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.


November 28, 2011

Name: Garrett Phillip Anderson
Returned from: Iraq and Afghanistan
Hometown: Portland, OR
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?


Very interesting story indeed... Makes you really think about why wars are always around... Peace is so hard to find.. Maybe life is really like that... After all, we will all end up dead...


Ironically (or not, I don't really believe in coincidences) I had just finished reading this from the DOD Daily digest, and was glad/sad for the survivors of the men whose remains are now coming home, and glad we got my dad back alive from Vietnam - he hated to fly his whole life, helicopters were his worst nightmare - guess how he got in-country every single time:

To then read your account of being able to recover the bodies from the CH-47 crash and your walk through the village, the villagers, and their smiles - you truly wrenched my guts and heart with this story, with this tale. I think that this is, without a doubt, the best thing you've written that you've shared here. Not flawless, not without literary mistakes, but that's not what counts here - this was totally from your heart. Well done, Marine.

I live in a neighborhood near Balboa Naval Hospital in San Diego (I know, San Dog). My neighbors don't, with a few exceptions, have military service backgrounds. But every single week, for over eight years now, they've organized the restaurants and bakers in the area and deliver pizzas and homemade cookies to the Wounded Warriors recovering at Balboa, some in the ICU and some in the main wards. I know most of my neighbors have never seen wounds and pain like they encounter when delivering pizza and cookies to these troops, but they keep doing it (there are a lot of smiles, too, often from the most grievously injured), and will continue as long as there is a need. But I noticed, in the last Neighborhood Newsletter, a remark about how long it's been going on, the pizzas and the cookies and the war in Afghanistan. Not a complaint, but, I think, surprise. I was glad to see that comment, that dismay for the troops. Enough. It's time for this to be over. It's time for all the warriors to come home.

Sorry to be so long-winded, but again, well done, Marine. And welcome home, Garrett.

It was my last combat mission.

To me the worst thing about helos -from an infy pov- is that we are not in control, and there's no place to hide.
You are totally vulnerable,and somebody else who you don't even know is holding the controls.Not a good feeling.
I think i understand what you are saying.
jim at rangeragainstwar

I don't understand why you felt so much hatred toward the elder. What happens to all of you over there that you lose your humanity and can murder civilians? I am not in the armed services, and I know I cannot fathom what it's like to live and breathe war, but it's amazing to me that it causes so many of you to lose your sense of morality. I hope you've regained it since returning home.

Until you realize that every face you see is a potential danger, you will not understand what goes through the mind and nerves of everyone who has ever had to be there. Walk down the street of the worst neighborhood in the largest city near you at dusk and see what it feels like. Then multiply that by a factor of 10 to the 100th power and maybe you will get a glimpse what what goes through a service members mind out in the open and vulnerable.
Watch "Full Metal Jacket". Maybe you will get some appreciation. No where near reality, but you couldn't get people to stay in a theatre if you showed all that is involved in serving this country. The boredom, the loneliness, the fear, the bravado and the sheer tension that never leaves you is just the beginning. Then to come home to people who have no idea what you have been through and done, just to survive. And the guilt. And the anger. And, and and. It never ends. The best you can hope for is someone who will stay with you through all the night sweats and fears. And the ways you try to keep them under control.
Makes you want to run right out and sign up doesn't it?

I never meant to offend. I'm actually a social work student considering working with PTSD vets. I'm just really curious about the process of that fear. If I were to walk down a street in the worst neighborhood in Detroit, I would absolutely be scared. But I would also know that not everyone on the street is out to get me. From what I've read and heard from vets, that mental security disappears. I realize it's totally different, though, in a real war zone. Also, is there a difference between fear and hatred? Can you just be scared without wanting to murder civilians who haven't done anything threatening? Where does that anger come from? I just want to understand. And to be honest, it's really hard to do that as few returning soldiers (understandably) want to talk about their war experiences.


