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.

THRILL KILL |

November 28, 2011

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

Where do the wild things go? After childhood and the boy has made his decision to attempt to be a man, toys stored in the attic, ray guns traded for real ones. When he came home his mother said, “This is not my son.”

I was in Afghanistan in May 2006 serving as a Marine Infantryman on my second tour of duty when an Army CH-47 helicopter crashed leaving a joint operation that we had participated in. The word spread across Jalalabad Airfield and my platoon was ordered to gear up and wait for a helicopter that would take us to the crash site that we were to help recover and secure.

Our helicopters arrived early the next morning and we loaded as we had practiced. I sat down and put on my seat belt. My stomach drifted like a rollercoaster ride as our CH-47 climbed into the chilly clear blue skies over farmlands and into the mountains that lead to the Kunar Province. The door gunner let off a burst into the emptiness making a chop-chop-chop noise as he tested his weapon. The enormous flying banana would dip seemingly out of nowhere, and I would think about how not special I really was. It had happened to many before. A violent vibration would creep under our seats and spread through the cockpit, that nineteen-year-old door gunner would shake his head at me, eyes hidden behind his tinted black goggles, signaling to me our hopeless situation and then what?

Hopefully you’re unconscious when you burn to death, hopefully they can find your remains and this horrible nightmare will end. There is darkness in a combat zone; the worst part of a human becomes the part that wills his survival. I had lost some friends on a helicopter that had crashed leaving Fallujah on my first tour, I remember hearing the news ten days after the fact, and how secretly happy I was that it had not been me, and how ashamed I always feel for being grateful to have survived.

Our helicopter landed, I adjusted my goggles and ran off of the back ramp of the bird into a blinding cloud of fine glittering dust. I took a knee and began to conduct a radio check. The helicopter lifted off as the sweeping rotor wind finally died down and the dust settled I was surprised to see that we had landed in an opium poppy field.

I had trained up another radio operator to replace me, and he was better. I was already tired at the ripe old age of twenty summers, but once again I found myself hauling the communications equipment that had become my specialty after a couple of years. We were supposed to have been done with our Afghanistan deployment and had been prepared to leave but the Army helicopter crashed and fucked up our schedule. I had a problem with being tasked out to recover an Army helicopter crash when I was a Marine and was outnumbered easily three to one, Army to Marine, back at the airfield. I hated to be forced to risk my life off schedule; it wasn’t good luck and was good for the paranoia. I needed to come home; I would walk five feet and scan and look at the good places to take cover if we were suddenly attacked. I needed to come home; this had not been like my first deployment where I was convinced that I would die. By the end of Afghanistan I was determined not to let a stupid mistake fuck up my chance at a legal drink.

The Marines snaked along a goat trail worn into the side of an Afghan mountain. We would pass through a village, and the elders would stand outside, stroking their beards covering the deep set lines their hard life has rewarded them for thirty years of fighting. He was not happy to see me. I could see the smoke coming from where the helicopter had crashed. I wondered if the elder would plan an attack while we were occupied with searching for the dead bodies.

After a sharp left turn I began to see electronics hanging in the bushes, and pieces of scrap metal, some fabric. It smelled like a fried motherboard. I gave an extra pack of cigarettes to a soldier that had been from the same unit as the guys on the helicopter. He told me that he had watched the CH-47 roll down the mountain on fire. A couple of Air Force operators specialized in crash recovery were attached to us, and began their descent into the scene of the flaming wreckage. They took some Marines with them and rigged up a pulley system. At the foot of the mountain they would secure a body-bag to a skid and we would pull on a rope like a bunch of pirates on a ship until the corpse reached our lip of the mountain. It would take the better part of an hour to get one up the hill.

By nightfall we had located all but two dead soldiers. I slept near the row of body-bags. In the morning the missing soldiers were located and we assembled teams to carry the bodies to the landing zone that we had arrived in. The work was challenging, the bodies were heavy and as ribs cracked through the bags I began to vomit at the smell that reminded me of how the city of Fallujah Iraq had smelled a little over a year before. I thought about the mission we were doing, and I came to peace with the Army/Marine thing. It didn’t matter. All that mattered was that we got the bodies of the dead Americans back to America.

As we passed through the village I saw the elder again. He began to smile. He was happy to see me, vomit in the corners of my mouth and maybe a little pain in my American eyes. I wanted to shoot him, to raise my weapon and rip the smile off of that cheap fucker's face. Leave him there for his son to find after he was done with his bomb planting for the day. Let America ask why I would have wasted him. It was because he smiled and these bodies were in his ugly ass country for reasons I could care less about. But I didn’t kill him; I went home and had my legal drink to forget the bullshit. Now I am a human again and I watch the robots talk about how they lined up an Afghan man on a wall and murdered him, and I thought about it, what a long war it has been, about how the worst parts of combat were not the dangerous ones, but the times where we were doing nothing. How it felt when a buddy died and how bad I wanted to make someone feel that way. And I wonder, Why this is such a long war?

HAPPY THANKSGIVING FROM AFGHANISTAN |

November 24, 2011

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


Old Glory flies confidently over Kandahar Airfield at dusk, Nov 23. Photo by CJ.

As I write this, the majority of Americans are tucked safely into bed in anticipation of the next day’s food and festivities. Here in Afghanistan, Soldiers are beginning to wake up. Breakfast is just being served and others are out exercising. I want to take a moment and just tell you what I’m thankful for this year.

First and foremost, I’m thankful for a forgiving God. I’m thankful for the atonement of his Son, Jesus Christ, that made it possible for me to live again in spite of my sins and shortcomings. Though many, I have been provided with opportunity and grace through humility and repentance.

