped in to aid the exhausted Sgt as to keep from having to clean up breakfast hash browns off the nice astro-turf. 

Fortunately, O-ring reconstruction is covered by Tri-Care.

 

Afterwards I explained the Tabata interval can be used with any exercise imaginable and they could do this with their squad and fire teams in any number of ways. The method we used here more or less reflects things they may actually do in combat. I hope to see fully armed and armored Marines happily Tabata sprinting up and down the streets at any moment. They're doing it for America and so should you.


Semper Fidelis!

TERROR PLOT ON THE FOB |

October 24, 2011

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

Yesterday at morning report we learned of an unknown hidden danger within the borders of our FOB. A cell of approximately 13 insurgents somehow infiltrated the confines of our base as local Afghan national workers over the last year; two of the insurgents even made it to a fortified secure location. An intelligence tip focused on two insurgents initially which then opened up to the larger group. The insurgents plan was a coordinated attack within our FOB for maximum casualties. We were not informed of the specifics but know the Afghans involved were apprehended and their terror mission was debunked. 

Framed Duber TERROR PLOTWhen I first arrived to the FOB months ago I was extremely suspicious of everything, and my senses were peaked. Over time they blunted as the feeling of security increases from days of monotony. If thirteen plotting insurgents can make it on this base without notice, a reevaluation of security measures is in need. My wary will restart the process of questioning everything, and my fellow team has indicated they are doing the same. Barbed wire, large foreboding walls, armed guard towers and gates apparently are not enough. Internal tension and security measures have changed to a noticeable level here and I would assume the same is occurring throughout the theater. 

After an exposed terror plot and temporary loss of electrical power on the FOB, my promotion ceremony eventually took off. About ten individuals from higher command came in addition to members of both my team and Charlie Company. Joe J introduced me to the crowd and then I gave an impromptu speech. It was a memorable experience, being promoted in theater; an event that I will carry forever. Being a member of the U.S. army is an honor in itself, but when you compound this with the heroes I work with on a daily basis this honor is elevated beyond expectation.

If there was one less-elevated note of yesterday it was that my family could not be there with me; especially my wife Melissa, who was promoted to major in the U.S. army yesterday as well. Melissa is an emergency medicine doctor for the U.S. army at Fort Knox. My wife and I have lived parallel lives since we started medical school together. We accepted the military scholarship and were commissioned to second lieutenants together, went to medical school together, were promoted to captain together, were together during residency training, and stationed at Fort Knox as staff physicians together. If there was ever an example of soul mates we would be the definition. We are by far stronger together than apart, and our dreams are one and the same (Disclaimer: a few minor exceptions exist).

For the record, I am the senior major, as I was promoted 8 ½ hours earlier; eastern standard time is behind Afghanistan time. Somehow that fact will not fly in our household; call it a gut feeling. I think my wife will just consider me a major pain in the ass; domestic business as usual in the Duber household. 

P.S. Congratulations on your promotion, beautiful.

HOW TO KEEP YOUR SOUL |

October 19, 2011

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

NOTE: This is a religious post. If you don’t believe in God, want to mock God, or get offended because you weren’t hugged enough as a child, do not read any further.

Framed CJ SOUL 1

The Soldiers from 3rd Platoon, 62nd Engineer Company, 4th Engineer Battalion pray before a mission. Although not all of the Soldiers are religious, they all join in to be a part of the circle and pray before every mission.

Nearly five years ago, I wrote a post based on my experience in Iraq called “How to Lose Your Soul.” It was difficult enough to publish the first time and is more embarrassing to point out again. But I never really published my thoughts leading up to that day and what led me to make that decision outside of that day’s events.

By the time it was written, I had been in sustained combat for nearly a week straight. We crossed the border just prior to midnight on the 20th and suffered virtually constant contact from that moment. While there were moments of quiet and boredom, they were interrupted by the reality of an enemy that thought they could defeat us.

Before you keep reading, keep in mind that is going to be a very religious post because in order to believe in a soul, you have to understand the religious nature of that soul as I see from my membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or “Mormons” we’re sometimes referred to. I write this post to highlight steps I learned from my last deployment to avoid suffering again.

I was baptized into the church on my 19th birthday. Two years after I had completely given up on a religion with God at its head and turned to a religion whose deity lived at the bottom of a bottle. Before I was old enough to legally drink I would be considered an alcoholic, though few ever knew it. Then I met a beautiful girl who seemed to make sense of my wasted life. For the first time, I felt like I had found someone worth changing my life for. She didn’t use profanity, didn’t drink, and lived her life in a manner that radiated a spirit and brightnesss about her. I wanted to be a better man (to borrow a line from Jack Nicholson) without being forced into it.

