The Sandbox

GWOT hot wash, straight from the wire

Welcome to The Sandbox, a forum for service members who have served or are currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, returned vets, spouses and caregivers. The Sandbox's focus is not on policy and partisanship (go to our Blowback page for that), but on the unclassified details of deployment -- the everyday, the extraordinary, the wonderful, the messed-up, the absurd. All correspondence is read, and as much as possible is posted, lightly edited. If you know someone who is deployed who might have something to say, please tell them about us. To submit a post click here.

THE DIVIDE |

February 28, 2012

Name: Jacob Worrell
Returned from: Iraq
Hometown: Nashua, NH
Milblog: Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans (IAVA)
Email: jacob@iava.org

 In the Breach of the Civilian-Military Divide with Whitney Houston

Have you heard the news that Whitney Houston died? Of course you have. In the age of mass social media, it’s impossible to avoid certain news stories, no matter how banal. Like many of you, the Internet broke the news to me via Facebook through my friend’s status updates. Though I was not surprised by the number of people who felt the need to comment on her death, I was surprised by the qualitative differences between posts made by friends with deep roots in military culture and friends without such roots.

The majority of my Facebook friends reacted to the recent death of Whitney Houston by posting status updates lamenting her tragic passing. Many others, reflecting upon her struggle with substance abuse, used the occasion to raise social awareness about the issue. And then there were others who -- and something tells me this phenomenon extended beyond my personal Facebook network -- could not resist posting variations of “And I will always love you!”  

And then there were my fellow veterans.

It seemed that, upon hearing the news of Whitney’s death, many veterans immediately went into defensive mode. The common refrain went something like this: “How can so many people appear to care so much about the death of a rich pop singer, but care so little about the thousands of soldiers who have died serving their country in Iraq and Afghanistan?” They angrily anticipated excessive media coverage of the singer’s death and bemoaned the excessive outpouring of public sympathy. As for the former grievance, it’s hard to blame them -- the media will no doubt beat this drum to death and the entertainment industry will exploit the nostalgia created by her passing, milking every penny out of tragedy. Meanwhile, the events in Afghanistan will go largely unnoticed by the public at large -- business as usual. It’s been that way for over a decade, why should things change now?

As for the claim that public sympathy is “excessive,” like so many issues, one’s attitude will largely depend upon which side of the civilian-military divide one is on. The death of a pop singer like Whitney is a cultural event that captivates our collective consciousness. Her song hits are universally known. Anyone over the age of 25 can at least vaguely remember the days in which “I Will Always Love You” arrested the airwaves, and held them hostage so long that people caught themselves singing the chorus in their sleep. In her heyday, she was as big a star as stars get. And whether we sought the knowledge or not, the media made sure that we knew all about her personal struggles. 

Due to the collective experience of living through the Whitney phenomenon, I tend to think that expressions of sympathy concerning her death are not excessive, even if the sheer volume of information we know about her is. At the end of the day, the passing of a megastar is an event that brings us together -- even if it’s in small, and perhaps insignificant, ways. And we know how to honor her memory: post your favorite Whitney video from YouTube on your Facebook wall, hit the “like” button for your friend’s heartfelt one-liner about talent and tragedy, text your friend and say, “Hey, did you hear the news, Whitney Houston died!”

Therein, I think, lies the real problem: our society knows exactly how to respond to celebrity deaths, but has no idea how to deal with the deaths of thousands of service members. And the reason for the dichotomy is tragically simple -- with less than 1% of the population serving, people in our society relate more directly to celebrities than our military. Many veterans are acutely aware of this prevailing paradigm, and it is fast becoming a driving force behind feelings of isolation and separateness from the larger population. 

I also suspect that veterans, more than any other group, are able to identify entertainment masquerading as grief. If we’re being honest with ourselves, the death of Whitney Houston does not resemble a personal tragedy for most people -- not even close.  We didn’t really know her. Beyond our initial human sympathy there is interest in the story. If you went to CNN.com on Sunday night, you saw the headline “The World Awaits Answers.” We don’t have a personal vested interest, but we just have to know the answers. We’re on the edge of our seat awaiting the next update. For the sake of knowledge? No, for the sake of entertainment. But we disguise our voyeurism in a veneer of grief.

I think it is the veneer itself that many combat vets find intolerable; veterans are revolted by the idea that Americans can motivate themselves to engage in fake expressions of mourning, but appear unmoved by the deaths of the service members who died on their behalf. After a decade of war, you’d be hard pressed to find a combat veteran who served in Iraq and/or Afghanistan who has not had to deal with loss. Hence the reactions many people have to celebrity deaths is offensive, both because they caricaturize the real grief that many veterans feel, and because the American people feel so detached from their military that they can’t muster up genuine grief for its fallen heroes. 