I’m thankful for my life. As some of you know, I had a close call last year and the past 18 months have been rebuilding and strengthening my mental and emotional well-being. It’s been a rough journey for me and especially my family. Which leads me to my next thanksgiving.

I would not be here without family. Dealing with me has not been easy the past few years. Nothing hurts me more down to the core than to know that something I have done causes my family to wonder if it is worth it or if they are capable of dealing with it. My wife, Emily, has been my stalwart ally in this fight against mental demons she couldn’t see. She’s had to endure her husband disappearing and sleeping in his car. She’s had to endure sleepless nights and angry days. Yet, though it all, she was my backbone; my cheerleader. She was there to tell what I needed to hear. She was there to hold me accountable. She was there to give me reason to live. She is my rock, my love, my everything. I am so thankful that a beautiful, young woman gave this long-haired punk kid a chance. I love her more today than I have ever loved her or anything. She completes me; makes me feel like in all the chaos of life there is something sweet, innocent, kind, generous, and loving on this earth.

I’m thankful for my awesome kids. As I watch them grow without me, I’m in awe at the wonderful things Emily and I have created. They are smart, outgoing, kind, and just the greatest kids. While I could do without some of the attitudes, I’m so thankful that they are in my life and a part of my family. They make me proud to be a father every day just seeing them smile and make us laugh.

I’m thankful for the troops I have the honor of serving beside. While you’re reading this in the comfort and safety of your home (unless you live in Chicago), there are troops outside the wire right now sleeping on stiff cots, in the dirt, on the roof of a house, or hunkered down in some rocks on a mountainside freezing their tuckus off. While I sit in the comfort of my air conditioned “chu,” there are troops patrolling the streets, blowing up IEDs, and clearing villages of murderers. There is no personal space, no personal time, and no personal clothes. Every hour of their day is accounted for, but they do it for something they’re deeply thankful for. And I’m thankful they’re out there ensuring my safety in here as well.

Our great country. I am thankful for the United States of America. I’m so appreciative that I am privileged to serve the greatest country on earth. In spite of our shortcomings, America is a nation deeply embedded in the ideals of liberty, charity, and community. While some -- myself included -- may think that those ideals are slipping from our grasp, rest assured that there are those willing to give their lives for its assurance. I’m grateful that I serve a country that does so much good at home and abroad.

Finally, I’m thankful for my friends -- all of YOU. One of these days someone will convince what I’ve done to deserve such support, love, and devotion. I am constantly in awe of the people I’ve been privileged to meet and become friends with over the years through my writing. I’m thankful for the opportunities it has presented to me. I’ve seen some awesome things and met some awesome people. Some of you I’ve never even “met” but would drop everything in an instant to be there for you. Thank you for just being there.

THE FRONT |

November 23, 2011

Name: Major Dan
Returned from: Afghanistan
MilblogAfghaniDan

Framed Huvane FRONT 1Where is The Front these days, anyway? I'm glad you asked (didn't you?). It's a topic with which most current military members are familiar, but the general public, not so much.

As far as I can tell, the term was popularized in the American consciousness back in World War I, when trench warfare produced very clearly defined lines of battle. Those obvious front lines and rear areas generally continued through the Korean "police action" (we technically stopped calling them wars then), and progressively got more muddled with each conflict involving the United States. In every case, there has always been at least some action that defied the designated battle lines, but by now it has become gospel that there is no rear area. Soldiers and Marines who are regularly engaged in combat with insurgents in the south and east of Afghanistan may dispute that, with good reason -- because regionally, Framed Huvane FRONT 2there still often are. But this year's spate of attacks in Kabul, Herat, Mazar-e-Sharif and elsewhere demonstrate that in a counterinsurgency, lines are rendered largely meaningless.

I find it difficult to get this point across to civilians who routinely ask, "Were you on the front lines?" or who absolve me of such danger with, "At least you weren't at the front."  Believe me, I'm grateful that I wasn't on patrol in Sangin -- but that doesn't mean that my risks were nil while a fobbit at Camp Leatherneck or especially Kandahar Air Field was in mortal danger. Some who reside at Camp Eggers or the embassy are routinely out and about with officials (both Afghan and Coalition) whom the enemy would consider to be high-value targets. The Front is all relative. And in the case of my headline today, it simply means Afghanistan.

Somewhat refuting my case, as I mentioned already, is the experience of those troops in the hot zones of the country, since physical lines of battle do still exist in places. The story linked below is an example of one in Kunar province, where I participated in operations five years ago and where our footprint (and unfortunately, that of the Afghan National Army) is now much-reduced.

Framed huvane FRONT 3""It is a part of Afghanistan so isolated that when the Second Battalion, 27th Infantry arrived here from Hawaii in April, villagers thought they were Russian soldiers. The road serves as the region’s unofficial border with Pakistan: from its eastern side the Taliban influence politics in local villages and use mountain footpaths to bring weapons in from the wild tribal areas. American and Afghan security forces operate largely from the west."

Some Marines from 1/3 (ironically, also stationed in Hawaii) encountered the same confused reaction when they sat with village elders during Operation Mountain Lion in 2006. We found it incredulous then that so little was known about the world beyond the Pech Valley, especally what had taken place in Afghanistan. I suppose it's even more incredulous now.

A Mission’s Troubles Offer Window on an Unsteady Region in Afghanistan

Still, the training continues by the men and women of our armed forces and those of a couple dozen allies, in the hope that Afghan security forces can take the lead in providing national security. Below is an encouraging story for those who believe change is possible even in the most stubborn places. The bravery of these women who join Afghanistan's security forces never fails to amaze me.