I studied the church, met with the missionaries, and asked a ton of questions. I had already read the Bible and had my own understanding of it. I was hesitant to be baptized into another church after being baptized into no fewer than five other religions in my search for truth and enlightment. So I didn’t make my decision lightly, and studied for three months. I read the Book of Mormon and reread the Bible. I prayed and fasted for answers. I had received the answers to my prayers. I had found my soulmate. I was reborn in a more complete knowledge that I was important and through Christ’s atonement I would be forgiven of my sins.

I learned about the principle of accountability that applies in our livesl. The Lord stated that we “are agents unto (our)selves” (Moses 6:56). However, we are accountable to the Lord for how we use that agency to better ourselves, and to help others. We are our brother’s keeper. I completely forgot that on this day back in March 2003.

The reasons became clear to me over the next several years as I sought to find myself again and get my life back on track spiritually. Through years of counseling and reliance on my wife’s spirituality I dug myself out of the hole it had taken mere days to dig myself into. Looking back, I can see clearly where I went wrong and I’m applying those lessons to this deployment.

First, I stopped praying. Not because I believed any less, but because I allowed myself to get caught up in stuff. Sure, I said little prayers as bombs were falling all around me and bullets whizzed by my head, but I never just prayed when things were fine. I only sought out God during my worst moments and began doubting why they were happening in the first place.

Framed CJ SOUL 2

A Navy Chaplain leads U.S. Marines with 1st platoon, Alpha Company, 2nd Light Armored Reconnaissance, Task Force Mech, in a moment for prayer before they head out on missions at Haditha Dam, Iraq, on May 10, 2008. 2nd LAR, Task Force Mech, Ground Combat Element, Multi National Force – West is conducting operations along the northern boundary of Al Anbar Province in support of Operation Defeat Al Qaida in the North. (U.S Marine photo/Sgt. Rome M. Lazarus)

In combat -- and in life, I’m sure -- we frequently ask how God can allow tragic things to happen. However, when we ask such questions we forget about free agency. Biblical scholars will recognize this basic tenant of Christianity from Revelations and the foundation of the war in Heaven as described in 12:7. Our scriptures described the cause of that war in which Satan had a plan to redeem mankind, but that redemption came at the expense of forced loyalty. Christ’s plan was that of free agency and allowing man to make the decision to choose the right.

So, the reason bad things happen is because bad people make choices that affect the lives of good people (or other bad people). If God stepped between good men and bad men every time, we wouldn’t have that free agency. We wouldn’t have those trials and tribulations that teach us how to overcome evil. It was part of the plan that Eve bite into that apple to open our eyes and begin exercising our free agency.

Because I hadn’t been praying, I couldn’t receive the answers through the spirit to the questions I had. It’s hard to hear the spirit over the sounds of combat. It’s hard to feel anything. And because I wasn’t laying the foundation of a strong faith prior to combat, that foundation was built upon sand that the storms of adversity washed away easily. I wasn’t in a position to get the answer I sought asking why there was so much death and destruction. The answer was there; I just wasn’t able to see it.

Second, I stopped reading my scriptures. When we pray, it is our time to speak with God directly. In return, God speaks to us in different ways. Sometimes, we receive instant revelations to the questions we are asking. Sometimes, as Garth Brooks pointed out, silence is the answer to our prayers. That silence can mean a few things, among them that the answer is so clear we just need to open our eyes to see it. In other words, if I pray to God that the Cowboys become a winning team this year, his silence probably means to stop asking for stupid things; the Cowboys will never have another winning season and stop being so selfish!

God also speaks to us through searching and pondering the scriptures. He may reveal something in a passage that we hadn’t noticed before. For example, many years ago I was having a rough time in both my personal and professional life. I was trying so hard to do everything right and everything seemed to be coming down hard on me. The harder I tried, the more I screwed stuff up. While reading in the Book of Mormon I came upon this passage in Mosiah 4:27: “And see that all these things are done in wisdom and order; for it is not requisite that a man should run faster than he has strength. And again, it is expedient that he should be diligent, that thereby he might win the prize; therefore, all things must be done in order.” I was trying to do too much at one time and not focusing on any one task. That lack of focus caused me to drop many balls.

Finally, I had not gone to church in months. I had plenty of excuses, but the reality was that I wasn’t making the time. Sure, we were all busy, but not so busy I couldn’t find an hour each week to attend a sacrament meeting. I look at my faith as the equivalent of Green Lantern’s ring. As time goes on, its energy gets used and needs to be recharged in the lantern. Church is that lantern for me. I wasn’t going to church to get spiritually refreshed, and began the war without a fully charged ring. I didn’t recognize it at the time and probably wouldn’t have noticed had it not been for combat. I was even able to give fellow Soldiers blessings prior to crossing the border.