I respect your ignorance and also do not mean to offend but people like you need to be educated before they consider a career working with veterans; especially those like myself who suffer with PTSD. I know it is shocking and I would expect that from an outside perspective wanting to kill a civilian who is smiling joy at the sight of outsiders carrying their dead comrades up a mountain might seem strange to you and that is alright and not a bad thing. These things that happen to people under stress that you could never relate to is a sort of primal thing that you just as anyone else would be capable of feeling under the same circumstances. My humanity was always there...that's why i did not shoot him, but the thought of killing the elder came from knowing that he wanted me in that body bag as well. It does not make sense to untested rational people and I would not expect it to...but please hear me...I don't want people who think the way that you do assisting veterans who are in dark places in their your current position makes me fear that you would ask the wrong questions without meaning to and do more harm than good. I wish you the best and thank you for reading. Semper Fi,
Garrett Anderson

The Detroit comparison is a good one as well. Sure if you walk the streets of Detroit one night you will probably make it home and most people won't want to hurt you. Spend a year on those same streets as a gang member wearing the wrong colors on the wrong side of town and it might be something like that. Add friends of yours in school who were killed by that rival gang in front of you...good friends of yours. And once or twice some people wearing no gang colors at all ambushed your surviving friends and some of them died too. It would be at this point...knowing that the neighborhood is friendly to your rival gang that you might start wondering who will try to kill you and your friends next. And when I write kill I mean dead...can't come back if you let your guard down.

Finally after re-reading my writing I think it is possible that I was not clear enough during the smiling sentence in my blog which might have led to a misunderstanding. The elder was not smiling at me to say "Hello", he was smiling because he hated us and was happy to see the Marines struggling with the body bags. I write some things blinded to the interpretation of people who have not been there and I hope that this helps you get a little more inside my head :)

I wrote a blog about CEB... a friend came up with this list of questions and if you travel back to this posting I would love a response from CEB.

from: Jonathan Van Belle (Not a veteran)but a philosophy graduate of UC Berkeley.

Questions for CEB: (1) What does "losing your humanity" mean? (2) What ethical theory do you (CEB) accept? (3) On what grounds do you accept that theory? (4) According to you (CEB) when is murder/killing acceptable, if ever?

Vets don't want pity. They don't want to share what they went through with anyone who has not been there. Too many follow-up questions that do more harm than good to the teller of the tale.
You want to help? Get with the Blue Star Moms and give of your time and effort. You will be helping those on the front lines at home who are trying, very hard, to keep it together for those who are doing the heavy lifting over there. Families stateside or overseas go through so much fear and loneliness awaiting any word from their loved one. They don't have the "Far away eyes" or "Dead Eyes" that so many vets have. Nor the demons.
Your help will be greatly appreciated. Just in a different capacity than you had been thinking about. Help those who help the vets. Even family cannot get inside of many vets. All they can do is love them. And that is all most vets need. Love. Something most won't give themselves.
Keep it real.


I think I need to mention that my initial comment was coming from a personal curiosity, not a professional one. Social workers are trained to never make a client talk about something they don't want to discuss. Also, it is not our place to understand what went on over there and get all the details. Those stories belong to the client, and the client chooses whether or not he wants to share them. A social worker treating PTSD is there to help relieve symptoms. That being said, if and when I work with vets, I would never present them with the questions I presented to you.

In response to your friend Jonathan Van Belle's questions, I would like to preface by answers by saying that these, again, are my personal views. Views that would never be evident in a professional therapy session.
1. I meant 'losing humanity' in the sense that soldiers give in to that primal instinct to kill. I was referring specifically to the part where the other "robots" lined up an Afghan man against a wall and "murdered him." I was horrified. I do not, of course, know the details or the circumstances. Maybe there was a very good reason to kill that man. But from everything I've read in other military blogs and articles, it sounds like some soldiers kill out of revenge and anger.
2 &3. I don't know enough about ethical theories to make a knowledgeable statement about which one I accept. I would need to read up on them to feel comfortable claiming one.
4. Killing, in my opinion, is only acceptable as self-defense. It gets tricky in a wartime setting. I believe that killing during war is unavoidable, but that those doing the killing should do their best to keep it at a minimum.

I read on another military blog that hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians have died during the war. And then we had the trials about American soldiers torturing prisoners. It's these stories that make me concerned. I'm not implying that you or anyone you know had anything to do with that, but how would you address that? As a soldier, you have the most accurate knowledge about what's going on. If you're comfortable discussing it, I'd love to hear your thoughts.