“Day to day, for women in Afghanistan, Taliban are a big threat to them. I don’t care about the Taliban. My God is with me.”

Framed Huvane FRONT 4

Female Cadets Signal Slow Change in Afghan Police Force


Now, a two-parter that left me shaking my head...

Framed huvane FRONT 6One thing many service members can agree on, whether they risk life and limb daily in remote combat outposts or rarely leave built-up bases, is that the regular presence of a friendly dog or cat can boost morale tremendously. It's even more crucial for the former, since the dogs "adopted" by troops often detect deadly danger out of service to their masters, and the cats can control rodent populations of inviting FOBs. Even in Kabul, regularly feeding my Casper and her brother gave me something to look forward to each day, as I often wrote -- and leaving them was bittersweet, especially just as she had given birth to a litter. The scene described below is absolutely heartwarming, bringing me back to that bond and giving me even greater respect for the true dogs of war who willingly sacrifice their safety for the warriors who take them in.


Afghanistan dogs joyfully reunite with US military members at JFK airport.


The irony here is that only a few days ago, our Department of Defense (through the Army and the Marine Corps) made it even more official that no contact with animals is permitted over there, due to the death of a U.S. Army soldier who'd earlier contracted rabies. The policy was already in place, it was just loosely enforced in many spots due to the aforementioned tradeoffs of keeping pets. My feeling is that while his death was tragic, it was avoidable, and the knee-jerk reaction will cause more harm than good. These dogs obviously provide desperately needed love and support to their adopters. Just get freakin' tested and re-tested if you get bitten or suspect any other transmitted illness. A little leadership can enforce that.

Rabies death leads DoD to crack down on pets.

I offer one final item. I'd caution against interpreting it as anything more than it is (and surveys are notoriously unreliable especially in Afghanistan), but it represents hope -- maybe significant hope -- that the people will resist a return to Taliban rule in the future.

"A survey released Tuesday by the San Francisco-based Asia Foundation and funded in part by the U.S. government found that 82 percent of Afghan adults back reconciliation and reintegration efforts with insurgent groups. However, it said that the number of people who said they sympathized with the aims of Taliban had dropped to 29 percent compared with 40 percent last year and 56 percent in 2009."

Framed Huvane FRONT 7
AP photo / Musadeq Sadeq, via Time.com

Afghan elders worry U.S. may leave too soon.

Once again, incidentally, the only noteworthy coverage of the traditional Loya Jirga currently taking place in Kabul is of the failed rocket attack two days ago. Failed being the operative word there. One errantly struck a market a half-mile away, wounding one, and the other was even farther from the mark. While news is news, wouldn't it be more responsible of the press to report half as stridently on what's taking place inside the tent, and maybe of the strategic context in which it's taking place?

WHERE SOLDIERS COME FROM |

November 22, 2011

Name: David Stanford, Sandbox Duty Officer

I want to pass along word about Where Soldiers Come From, a documentary film about a group of childhood friends who join the National Guard together and deploy to Afghanistan. It was shown on PBS in early November, and from now until December 10th you can watch the entire thing online at the POV website.

Here's the trailer:

Watch Where Soldiers Come From - Trailer on PBS. See more from POV.

OH, THE (WAR) STORIES YOU'LL HEAR |

November 17, 2011

Name: Alex Horton
Returned from: Iraq
Milblog: VAntagePoint and Army of Dude

Rain had transformed Baghdad's many unpaved roads into one giant muddy sinkhole, and the engine of a Stryker vehicle moaned in a failed effort to escape. The vehicle sunk under the weight of its armor and required a tow. The driver and vehicle commander leapt to the ground to attach towing cables to the front, only to discover they weren't shin-deep in mud—they were stuck in an open sewer. One of them had to completely submerge himself to get to the tow hook. When it was over, both men were covered head to toe in jet-black ooze and sprayed down by a benevolent Iraqi in her courtyard. The worst part of that day? It was Christmas Eve, and surely one we'd remember.

The holiday muck fest is one of my favorite stories to tell civilians. Even though it's repulsive, it doesn't have an ounce of violence. No one had their limbs torn away from their bodies. No rendition of Taps swept over a memorial service to mingle with recollections of the dead. Everyone comes out okay in the end, albeit a bit filthy. My Christmas story humanizes my fellow soldiers in a way many of my other stories can't.

Underneath our helmets and body armor and grenades primed to sling shrapnel, we were young men in an absurd situation pulling a vehicle out of human waste. After I tell civilians that story, or countless others, they no longer think of Iraq as a place measured by half-minute segments on the nightly news or in column inches of a newspaper. For a moment, they are there with me; their nostrils twinge and their shoulders bend under the weight of ammunition and ceramic plates.

They usually say, “I can't even imagine.” I'm secretly grateful they even try.

Stories and recollections are at the foundation of our social existence. Listen to any group of people talking, and soon enough you'll hear something like “That reminds me of a funny story. . . .” or “That's like the time when. . . .” Most connections are shared over common experiences, like 21st birthday parties or misadventures in a college dorm.

But not since the Revolutionary War have so few citizens engaged in sustained conflict. Veterans of all wars not only carry the burden of a decade of combat, but they do it out of view of the rest of the nation—inside military bases and in living rooms among their families. Some carry the load alone at the bar or at the bottom of a pill bottle, or too many times, on a park bench. Sometimes years of service—medals and promotions and countless stories—are condensed to two lines on a resume that far too often gets tossed in the garbage.

The latest numbers for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans show high unemployment compared to the overall rate; while overall unemployment has dropped to nine percent, 12.1 percent of recent veterans are jobless. Thousands of vets of all eras will sleep under bridges, in back alleys, and on couches tonight.