All those things made for a recipe for disaster when I needed to rely on that ring (my faith). It wasn’t as strong as it could have been.

So, this deployment I came in knowing what I needed to do to stay strong. I pray nightly and I read at least one chapter each night. My goal is to finish the entire Bible and Book of Mormon before I redeploy. I attend church services at least once a week (so far twice a week) to recharge my ring. The fellowship I receive also provides me with a support network if it’s ever needed.

I also know that this deployment is nothing like my last deployment. I’m not going to have the same challenges as I was presented with last time. I’m not involved in sustained combat on a daily basis. But this deployment does present its own challenges that come with too much idle time. So, I’ve found constructive ways to spend what little free time I allow myself. Of course, there’s not as much free time as I’d like to have, but it could be worse.

I write letters to my family and supporters. I keep up with the news. I take photos. I read books onto a DVD that is sent to my kids. I also read my own books. I’ve started the Insanity workout program to get in better shape so I can keep up with the youthful vigor of my wife!

In other words, I’m choosing wholesome activities to occupy my time. I’m keeping the Spirit as close as possible and that ring charged so that when/if an event arises in which I or someone else needs to rely upon it, I won’t waver. I will not falter. I will not fail (to borrow a great speech from a great man). It took me years to find my soul again. I’m not losing it this time.

HEARTS OF GREATNESS |

October 17, 2011

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

Yesterday morning I was informed that a Soldier would be seeing me after our morning report for injuries sustained during a mission the night before. This Soldier was different, though. He was furry, cute, and Framed Duber GREATNESSshowed his appreciation through licking my face and wanting to play. His name was Gizmo and he was an 80lb Special Forces Belgian Malinois work dog.

This pup injured himself during a mission on steep rocky terrain when he slipped and fell, injuring his front right side, which has caused a limp ever since. There are no orthopedic veterinarians in our region of Afghanistan, so I happen to be the next best thing; after meeting Gizmo I think he agreed. I examined him and localized his pain to his shoulder and paw. We needed to do X-rays to further evaluate my new patient so our FOB vet gave him a mild sedative. Once he was in a calm state we positioned him and radiographs were taken.

Fortunately for Gizmo he had no fractures and likely just contused his shoulder and paw. His sedation was reversed and specific instructions were given to his handler which included an oral anti-inflammatory. Gizmo will follow up with our vet after two weeks of recovery to clear him for future missions. It’s not every day a patent of mine licks me to show their thankfulness, but as long as they're cute and furry I don’t mind.

This morning I was barraged with consults and follow-ups. It took me some time to catch up, but eventually I succeeded. Sergeant W was one of the more interesting stories today. He was sent to see me after sustaining a knee injury in a high elevation mountainous area; actually too high for a medevac helicopter to reach him. He spent more than a day at an extreme elevation waiting to see if a Blackhawk could reach him but after a period of time an airlift was not in the cards. So through rough steep terrain, two fellow soldiers had to carry him down to a location where the altitude was amenable for a Blackhawk to reach him. The trek took his comrades 12 hours of effortful hard-earned sweat, but gallantly they succeeded and Sergeant W was medevaced to our FST.

I never got to meet these two helping Soldiers and likely will never have the chance. They were a part of Sergeant W’s unit and he informed me that a beer back in the U.S. will not suffice; he will be buying them a keg. I don’t think he will ever live this event down. Call it a hunch. After evaluating him I sent him to Germany for an MRI of his knee for further radiographic investigation. This Soldier will likely end up back in the U.S. for surgery, but his long term prognosis is excellent.

Tomorrow is going to be a memorable day for me. I recently was promoted to Major, and the ceremony will be tomorrow at 11A.M. An in theater deployment promotion is definitely a morale booster for me. I have been notified some special guests will be present for the event and feel honored. I decided the officer that will lead the ceremony will be Major Joseph Jennette one of the general surgeons on the FST with me. Joe and I have become very good friends over the last 2 ½ months and I anticipate we'll remain so for the rest of our lives.

There is something about friendships that develop in theater. It’s an intense stressful period of time in your life unlike anything the civilian world can match. Your life is always in jeopardy, and there is not much comfort material items can offer. The only comforts are trust in the man/woman next to you going through the same experience. This trust comforts you, motivates you, and brings everything out of you. "No Soldier left behind" is a real mantra of life out here. I’m not on the other side of the wire like those who are the real heroes, in my opinion, but I feel it. There is a common patriotic, spiritual and emotional bond among us all and it can’t be ignored. If you’re listening or not it will eventually overcome you and instill greatness in all hearts within its grasp; it sure has mine.

 

BUSINESS AS USUAL...WITH A TWIST |

October 13, 2011

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

Ahhh, Monday. The beginning of another KAF-tastic week here in the waterless beaches of Afghanistan. At least, they USED to be waterless.