I know this response is long, but I also want to thank you for not being a jerk. It would have been easy for you to get angry about my comments and rant at me. Thanks for helping me to understand.


Outstanding CEB,

Your quest for knowledge and honest follow up gives me a little more faith in the average civilian out there. I must say that it took everything in my power not to write a nasty response and that your initial blanket question, "What happens to all of you over there that you lose your humanity and can murder civilians?"....made me consider punching my computer to death, but that would not have been too humane I suppose. Try to stay away from questioning a group humanity and save your judgement for the individual if possible as surely most war fighters have their humanity tested and are forced to pass that test on a daily basis while in theater. When you see the soldiers you cannot relate to on the news all looking the same I understand how such things can get confusing for someone who does not know.

The reference to robots who murdered the old man was not a reference to the elder I did not shoot. I think that when I wrote this piece almost a year ago on my mil blog that I dropped a link to an article that was written about a team of soldiers...4-6 who went rogue in Afghanistan and did murder civilians for the fun of it. The italicized opening blurb of my blog has to do with these specific soldiers and the choices we all have as we grow from children to armed men...I write at another time how the leader of the rogue team had enlisted in the Army the same month and year I had enlisted in The Marines and that he had done several more deployments than myself because I got out after my first contract was up, so I was wondering what I would be capable of under the stress of endless deployments. To clear it up...I never witnessed or took part in the on purpose of accidental death of a civilian. Nor have I never tortured any of the people we took into custody. I was rolling with a professional unit and we took our time and got lucky. With that said there are those out there who have accidently killed civilians and you can sleep well at night knowing that most of them will never sleep well at night again consumed by guilt over a situation that they generally did not have control over. As for the murderer's and torturers...these things do happen as well but as so far and few in between that they can hardly be a scientific cause for questioning the humanity of all for the acts of a few.

I hope this helps you out, let me know if you need anything else from my end, but also remember that some things that you write can be dangerous to a person who does not understand them and has earned their peace of mind after passing a test that the greater majority of this country will never attempt. Today we have an all volunteer draftee's because of people like me and my friends that I served with. That means your brother, uncle cousin or whoever does not have to involve themselves with something they wish not to. Also remember that it does not have to be that way....if the time comes where there are more boots that need filled than willing fillers...the boots will get filled.

Semper Fi,


Also CEB,

If you would like, here is a book list for you and any others considering working with Veterans. These books will help you understand our cultures and history and with the exception of Junger, were all written by Veterans. If you would like more references or have any other questions feel free to email me at

"War"-Sebastian Junger

"The Road Back"- Erich Maria is the sequel to "All Quiet on the Western Front" which if you have not read, read that too.

"The Things They Carried"- Tim O'brien.

"Slaughterhouse 5"-Kurt Vonnegut

"Jarhead" Anthony Swofford


Thanks so much for the book list! I've only read two of the books on the list, and I'm really interested in reading the others. Thanks also for the intelligent and honest exchange you allowed to happen.

Take care

You are welcome, one more to replace the two that you have read would be "The Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen". Wilfred Owen was a British officer killed during the first world war and leaves a person wondering what he would have created if he would have lived. I had a relative who was mortally wounded as a Marine on the last day of the first world war so these are topics I am interested in. I tried to make the list as broad as possible, spanning WWI with Erich Remarque who was a German soldier, WWII- Kurt Vonnegut who was an American prisoner of war during the fire bombing of the German city of Dresden, Vietnam- O'brien was an army draftee and Desert Storm- from the POV of Swofford who was an enlisted Marine that saw little action but had a complete story to tell. Like I said if you read any of these and would like to discuss them send me an email and I would be happy to get back to you. "Research Research Research," the gap between civilian and Veteran is vast and will take much work on both sides to help bridge :)

I am a fellow veteran who never went to war, but I can image what you and my fellow veterans went through. Just reading your post I think about my husband. My husband is a Vietnam Combat Veteran. My husband was a door gunner also, and he talked about the terrific things he saw and everything that happen to his fellow soldiers that no one can imaged what it take to survive a war that you thought would never ends. I am proud of you, hold your head up. I am glad you made it home safe. Sincerely Yours, Celia

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