Are we, as a nation, apathetic to veterans? I don't think so. But to accept them back into society, we must move away from supporting our troops only during encounters in an airport or glimpses during halftime at football games. Veterans come home feeling different and odd because their minds have not caught up with their bodies. They return to the states in fragments; in stories and laughter over photo slideshows and war souvenirs clutched tightly. Those unforgettable moments of a deployment laid bare between two people can help heal the trauma of war.

The impact of stories depends on the generation from which they come. Nearly a thousand World War II veterans die each day, and with them, tangible slivers of history. Korean War veterans like my grandfather, are now into their 70s. I cherish the stories he has told me throughout the years. How he received his Purple Heart; why he chose to be in a machine gun squad (because they carried just a holster on road marches). He has lessons to tell of a war as fierce as it is forgotten. Pretty soon, his stories will only live on in photographs, or stories passed down through my family like ancient rituals.

Veterans Day 2011 will come and it will go, but stories like these, among veterans of all generations, will remain, waiting to be let out.

I can't quite place why I'm willing to share so many of my war stories with civilians. Some of my friends keep their service hidden and move on, like the Army and the war were scenes from a long forgotten movie. Not me, though. Perhaps I'd rather think of myself in a moment in time where I didn't quite know how those stories would shape my life after the war. Or why I stumble madly in the dead of night to double check the locks that keep out enemies without form or figure.

In a fractured existence of countless stories, I still watch the Stryker labor in the muck under its own weight; I see gunships in the distance burp heavy fire and hear the delayed chatter of the guns; I feel the savage fury overtake me as a friend is stuffed into a body bag. I can't escape the grinding machinery of the present, no matter how bafflingly unpredictable and scary and bizarre it is compared to war. But each story I tell puts those moments to rest. If we come home in fragments, it's the stories that make us whole again.

 

This post originally appear on Time's Battleland blog.

Alex Horton is a public affairs specialist at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, where he writes for the department's blog, VAntage Point. He is also an English major at Georgetown University in Washington. He served for 15 months as an infantryman in Iraq with the Second Infantry Division. Follow him on Twitter: @AlexHortonVA

 

CODE DELTA |

November 14, 2011

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

Two days ago my time here in Afghanistan bled the reality my life has become.  My fellow surgeons and I were headed to the DFAC at our usual time for dinner, when from out of nowhere two rockets passed 100 feet over our heads and landed 50 yards away in a chilling intense explosion; a deafening white and red fiery aura surrounded us. Everyone in sight scattered in disorientation. After hitting the ground on instinct we sprinted to a nearby bunker and waited for the unexpected immediate future.

Within a couple minutes the bunker was filled with the stench of sweating soldiers after being filled to capacity. The familiar sounds of Apache gunships filled the distance, and with it comments of mal-tidings for those responsible, from soldiers in my close proximity. A couple minutes later the sirens and audible message of “Code Delta” began.*

We were not aware if any injuries had been caused, so after a short amount of time we sprinted back to the FST to hold our positions if medical treatment was necessary. We were held in a position of lockdown for probably an hour, and fortunately no injuries were reported. We were informed that the rockets had hit positions just past a major congregating area, and left holes four feet in depth. Obviously the situation could have been much worse, and my subconsciousness and that of others were alarmed. For the remainder of the night our security was coaxed by the sounds of invisible Apaches keeping watch over us from the blackness of the sky above.

The following morning I awoke with my senses alert, unlike past days. The previous night’s rocket attack opened insecurities within myself I have not felt before. Lately, we have been informed that intelligence sources have increasing credible information of an impending attack on our base. With the recent foiled plan of 13 internal insurgents on our base and then yesterday’s rocket attack, anxiety is becoming apparent in members of our FST and surrounding soldiers. We actually were given tentative dates on which the attack could occur; very soon. All we can do is prepare and hope it does not come to fruition.

Framed Duber CODE DELTAToday, I saw a five-year-old Afghan girl back, who many previous FOB orthopedic surgeons have been involved with. Two years ago she fell into her home fire pit and sustained severe burns to her hand.  She has had multiple surgeries over the last couple of years to help regain motion and achieve separation of her fingers, which fused together following inadequate Third World local treatment.

This young girl has done surprisingly well, and may potentially need only one more operation. Today’s appointment with me was to see how her hand was progressing. Unfortunately, one of her fingers has begun to flex further as the surrounding deformed skin has continued to contract. Through our interpreter “Max” I discussed the situation with the girl’s father.  He agreed with my surgical plan, and a tentative date about a week from today was set, to surgically correct her finger.  I asked Joey T to join me for the surgery as he will be pursuing a fellowship in plastic surgery in the not-too-distant future, and skin grafting will likely be needed.  I’m excited to make a difference in this young girl’s life, and so is our entire Forward Surgical Team. 

*"Code Delta" means an attack is underway. There is also "Code Charlie," which means an attack is imminent, and "Code Bravo," which means an attack is highly possible.

SOLDIERS NEVER TURN THEIR BACK ON THE FLAG |

November 11, 2011

Name: Christine Steward (aka Mrs. Bouhammer)
Husband returned from: Afghanistan
Son returned from: Afghanistan
Milblog: Bouhammer.com

Today, I stood in a field of flags and watched as my small group of Cub Scouts walked through the cemetery gently placing a flag at every headstone. I watched them as they moved in pairs from grave to grave. As I watched I noticed two small Cub Scouts about four rows away from the other scouts. What caught my attention was the gentleness I saw in them. As they approached each grave they kneeled beside the headstone and gently brushed away the leaves that were covering it with their gloved hands. After they finished removing the leaves, they measured with their fingers before they placed the flags. Then they took a step back and straightened their uniforms before they snapped to a salute. As I stood there I heard a faint whisper come out of their mouths “Thank you for your service…” I was so touched that I had to turn away from them to pull myself together. I really didn’t want them to see me cry.