That’s right -- I woke up today to an odd smell; and it wasn’t the Poo Pond. Initially it smelled like wet dog, but apparently that’s what Afghanistan smells like after the first rain.

Walking outside my chu, I noticed odd little puddles of wetness on the ground and thought perhaps the Taliban was broke and had launched a water balloon assault overnight. Later this morning, there was a strange sound overhead and I went outside to find a steady rain falling. The temperature was a comfortable upper 70s with a light breeze.

This is normal for October, when Afghanistan begins to see a steady increase in rainfall. From October through April, the amount of rain in Afghanistan steadily increases each month. I didn’t think it was possible after being here two months with nothing but mostly clear skies and consistently hot temperatures. Historically, September is the driest month of the year for the nation.

I’m looking forward to seeing the rain throughout the year, especially coming from Texas where we haven’t really had any rain in quite a while. My wife said it has been raining a little the past few days, but nothing to write to Afghanistan about.

Random thought: I wonder if the rainfall ever causes the Poo Pond to overflow. As I type this, the rain is falling again.

I met with my team today to go over some goals for the next few months as we get busier with folks coming and going on R&R (rest and recuperation) leave. Once that starts dying down, we’ll then be busy with redeployment operations (not for awhile).

Because we never really need to leave the FOB, I think it’s important that we use our time here wisely. I’ve encouraged them to sign up for some college courses that they can take in the evenings. Since our schedules are so fluid, I suggested online courses that meet their individual missions. We’re a tight-knit team and can cover down on each others’ work if it conflicts with a class. This weekend I will complete two classes and I begin an upper level biology course on the 25th that goes through December. I’ll decide whether or not to do one more semester at that point. Ahh, the beauty of online college, though it doesn’t leave much time for sleeping.

It’s kind of funny thinking how different this deployment is from my last. The last time I was deployed, I was a Staff Sergeant and led a very successful HUMINT team. The mission kept me out on the streets, interacting with the Iraqi people, and doing the important work of finding the bad guys.

Once I made Master Sergeant, my mission became more of a support and management role. I coordinate and deconflict the many missions for which my team is responsible. I miss not having the opportunity to go out with the teams like I used to, but it is what it is when you get to this level. I take pride in knowing that at least I can support the guys that DO go outside the wire. Someone has to arrange transportation of replacement personnel and equipment. Of course, I knew that I wouldn’t be leaving the FOB even before I deployed (as I wrote here). And you know what? I’m perfectly content with my contribution to the war effort. And so is my wife!

What I’ve found, though, is that being stuck within the gates of the FOB does not necessarily mean that I am safer here. In the two months that I’ve been here, we have had 58 rocket attacks and one VBIED launched against us. A few of these have landed within 150 meters of my location at the time. As a matter of fact, had I been down with the Brigade on their FOB, I probably would have been much safer! “Safety” is definitely a relative term in a combat zone.

The constant rocket attacks remind even us “fobbits” that we are still in a war zone. We still carry our weapons and ammo everywhere we go. While unsuccessful, the Taliban even attempted a ground attack against Kandahar Airfield last year. While I won’t say exactly where I’m located, our office is within small arms distance and sight from the perimeter fence. Needless to say, we will not be getting too comfortable until we’re safely back on Texas soil next summer.

In the military, we like to poke a lot of fun at us “fobbits.” I like to do it, too. The truth is that I’m proud to serve alongside these troops who are sacrificing time away from their lives, their families, and their hobbies to serve their country in whatever capacity they are called to. These Soldiers are top-notch and I’m honored to serve alongside them. Nothing and no one can take away their service and sacrifice regardless of where and how they serve in this war.

As I was reading my scriptures last night, I came upon some good advice that I’m heeding:

“Look unto God with firmness of mind, and pray unto him with exceeding faith, and he will console you in your afflictions, and he will plead your cause, and send down justice upon those who seek your destruction.” -- Jacob 3:1, Book of Mormon

I am clear in conscience and focused on my mission. I look forward to going home next summer after serving with honor in another combat zone and doing my part to answer the call my country has given to me. “Also I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then said I, Here am I; send me.” -- Isaiah 6:8, Old Testament.

THE FIGHT LANE (PART TWO) |

October 11, 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

Being a sergeant means trusting your Soldiers.

That does not mean that you renounce your responsibility to keep a close eye on them. In fact, watching them closely, offering them suggestions, and mentoring them at every step of the way is expected of NCOs everywhere. But once you have been working with them and given them a mission, you have to step back and let them work. Micromanagement is the albatross around our military's neck.