I recognize that grief is not something one conjures due to a moral imperative. It is a human emotion, a response to losing something or someone of immense emotional value. Since the average person is so detached from our service members, I don’t begrudge them their inability to share our grief. But neither can I begrudge some of my fellow combat vets who, through no fault of their own, are strangers in their own land and are angry because of it. After all, it ought not be this way.

During his commencement speech for West Point’s Class of 2011, Admiral Mike Mullen spoke about the civilian-military divide as one of the most pressing issues of our time saying: “Our work is appreciated. Of that, I am certain. There isn’t a town or a city I visit where people do not convey to me their great pride in what we do. Even those who do not support the wars support the troops. But I fear they do not know us. I fear they do not comprehend the full weight of the burden we carry or the price we pay when we return from battle. This is important, because a people uninformed about what they are asking the military to endure is a people inevitably unable to fully grasp the scope of the responsibilities our Constitution levies upon them.”

With all due respect to Admiral Mullen, I am beginning to wonder whether being simply informed is good enough. As our post-9/11 wars wind down, thousands of veterans are returning to our communities. Many of these veterans spent ten years of their adult life either deployed in a warzone or preparing to deploy to one. They now face daunting challenges that include record veteran unemployment, post-traumatic stress, and a suicide epidemic that plagues both those still in uniform and those recently out of it. 

Permeating all of these issues is the aforementioned civilian-military divide. The American people badly need to reestablish an emotional connection with their combat veterans before they can understand a fraction of what they are asking them to do on their behalf. When more Americans know their military again, sharing in their grief will not only come naturally, but the natural tendency to avoid grief might even lead to better policy decisions.   

 

Jacob Worrell is a veteran of the Iraq War, having served in OIF with the 172nd Stryker Brigade out of Fort Wainwright, Alaska between 2005 and 2006. After separating from the Army in 2007, using benefits from the Post 9/11 GI Bill, he enrolled in college, eventually graduating from Amherst College in 2011 with B.A. in Economics and Philosophy. He currently works as a Special Projects Coordinator for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA).

ON A CLEAR DAY |

February 21, 2012

Name: Old Blue
Stationed in:
Afghanistan
Milblog
: Afghan Blue III and Afghan Quest

It’s been cold a lot here in Mazar-e Sharif (MeS, pronounced, “mez” in the shorthand of English-speakers in Afghanistan). On my first tour, I think I got rained on a grand total of six times. On my second tour, there was a lot more rain. I even got rained on a few times in Helmand. I think we have had precipitation of one sort of another at least half the days I’ve been in country so far.

For water availability year-round, it’s more important to have snow stay on the mountains, especially where I have been before. In Kapisa, there were mountains that held snow right up to the beginning of July. The mountains around here seem to be just as massive, but lower in elevation overall. The snow on the mountains right here near MeS doesn’t seem to stay much longer than the snow on the surrounding lowland.

My first trip to meet with our Afghan counterparts, it was foggy and cold. The smoke of the many fires in MeS combined to form a thick, persistent smog that would have made Los Angeles of the 1970′s weep. The smell of wood smoke hung heavy in the air and burned the eyes slightly.  Not much of MeS could be seen. Not much of anything could be seen. Add to that the fact that I was stuck in the back of a MAXXPro MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protective) vehicle, and my view of the city was limited to say the least.  

The next trip was more visually stimulating.  I worked as a vehicle commander, what we call a TC (Truck Commander), so I had a better view. The weather, while cold, was pretty clear.  It seemed just a little warmer than the previous couple of days.

Perhaps that was just the sun.

Each movement starts out with a briefing called a Convoy Brief. Our SECFOR (Security Force) leader, SSG Pick, does a nice job of this. It’s very businesslike. A quick roll call to make sure everyone is present, the order in which the vehicles will travel is briefed, as well as who will ride in each vehicle and any special jobs they may be tasked with. Various contingencies are planned for, and this is briefed as well. If this happens, then we do that -- that type of thing. Communications issues such as frequencies, and who to call in case of various events that could possibly occur are addressed. The briefing doesn’t take long because SSG Pick keeps it focused and direct.  After the briefing, there are a few minutes to mount the vehicles and position any carry-on gear so that it isn’t loose inside the vehicle.

The MRAPs are huge compared to the armored Humvees of my first tour. I traveled occasionally in  MRAPs on my second tour, but always as a “guest.”  Some of them have powered ramps with steps built into them that open at the rear of the vehicle for passengers to use to get to the passenger seats. Each seat has four-point restraints, and a few have five-point restraints.  The interior of the vehicle is full of  metal that one can bump one's head on, and each seat has an outlet for the communication system. Then there is the turret mounted on the top of each vehicle. Windows are thick, bulletproof laminate -- where there are windows. The passengers in the rear of the vehicle face the center, and so visibility is limited. It’s like riding in a can.