I stood there so proud of my little group of boys. The time we spent out in the cemetery passed so quickly not one boy asked ”How much longer?” or “When can we go?” They were so serious and carried themselves with a purpose that I haven’t witnessed before. I was constantly scanning to keep track of all of the boys. When my eyes fell on the two boys again, I saw them standing near a row of flags and chatting to each other about something that appeared to be serious to them. I walked close to see what they were so serious about. As I approached them and asked what was wrong, they informed me that the flags along the two closest rows to them were placed wrong. The flags were placed behind the headstone instead of in front of them. They asked me for permission to move the flags to their proper placement and of course I gave it to them.

My attention was quickly drawn to a large group of ROTC Cadets from a local college, who had begun gathering and chatting loudly amongst themselves. Moments later the Commander in charge of the Cadets came to me and asked me “Do the boys over there belong to you?” Of course, I admitted that they were my boys. He then proceeded to tell me that my boys were messing with the flags that his cadets had placed and it was disrespectful and I needed to control them. I called the boys over even though I knew what they were doing. I wanted them by my side in case one of the cadets approached them.

When the boys arrived at my side I looked to them and said “Please tell this nice man why you are moving the flags that his cadets placed on the graves.” The boys turned from me to face the Commander and told him “Because the flags were placed wrong so we are moving them so that they are in their proper place.” The Commander looked at the boys and said “Boys, you should never play with the flags that are on the graves, it is disrespectful. The flags are not placed wrong.”

At that point, one of the two boys stated “But Mister, the flags were placed wrong because a soldier never turns his back on the flag!” The Commander stood there staring at the boys as if to ask them what they meant by that statement. The boys, almost in unison, explained that the flags had been placed behind the headstone instead of in front, and that they knew the placement of the flags should be in front of the headstone because “a soldier never turns his back on the flag." This was why they had so painstaking cleaned the tops of every headstone prior to placing each flag, because they wanted to make sure that the soldier buried in that grave could see the flag. The Commander stood there looking at the boys in amazement. At that point, I bent down to the boys to face them at eye level and thanked them for making sure that we were honoring our veterans properly. Before the boys walked away they made eye contact with the Commander and said to him, “Thank you for your service." The Commander smiled at the boys and said the only words he could muster: “Thank you."

(This piece was written nine years ago today. I held onto it in my journal and from time to time I have recalled the story. This story is special to me and has always touched my heart. I do not often share stories of my Cub Scouts but these two were very special to me because one was my son and the other his good friend. Nine years later, my heart is still full of pride for these two guys. One is a “knob” (freshman) at The Citadel and the other a senior in high school who will be receiving his Eagle Scout soon. When I look at these two guys I still see the same love and respect for our service men and women. I have no doubt that one day they will be doing great things for our nation.)

BOUHAMMER NOTE: This morning, just like the last 11 Veterans Days, the Cub Scouts from this pack are at the same cemetery placing flags at Veterans' graves. Now it is our youngest son who is walking from stone to stone with his fellow scouts making sure that the Veterans never turn their back on the flag. 

SEMPER FI MOM |

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

Even drill instructors have mothers. Mine are better than yours. That’s right I have two, my biological Mother Susan and my stepmom Marie, aka “The Other Mom." This post will primarily feature my biological mother, as she gave me the inspiration for it. I was going to write about the Bradley Manning situation, but while interviewing family members it occurred to me that I have never attempted to tackle a subject in writing that I had always thought about while in combat.

My mother birthed me when she was twenty -one. My understanding of her youth at that time had not hit me until I recently turned twenty-five, happily childless. Despite the horror of it all I believe motherhood is more difficult than combat. We were a team early on; my first memories are of us playing the original “Mario Brothers” at home in 1989. I remember her cooking from when I was very young, the smell of it, something I hung onto in war. I remember blasting ducks with a plastic orange gun in 1989. Bang bang went the piece, a two-bit duck would fall from a two-bit sky, my gun two centimeters from the television screen, and I would ask my mom to look at it, what I had done, my victory.

As I grew up, she constantly reminded me that she did not want me to join the military. I joined anyway, and sacrificed the world of women for four years as a U.S. Marine Infantryman. We had a final dinner the night before I took off for boot camp and I could feel that it was over, the childhood, the girlfriend, the old life that I had known so well, but didn’t know how good it was until it was gone. This becomes the common cry of the suburban teenage Marine Corps recruit. In boot camp we would all scream “Kill!” whenever the group or an individual succeeded at a task. If recruit so-and-so did twenty pull-ups the drill instructor would declare, “Give him one!” The platoon would in turn ecstatically and simultaneously shout, “Kill!” It was at this point of my “enhanced training” that I realized I would never be able to explain any of this to my mother in a way that would make sense to her.

The same idea became a theme in combat. I lied to my mother after we had moved into Fallujah, Iraq, a very hostile zone, and continued to tell her that I was in Kuwait, a safe zone. The Infantry Marines had no mothers to cry to, only each other to lean on, and a mother needed to be as far away from that death trap as possible. Even thinking of your mother in that place felt like a sin. My girlfriend was long gone and for many of those unfortunates that were married, so were their wives.