2nd Squad's enlisted Soldiers worked. And they worked well. In the chaos of the Fight Lane's room-clearing portions, our Soldiers were aggressive, careful, and communicative. When we hit the building that was home to the first sniper, we lost fire team integrity. Myself, the Bravo team leader, and SGT H, our squad leader, were scattered throughout the building, leading and directing small groups of our Soldiers (plus a few attachments) to clear rooms. Although in the chaos of the notional battle – in the dark, the heat, the confusion – our Soldiers were dispersed, they performed their jobs admirably, adapting to unfamiliar terrain (uncleared rooms) and took out what enemy forces (actors in manjammies) they found inside.

Although I was expecting 2nd Squad to have a lot of hiccups and indecision once inside the target building, each of the Soldiers surprised me by showing poise and a willingness to obey orders and adapt without question. I was impressed.

In real life, a handful of men with rifles could hold off or kill a squad of US Soldiers who had committed to assaulting an unfamiliar building. In training, the OCs were more forgiving in who they ruled as wounded or dead. Again, they wanted to see our men display aggression and decisiveness. With a little guidance from the squad NCOs, the men met those expectations.

Clearing a room is a nightmare. Often, Soldiers enter a house or compound blind. When we cleared Kulats (mini fortresses, typically home to an extended family) in Afghanistan, we often did not have maps – or if we did, we did not have much prep time. On a handful of missions I worked with some Special Forces teams that seemed to know where they were going – but that was probably due more to their superhuman abilities than to any real military intelligence preparation. The average grunt goes into the dark confused, disoriented, and scared.

Here is a practical exercise. Stand up. Look around the room in which you are standing. Count the doors – including closets – and windows. Multiply that number by, say, three. Now, add that number to the amount of blind spots in the room (spaces behind couches, under beds, spaces behind you or doors). Then multiply that number by the number of rooms in the house or building. You now have a conservative estimate as to how many angles the enemy may come from to kill you. If you're still feeling frisky, factor in the possibility of booby traps, multiple bad guys, darkness, and smoke. Oh, and exhaustion. And you don't have the element of surprise. Now you are beginning to have an understanding of the difficulties faced by our military in an urban combat space.

The key in training, as often in Afghanistan, is decisiveness. OCs like to see NCOs hollering out orders and Soldiers executing battle drills; the Taliban does not like to see a unit that moves quickly and with a purpose.

2nd Squad wasn't perfect, but we did our jobs. When I plunged into the target building, I linked up with the rest of the squad and helped channel the effort of force that the men were already driving. Within a few minutes, our squad occupied and cleared two floors, and eliminated the sniper and his buddy.

As the other team leader and I consolidated our hold on the building and checked our guys for water, ammunition, wounds, and their equipment, SGT H “called up” (spoke to the OC) our squad's status to higher headquarters. With his report finished, the OCs told us to reconsolidate back out in the street and prepare to move out to our next objective.

We were hot, breathing hard, and tired from the assault. But the lane was not over.

SGT H ordered us into a modified wedge formation, which put us in a dispersement allowing our firepower and our men to be distributed out at optimum angles. The lead OC – wearing a 75th Ranger Regiment Scroll on his assault pack and probably wanting to live up to the claim that implied – led us off into the woods at a brisk pace.

We plunged into the treeline, slapping branches out of our faces and barreling through thorn bushes. The mud sucked at our boots, and still pools of water soaked us up to our thighs. Stealth is the friend of the infantryman, but maneuvering through a swamp often eliminates noise discipline. It didn't help that the sounds of us tromping through the terrain were accompanied by frequent cursing.

We trudged on, trying to keep track of the OC ahead of us and one another around us. It would not be difficult for us to become separated in such thick vegetation. One of my priorities as an NCO is to enforce accountability for all personnel in an element. A rather painful experience from my last deployment is my motivation for keeping tabs on everyone. I have seen leaders make mistakes that allowed good Soldiers go to their deaths, and I have no intention of repeating them.

The sharp whistle of an artillery simulator echoed out from somewhere behind us.

“Incoming!” we screamed, getting down and taking cover. In real life, if a mortar, rocket, or artillery shell lands nearby, you're probably dead – unless you can get some cover between you and it.

I have great affection for compacted dirt walls and HESCO barriers.

The simulator popped off with a tepid explosion, and SGT H hollered out a direction and distance for us to run. Tactical considerations went out the window; we had to get out of the indirect fire kill zone. We ran. Which was difficult, considering the downed trees, thick brush, and oceans of black water in our path.

After reacting to a few more incoming rounds, we reconsolidated and began to move out in our wedge formation again.

Almost immediately we took contact. My point man dove down, scrambling along his knees and elbows to find cover.

I saw a burst of fire from up ahead and to my right. As the lead team leader, I now had two responsibilities: one, set up a somewhat-linear base of fire and manage the employment of my Soldiers' weapons systems, and two, provide my squad leader with the enemy's formation, weapons capabilities, distance, and direction.

This looked like me screaming to my 203 gunner and SAW gunner to bound up while the point man and I provided covering fire. I tried to direct my men into advantageous positions where they could provide deadly fires but still maintain their own security; simultaneously I hollered out “One o'clock, one hundred fifty meters, enemy machine gun team!” not sure of the distance or the weapon system but erring on the side of they have a big gun that can kill all of us very quickly.

Again, the Soldiers performed their jobs well, selecting good cover and controlling their rates of fire. I ordered them to pick up the rate as SGT H and Bravo Team maneuvered around to our right in a flanking action. Once I could see that they were in place, I called out the “shift fire” then “lift fire” commands as SGT H fired off signal flares and led the assault through the enemy positions. I heard the crack of rounds, and then there was only the voices of the NCOs leading the assault.

Once they cleared through across the objective, I ordered my fire team up to assault through. We moved over the “dead” bodies of the enemy fire team, then cleared through to reconsolidate our squad on the objective.

At this point, there are a dozen other tasks to perform – like searching for weapons, taking care of the wounded, caring for prisoners – but the OCs hurriedly formed us back up into a squad wedge column. There were a lot more obstacles – and a lot more fighting – in the kilometers ahead.

As we moved out, the lead OC began to scream at us if we did not move fast enough for his liking. I have never been to Ranger School, but I understand that there is a constant pressure there to move faster, faster, faster. This seems to me, in my admittedly limited experience, to be a technique employed by instructors to effect greater stress on Soldiers. In Afghanistan, moving faster, faster, faster is usually encouraged by someone who does not understand the threat of IEDs, booby traps, mines, or ambushes.

At one point, the OC, with whom we could barely keep up (we had full kit and moved in tactical formation, he had a light vest and assault pack) stopped my point man.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

“What are you doing?” the OC asked again. “Look around.”

I moved up to them.

“What's up, Sergeant?” I asked.

“Where are we right now?” he asked.

“We're in a linear danger area,” my point man said. He was right. I looked to the right and left, and there was cleared space in either direction. The corridor was probably used for utilities access.

“And you just walked right through it? Is that what you're going to do?” the OC asked.

“Sergeant, you told us to hurry up –” I started, but then stopped. I looked back and saw the rest of the squad taking a knee, some in the space, some within the treeline.

“You train to just move through a linear danger area, huh? That's what you train to do?” he asked.

Here was another situation where we were in a no-win. Technically, yes, the OC was right. We should have taken tactical precautions while crossing the linear danger area. We didn't because he had screamed at us to hurry up and follow him – abandoning most pretenses of tactical movement.

We were damned if we did, damned if we didn't.

Our position was already compromised, so I ran back to SGT H and explained the situation.

“Well, fuck, he told us to hurry the fuck up and run after him at full speed, and now he wants to gig us for following him?” SGT H asked. “Fuck it, just go. Just go, push through, have the guys pull security off to the sides while they cross. But just get us through it. Go.”

This will be my last post for about a month. My unit is attending the National Training Center for the next month or so. NTC is the best unit-wide training that the Army offers – Active, Reserve, or Guard. It looks to be a difficult but worthwhile experience, as it is tailored to our needs in the upcoming counterinsurgency fight. No Army training is ever perfect, but if anything is going to help us prepare for war, these next few weeks will.

See you on the other side.

DOWNRANGE IN AFGHANISTAN |

October 06, 2011

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

Here are some good recent updates and stories from Downrange in Afghanistan:

THE FIGHT LANE (PART ONE) |

October 04, 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

In the early part of summer, our National Guard brigade took part in a three-week long training session to build up our basic soldiering skills. Many of our tasks were “skill level 1,” meaning we spent time working on the basics of soldiering. In our down time, “white space,” or “Sergeants' Time,” (they don't often call it that anymore, because that would imply that sergeants still hold authority or respect in the Army) our platoon would practice what are known as battle drills. These drills involved practiced, flexible, and dynamic responses to given tactical situations. That is, when we are faced with a problem or a situation, we have a typical response prepared. These responses usually always begin with basic Army and infantry doctrine – the textbook answer – and are expanded upon and modified to suit a given situation.

The culmination of our dismounted infantry training was a several kilometer-long stretch of mud and overgrowth called “The Fight Lane.” We had been hearing about the course since our arrival in Fort Drum, and had seen many Soldiers returning to the circus tents completely black with mud. We were promised a long, intense, and challenging course that would test our recently-developed cohesion at the squad (8-10 men) level.