From the moment the combat began in November 2004 until the last one on October 31, 2006, friends around my young age began dying in what seemed a nonstop cycle. It was an old story; sparkly-eyed young men who were as funny as you began to disappear. I would see them one day and we would share a smoke and a story, a week later I would bump into a friend of his who would tell me the gory details of how the guy I used to know died. Trapped in a house and shot to death, friendly fire, vehicle accident, explosions or coming home and making a bad drunken decision that could not be taken back. While many of my friends in “the world” were in college or getting knocked up, The Marines were stuck in a corner of hell that would not translate to mothers.

My experience was not foreign to the eternal mothers of the planet, who have dealt with the blood of their children spilt since the first war. Other than the pain of it, the only thing I feared of death was the devastation it would have brought on my family. I felt that my mother would never understand why I threw my life away, and that my father would rationalize it. With their ancient divorce there would have been no forgiveness as my mother considered my father’s Army hitch and pride of service in peacetime as the primary motivator for my service during war. When I came home after my Marine hitch from the ages of eighteen to twenty-two, I cannot imagine what I must have seemed like to my own mother. There were dozens of dead friends stuck on rewind in my recent memory and a youth’s lust for alcohol as she chanted the mother’s mantra, “What have they done with my child?”

I had recently turned nineteen in Okinawa, Japan when the first Marine that I had been friendly with died. He marched to death on a company hike, walked until his brain was overwhelmed by heat. His core was too hot to process normal function, which leads to the organ failure. I heard that he had tried to quit the hike but was encouraged to continue by his brother Marines, who had no idea that their peer was dying. It was a shame, and I wondered what a person would tell their mother before they died if given the chance? When we landed in Iraq I was sure of my death. I remember thinking to myself that it was important not to consider living, as it would be a real bummer to expect to go home when you were bleeding to death and full of holes that could not be repaired.

I was twenty-two and near the end of my contract when I learned that a good friend of mine had been accidently killed in Recon tryouts when someone from the opposing force in a training exercise accidently loaded live rounds into his gun instead of blanks. The Marine had always been one of my favorites; he had the physique of an asshole, a million-mile smile and the heart of a monk. A Marine told me my friend had been shot in the head that his mother had given birth to. These were stories I did not keep my mom up to date with. How would you? We were trained to abandon the nurturing side of life; this training was necessary for all who survived and added time to the ones who did not. War is a sick and ancient dance but the fundamentals of the mental preparation for it have remained the same since its inception.

For those who have not experienced it, we cannot imagine what it must be like to exit this world in a violent fashion. Modern Americans are not equipped for demise of any kind, never mind the always avoidable death of the volunteer. There was something I was always trying to remember when I was in war. The feeling of security in my mom’s house, the way she called my name in joy and in anger. I wished I could explain my gratitude before I died. We all did.

Last week I called my mother after a month without contact and interviewed her. I wanted to understand what my close family understood about the war. I asked if she could place Afghanistan on a map and she could. I asked if she paid attention to the news on Afghanistan and she explained that she avoided the subject on purpose due to my service. A symptom of post traumatic stress disorder, a condition which myself and many I served with have been diagnosed. My questions focused on Afghanistan and not Iraq because of current media attention in that country, where I also served. We had never talked much about the war and her voice began to crack as we went back in time. I asked what she would tell the family of a serviceperson killed in action. She wept as she replied, “I hope that they have lots of pictures and I am sorry.” My mind stopped and I had asked too much. I thought of her photo albums that I had helped her preserve after nearly losing them a dozen years ago. My heart was breaking and I felt for the first time a dash of the pain my mother never talks about.

Somewhere we lost contact, six years and this war still hurts too bad to try to put my old family back together. When I was in junior high she encouraged me to participate in an essay contest. I placed in the first one I entered, and continued to place in these contests until I graduated. I remember being very young a million years ago, wrapped within in the safety of a normal American childhood and upbringing. There was a world she did not know well enough to warn about. My mom would listen to my writing and I held that feeling, the mom feeling, close to my soul in a dark world.

Gunfire and smoke locked in my mind reminds, that someday all face death, for most a distant reality. During combat we remembered our mother’s voice, her cooking, long gone summer road trips, her discipline, smile, and her embrace. First memories and last memories are for her and we will be a team forever,
I will always be young with her too,
and I can
explain
the pain

the same
as
she

can…


For the war mothers of all countries.

MADE IN U.S.A. |

November 09, 2011

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

It’s 4 A.M. and I’m torn from sleep by the rapid opening of the rusty steel door at the entrance of my barrack; knocking resonates from my door, followed by Joe J’s voice. He informs me that our Special Operative friends have brought us early morning business from a mission that just concluded. I force my senses to wake up, get dressed and head out the door to the FST. I open the door and am greeted by many familiar Special Forces faces that appear to be happy to see me. Next to them is a blindfolded restrained bloodied middle-aged bearded Afghan male on a gurney.

My SF friends inform me that this Afghan is a Taliban insurgent who was captured during the night’s mission. They need me to stabilize his orthopedic injuries before he is transferred to an Afghan-run detention facility for interrogation and holding. I examine the insurgent patient and identify many obvious conflict-inflicted injuries, and order appropriate x-rays to better evaluate them. After a review of the radiologic images I formulate a surgical plan.

It’s interesting to note that this is the first confirmed insurgent I have been faced with treating. Multiple other similar surgical cases were laced in obscurity, with no confirmation of insurgent intent. But now here he is in the flesh -- the enemy we're fighting against, that would slit our throats if given a chance, murder our wives and children. A sense of disgust boiled deep within my veins and I would be lying if I told you the non-physician part of me didn’t wish eternal harm on him. Images of the deceased U.S. soldiers I’ve treated raced through my mind, compounding my distain. It took a deep internal strength to control myself and maintain a professional composure; my white coat mentality fortunately won the best of me on this occasion. Who knows, maybe the day I meet my fate and am standing face to face with my creator I’ll reflect positively. I guess the American culture embedded within my center breeds compassion as well as the familial roots that raised me.

Framed Duber MADE IN USAThe insurgent was prepped for surgery and taken to the operating room. His fortunes afforded him my best efforts, as that’s all I know how to give in the surgical environment. Multiple injuries were addressed and surgically stabilized. The last orthopedic procedure was his leg, which required a long-leg “bivalve” cast. After it was complete I felt the need to remind this insurrectionist who he should thank for reconstructing him, so on his cast in big red letters I wrote “Made in USA" -- maybe a passive-aggressive gesture, but to me and my fellow soldiers, priceless. 

The chill of a new season is descending upon us here in Afghanistan. One noticeable difference from home is the absence of the brilliantly colored leaves of the Kentucky landscape. These last months in theater will no doubt be the most personally challenging for me. The holiday season is approaching at a fast pace and with it my absence to my wife and children. Daddy missed his daughters' first Halloween costumes and the exuberance of his sons as they were Buzz Lightyear and T-Rex. Pictures don’t ease the pain, and time does not stop in my absence. My oldest son, who is nearing 4 years old, has resigned himself to near complete avoidance of me when I call home, yet he cries for Daddy when he injures himself or feels insecurity. Talon, my youngest son, has crying spells during his mid-day naps at pre-school that are growing more common by the day. If they only could comprehend that their daddy feels their anguish. If they only knew Daddy’s dreams were filled with images of them.

INVITATION TO VETERANS, THEIR FRIENDS AND FAMILIES |

November 08, 2011

 Name: David Stanford, Sandbox Duty Officer

The New York Times has an ongoing forum called Home Fires, which has previously posted the work of several Sandbox writers. They are now soliciting contributions for a Veterans Day feature. Although there's not much time left, I thought I'd pass along word:

Invitation to Veterans, Their Friends and Families

The editors of Home Fires are requesting the participation of readers for a post on Veterans Day, Nov. 11. If you are a veteran, or friend or relative of someone who served during wartime and would like to share a written message or recollection, or a photograph recalling a veteran or their service, you can send it to us via e-mail at opinionator@nytimes.com. Please put HOME FIRES in the subject line of your message.

For details, please read this...

SSG BRIAN COWDREY |

November 05, 2011

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

It’s been a rough week. I haven’t written much because I haven’t been able to focus my thoughts. I’ve got a few drafts that just don’t make enough sense to publish. Plus, my momma always said if you don’t have something nice to say, shut your mouth. Not that I’ve necessarily heeded that advice over the years, but I thought it prudent recently.

I lost a good friend a week ago. SSG Brian Cowdrey died October 13, 2011, during combat operations in RC-East. Brian was a medic with the 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade. That night he went in to get two Framed Grisham COWDREYseverely wounded patients, and once they were onboard, he went back out to get one who wasn’t as bad. He didn’t need to, but he did. He was hit on his way back into the helicopter. All the patients that Brian got that night are still living today. There were only two people who died in that firefight -- one being SSG Cowdrey, the other being an American Soldier who had already expired when Brian got there.

The shock was difficult to process. We had just been emailing each other that day and I was waiting on a response to question I had asked him about what he does. We were working on a blog post together about the great work that MEDEVAC troops are doing in Afghanistan in spite of some reports.

Then I read on his wife Jill’s Facebook page confirming rumors that he had died. Here I was in Afghanistan and had no idea this had happened and then the nearly 12 hours of silence from him hit me. The first thing I did was head to my email and shot off an email to Brian:

“Brian, you have to answer this. I think I’m seeing things and I need to answer this. I don’t care what you say or if you send me a blank email. Just reply to this email and let me know you’re ok.”

Nothing. Silence. Outlook just jeered at me in a pathetic lack of activity. Two days later, I was still not convinced. “I know now I’m talking to myself, but I miss you bro,” I wrote in a Facebook message to him. He always responded on Facebook. He didn’t respond this time.

The tears flowed freely and I took a day to myself, not leaving my little 5×5 cell. I slept most of the day because I didn’t want to face the world and have people see me in that state. I used the time to grieve and get all the emotions out.

Initially, I was angry because I had missed Brian when he came through when he first arrived. We were making plans to try and meet up at some point while we were over here, but recognized it wouldn’t be for awhile. We got here at about the same time and things hadn’t settled down after nearly three months. I began calling around to find out if his body was coming through Bagram or Kandahar. If I wasn’t here to welcome him to Afghanistan, I was sure as hell not going to miss him leaving.

I sent emails and made phone calls to my leaders asking for permission to fly to Bagram where the dignified transfer was to take place. I didn’t get any response to any of my messages, but I found out that I had missed him by two hours. Strike two.

I contacted his unit to find out when the memorial would be held. I again tried calling my unit and sent emails asking for permission to fly to Bagram to attend a good friend’s memorial. Nothing.

Strike three. I had failed Brian three times. I was blessed to have a friend I know and trust there with me as I waited to go on leave and struggled with dealing with those emotions of loss. Though it was late at night, he stayed with me and made sure I was okay. Though he wasn’t in my leadership chain, it’s good to have people you can rely on. He’s one of the good ones and I consider him a friend, but I won’t embarrass him by naming him. He knows who he is and needs to hurry back for a new game of Killer Bunnies.