It was raining the day our platoon arrived at the course. I do not think that it would have made a difference; the Soldiers in charge of our training had warned us to expect to get wet and muddy no matter what. As our platoon waited inside of one of the range buildings, we discussed different strategies to prevent our gear from getting gummed up with mud. As infantrymen, we did not necessarily mind getting dirty, but as National Guardsmen, we knew that we would have next to no time to clean up our gear or our weapons, because our training schedule was so packed. We knew we might – might – have a few hours to clean our weapons, gear, or take a shower after we completed the lane before we had to report to our next range. We would be spending about three days and two nights in the field at the mounted gunnery course, and no one wanted to go into the field with their weapons, magazines, web gear, uniform, and boots caked with mud.

Some Soldiers put their rain gear over their web gear (the vests we wear over our body armor that hold our magazines and grenades), while others simply put it over their body armor. I was resolved to my fate, so I simply threw on my wet weather pants and threw my jacket on over the armor but under the web gear. I wanted to be able to access my magazines easily during the fight.

When it was our squad's turn to move onto the lane, we met our OCs (Observer / Controllers, Soldiers who would direct us and act as “referees” in the simulated battle). They were quite muddy, and they met us with smiles and promises of “good training.” [These OCs, it should be said, overall did a good job guiding our training for that day, but there were a few hiccups along the way.]

It's my experience that whenever someone promises you “good training,” that person typically means getting you as uncomfortable and as tired as possible.

We moved down to the base of a road leading up into “MOUT (Military Operations in Urban Terrain) City,” the makeshift village that units at Fort Drum often used to train for urban combat scenarios. After we cleared our weapons and loaded our blank magazines, we started our tactical movement towards the buildings.

The rain fell in a light drizzle. Rain drops hit my eyepro, blurring my vision. I would stop to wipe away the water, but eventually gave up. The adrenaline began to pump into my bloodstream as I felt my excitement grow.

The lo-fi crackle of a Muslim call to prayer echoed out from somewhere within the village. Although the buildings and their disposition implied a more contemporary western city rather than the Stone Age Afghan village they were meant to represent, the sorrowful music helped sell the sense of immersion. As I listened to the singer wail over the tired recording, I felt myself brought back to afternoons pulling security in Baracki Barack, mindful of the time the call to prayer sounded, knowing that any deviation in routine signaled a rallying opportunity for the Taliban.

Our squad moved into the settlement. Men in manjammies and women in full burkas scurried about at the edge of our vision. Some of them stared at us from windows or doorways. A door slammed shut somewhere, echoing like a gunshot against concrete alleyways.

When we reached what appeared to be the village center, my 203 gunner started interacting with a merchant who was selling fruit at a small stand. While my squad leader parlayed with the local men, the other team leader and I moved our individual Soldiers into better defensive positions or pulled security.

Sergeant H, our squad leader, learned that there was a possible sniper in the buildings ahead. We thanked the locals for the intelligence, and as we began to move out, took fire immediately. All of the Soldiers took cover, and our squad scattered to various positions. We occupied roughly 300 meters of terrain, but our positions were haphazard and we had very little control of the situation. It's been said that a good sniper can halt the progress of a whole battalion; a bad sniper can at the least make a squad re-think its movement.

As we took cover, we called out to see if anyone had seen a muzzle flash or a direction of fire. We assumed it was to our 12 o'clock, but no one could be sure from where the shot came. My point man and I were closest to the front of the formation, but we could not see anything except for empty windows and scattering civilians.

“Why aren't you shooting?” one of the OCs hollered over to me. I looked over at him – he stood right in the middle of the street while the rest of us took cover. He walked over to me, barking out frustrated instructions.

Behind me, one of the OCs called one of our Soldiers as hit, so Sergeant H popped a smoke canister for concealment as others dragged the casualty into a nearby building. As the purple smoke welled up towards the sky, the OC continued to scream at me.

“Where's your covering fire?! Start shooting!”

I began to fire my rifle and hollered for the point man to do the same. We got through about half a magazine each when another OC came up behind me.

“What the fuck are you doing? Can you see the sniper?”

“No sergeant, I can't.”

“Then why the fuck are you firing? You're breaking the rules of engagement!” He threw his arms up in frustration.

“The other guy told me to start firing – ” I started, but then stopped. There was no point in arguing with OCs. They just got pissed off at you. In training, often you are not supposed to respond tactically to a situation. You are supposed to do what the OCs want you to do. Often, what the OCs tell you to do does not make sound tactical sense, but if you don't do it their way, you get gigged. And if you do do what they tell you, another OC will come up and tell you how “fucked up” you are – like this situation. So I didn't bother arguing with the guy.

“Cease fire!” I called out. My point man looked over at me and frowned, but he lowered his rifle.

By now, the OCs had marked additional casualties. In a real-world situation, if a squad loses two or three men to wounds or death, it is rendered combat ineffective. Had this been a real engagement and had we taken casualties, we would have set up a casualty collection point in a secure location or withdrawn while calling in indirect fire on the suspected sniper position. But because it was training, we had to advance upon the enemy, irregardless of how we would operate in real life. I know this teaches aggressiveness and confidence in our battle drill training, but when real rounds fly, you tend not to act like you are training anymore.

The squad reconsolidated inside of the building closest to Sergeant H. I ordered my team back to that position, and we rallied inside. The sniper fire stopped as the OCs offered some choice insults for our squad's reaction. Again, it is hard to tell whether such comments were meant to be taken literally, or if they were part of building a stressful environment. If you continue to operate despite what they are saying, you can get gigged. If you stop to listen to them because you think they might be serious, you get gigged. It's often not a good addition to training.

Sergeant H ordered us to advance after our “casualties” were restored to life.

Heading back outside by a different street, we located the target building and entered it. In planning and in doctrine, every movement and action is clear, concise, and well laid out. In the field, phrases like “dynamic entry” mean run as fast as you can into the building with your weapon ready with whomever is still around and alive.

War is, at best, marginally organized chaos. It is how a unit responds to the chaos, and how it maintains a semblance of control, that marks its proficiency.

I plunged into the target building, stumbling through the dark. I heard the popping of blank rounds ahead of me, and smelled their acrid smoke.

To be continued...

SWEGER |

October 01, 2011

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

He was walking down a street in Fallujah, Iraq. The power lines sagged and the light poles leaned at awkward angles. He was awkward. The catch for the door to the compartment on his rifle’s stock had broken, and the piece of plastic jangled loosely in the chilly winter breeze. The city looked like suburban Southern California, stucco-clad and uniform; every house had a gate, and most had rooftop access. The civilians had fled our sector but locked all of the doors behind them, which left empty houses that we spent the day breaking into. Every now and then a suicidal group of Jihadis would surprise the infantrymen like a jack in the box.

This had happened and third platoon was down a squad. He had not been there but had come to third platoon to help replace the wounded squad. By trade he was a machine gunner. He had not had to clear many houses before. That was the rifleman’s job, and after the house was cleared the machine gun would be placed on the rooftop to cover the riflemen on the ground level. Now he was a rifleman and that was alright with him. Everything was always alright with him. His haunting smile floats in dreams, a buddha, only speaking of his family and his girl back home, and always about going home.

The Captain had told the Lieutenant to tell the grunts that someone was going to die the next day. We sat next to each other on the tracked vehicle, which would vibrate violently for a few miles and come to an abrupt stop that would toss around the Marines on the benches. The back hatch would drop and the Marines would run out the hole, fresh into sunlight.

I would walk next to the Lieutenant and listen to my radio chatter. There was an argument between the leader of first platoon and my Lieutenant as to which platoon was going down which street. They switched streets and third platoon carried on down its new broken-down blown-out city route. I watched him as the Lieutenant and I followed another squad.

The power lines were sagging behind the leaning light poles and I wondered why he didn’t fix that damn catch and close that plastic door jangling awkwardly from his stock. He didn’t care, not about that or anything, he was going home. The suicidal Jihadis surprised him to death and startled the other Marines when they popped out of a house like a jack in the box.

We were sitting in front of the armory cleaning weapons in Okinawa, Japan. Fallujah was over; our days were easy as third platoon waited to finally go home. The base bugle sounded colors and we set our weapons down and snapped to the position of attention. The first song was the Japanese national anthem and base regulation mandated that we salute. I stood at attention with many others, refusing the salute. I felt guilty saluting a flag that had been captured by past and passed brothers, and felt the conquered blacktop beneath my boots. When our national anthem played the rest of us saluted.

After colors I turned in my clean weapon and traded it for another. The armory custodian handed me the new gun. He had been a machine gunner replacement for a wounded squad in third platoon during Fallujah. We smiled and we had that brother understanding. I returned to my weapon-cleaning. I broke the weapon down like I had been taught in bootcamp; I could have three rifles inspection-ready in an hour.

I moved from the rifle bore to the outer exterior, working my way down and never up, the dust and carbon flakes falling to the ground. I picked up the stock and the catch was broken. I inspected inside beyond the plastic door that swung loosely. Inside the compartment were skull fragments and dry blood. I swore and tossed the stock to the ground. The blood ran from my face. I had heard a rumor that the armory custodian might have shot him by accident. That story made sense when the accused requested I clean the weapon of the dead awkward man surprised to death by a jack in the box. I asked the custodian to check the serial number of the rifle's previous owner. He said his name and I handed him the weapon to finish cleaning.


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