Instead of succumbing to my anger, I opened my scriptures and read. And it just so happened that the chapter I was reading that day was Jacob 3 in the Book of Mormon. The Lord spoke to me immediately in verse 1 saying, “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.”

Now, that last part didn’t necessarily apply at the time, but it eventually would. Because as this was winding down I was dealing with the ignorant actions of others that were seeking my destruction. People I never met, never spoke to, and who had no idea who I am were going out of their way to create problems and controversy where none existed, based on lies, and were actively engaged in seeking to bring me down with misrepresentation and blatantly false allegations.

It gave me the opportunity to witness good and bad leadership at the same time. I won’t get into the specifics of which is which or who the players are, but suffice it to say that hypocrisy reigns in today’s military, though there are also beacons of hope and justice in the darkness.

As affliction after affliction began piling onto my shoulders, my training and therapy began to kick in. I decided to start painting since writing wasn’t helping me. The words were coming out too sharp and I wisely sought the guidance of friends (and my wife) who suggested I not publish my words in my current state.

Kandahar is a rough place to be deployed for a year. The layout of the place is dysfunctional and unorganized. The chaos of the layout and the many people coming and going all over the place is stress enough. Add to it the constant rocket attacks and the chaotic schedule that I seem to be keeping and it’s imperative to find things to keep one’s mind occupied. I just finished a semester that kept me busy in what little free time I had. I was taking two classes with heavy writing requirements.

Anyway, to deal with this chaos, Soldiers find ways to take away the monotony with distractions. On Kandahar, we have what is affectionately known as the Poo Pond. It is a 4-stage, water treatment facility. And it stinks. I guess the best way to describe the smell that permeates most of the base is to imagine a cross between the worst sulphur odor mixed with beer vomit and sickly diarrhea. And that still doesn’t do it justice.

The Poo Pond is sort of an icon here at KAF. You can’t miss it. At some point during the day, the winds ensure that its magnificence is spread equally to all four corners of the post. The only ones spared its odoriferous wrath are the pilots and crews on the other side of the flight line.

So, when given poo the only thing you can do is make poo-ade.

Soldiers and civilians from many different countries periodically decorate the Poo Pond with tongue-in-cheek signs and accouterments. Here are just a few examples of the creative ways the Poo Pond has been honored:



I had been laying the groundwork for a project of my own, but I decided to kick my plans into overdrive and get started immediately on making my own mark at the Poo Pond. When it was impossible to find paint around here, a good friend rushed me some really good oil paints and brushes. I went to work sketching a design on some discarded plywood I found. My design had to be creative and different from what had already been done.

“Area Fifty-Poo” came pretty naturally. I was playing Killer Bunnies one day and someone played a card called “Area 51.” “Area Fifty-Poo” was a natural play on words and made me laugh inside. I also modeled my spaceship on the game card. My partner in crime sent me a few four-foot-tall, inflatable aliens to go along with the theme, and I knew this was going to be fun. For the past week, I worked diligently hand painting the sign. It kept my mind off all the trials and tribulations that had fallen upon my shoulders over the past week. And the result, I think, is a work of art.

It’s important for Soldiers to find positive outlets for their angers, frustrations, and feelings of guilt and being let down. It will consume us, eating at us from the inside leaving behind nothing but a hollow shell. I didn’t do this during my last deployment. I allowed things to fester until little things became big, unmanageable things. I still don’t suffer stupidity and flagrant ignorance very well, I think I’m getting better.

I’ve exercised more self-restraint over the past few weeks dealing with morons and their moron zombie squads than at any other time. I’ve controlled my responses and found more private outlets for releasing steam. I’ve relied more heavily on the advice and counsel of friends I trust.

And Brian, I still miss you, bud!

ONE FOR TEN |

November 01, 2011

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

Out of Iraq by the New Year. The sand will blow over the carcasses of our blown-out vehicles like it does for the old Russian tanks in Afghanistan. I will live a life and so will all who survived the country, and somewhere out there will be the metal and fabric skeletons that we used for our war. Framed Anderson ONE FOR TEN

For the Veterans of this war, we will have to begin to make a shift in care as these wars come to an end. We will journey the transition from current news to a distant memory, most likely similar to that of our Korean War. There was a war in Korea. I know! It ran from 1950 to 1953, and if you compare the numbers it blew US Vietnam killed in action statistics out of the water. The Korean War had been overshadowed by the hype of the end of the Second World War, and afterwards was minimized because no clear victory was achieved. Loss of life for the war on terror is infinitesimal compared to other American wars.

My hypothesis is that our connection to society as Veterans will be disconnected as soon as the war plug is pulled. Average Americans were not concerned about this war because it did not affect them. With no draft and no personal obligation to service, for most Americans these wars were a television show that ran long in seasons, with the same story since season four. This of course has happened before, to our brother and sister Veterans from Vietnam. Our problem is going to be in representation. Because it takes so few troops to conduct a war, we are a true minority and will always have few numbers to voice our needs and concerns. A society will not suddenly care for a cause it had no previous interest in.

I hope that all of the Veterans of this war come together and organize to make sure that we continue to advance the level of care that we receive, because we earned it.

I hope our Vietnam Veterans who have been through this before guide us, and that America suddenly sees for the first time since WWII that Veterans are their friends and should be respected for risking their lives bravely for policies that they had no control over. I hope that when I fart it smells like fresh-cut flowers. If we took one month out of what we spent for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan we could provide ample Veteran assistance for years to come. Imagine if we took one year of that budget as a debt of gratitude from a nation to its Veterans, as payment for a decade of service. As if we just pretended that the war was still going on for one more year: after all, Veterans who come home have to fight another war. I call this the One For Ten for Service plan.


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