Body armor and helmets are worn, so climbing up into the vehicle, getting settled and pulling and buckling the restraint straps into place is done with extra weight and bulk on.  As large as these vehicles are, there is little room to move. If you’ve ever struggled with a seat belt in an airplane seat after you’re already seated, imagine doing that with a barrel on and that’s along the lines of dealing with the restraints in the MRAPs. No one gives up on strapping in, though. The suspension systems are stiff, and it is quite possible to get bounced around the inside of one hard enough to break bones or get a concussion. In the event of a rollover in one of the top-heavy vehicles, being unrestrained could prove fatal.

The tall, diesel-powered trucks are guided by ground guides to the gate of the compound in which we live, then the ground guide (usually the vehicle commander) mounts up and straps in as quickly as possible. The convoy moves out towards the exit of the base. There is a ritual to exiting a FOB or base. Things are done just so. 

And finally we move away from the mass of coalition forces and head off along the route to work. The path goes over a combination of paved and unpaved roads.

Second of Third Tour 016 300x224 On A Clear Day

Snow crusted mountains flank our move.

Each crewman wears a set of headphones with a microphone that is made to fit under the ACH (Army Combat Helmet) and affords the ability to speak both internally and over the radio. Radio traffic is generally limited to transmissions that let the other vehicles stay aware of events that may affect them, like approaching vehicles passing in the opposite direction, and when the lead vehicle has reached certain checkpoints. This is contrasted to the chatter within the vehicle, which may be muted or may be fairly animated and humorous. On this morning, the young Soldiers were playing a game that involved movie quotes. This mental game was interspersed with business conversation, the young Soldiers easily switching between the business at hand and the idle chatter of the chosen game.

We moved like steel elephants through the flow of Afghan morning traffic.  People on their way to work at the base, trucks carrying fuel and other supplies, and Coalition patrols pass our little convoy.  Each is quickly assessed and the appropriate level of attention paid to whether or not some threat may exist. Nothing happens other than vehicles pass, each bound for the business of the day. Sometimes there is a wave, often there is merely the successful passing of our monstrosities by a local driver.

Second of Third Tour 014 300x224 On A Clear Day

On outskirts of Mazar-e Sharif in a steel elephant.

As we get into the outskirts of the city, pedestrians appear. Civilian cars, taxis and tricycle vehicles built around a motorcycle, somewith passenger compartments, some with pickup truck-like beds, scuttle about. Jingle trucks and semi trucks chug through their workday as well. The lumbering MRAPs are just another large, top-heavy vehicle in Afghanistan. We do not bully the other traffic, and cars or trucks will occasionally get mixed into the convoy. A little girl waves and the young gunner in the turret waves back, commenting on how cute Afghan kids are in general.

Finally we head up the road towards the compound where we do most of our work. At every entry to every camp, FOB or base, there is a ritual performed to enter. Some are complex, some are simple. This one is marred by a gate that is frozen on its rollers. The convoy is almost diverted to another gate before the gate is finally freed and opens.

We park the vehicles in a large parking area and execute the process of dismounting, doffing unneeded armor, securing materials that will be needed and assembling together with the interpreters -- who are now being called Language Assistants or LAs -- prior to breaking into small teams and heading off to do what is planned for the day.

AGAIN 1566 300x224 On A Clear Day

Elephants parked, we do what we are here for.

There are several buildings, and Afghans in uniform move about the compound. Some are obviously busy, some are casually going about the business of the morning. Others are clearly waiting. They watch us curiously as we move towards various offices. Most do not speak English.  Many nod or exchange a greeting with us as we pass. After a movement in an armored vehicle, many of the Soldiers wish to visit the tashnab, the restroom.  We enter one of the buildings and walk up a lit hallway to the doors halfway down the hall. Afghan soldiers move through the hallway, some chat in small groups.

The buildings are fairly new. There is electricity water runs in the pipes. Illuminated green exit signs hang at intervals from the ceiling in the hallways. The building is cold. I’m told that there is a heating system, but that it is too expensive to run. Many of the offices have electric space heaters which take enough of the chill away to be moderately comfortable.

Afghan offices are all very similar.The desk is usually placed near the windows, facing the door. Each office has some kind of cheap carpeting that was installed as part of the building. Over that is laid a handmade Persian-type carpet, often burgundy in color, that anyone would be proud to have in their living room. Most couldn’t afford carpets of this size, especially not in their office at work. A bed is often present (more often than not), usually against the wall where the door is located. Along the walls are either couches or harder bench-type seating, along with a chair that is normally reserved for the occupant of the office. Usually there are low tables, like coffee tables, in front of the seating. Most meetings are held in this central area of the office, with the officer coming out from behind his desk to sit with his guests. Some offices have runners laid between the door and the desk so that as people come in and out on routing business, the dirt isn’t on the plush carpet.

We enter an office and meet with a Colonel, who summons chai. This is a first meeting, and introductions are in order. The Colonel seems pleased with my Dari greetings, but mildly disappointed that I cannot carry on too much further without help from the LA. Chai arrives nearly instantly; we must have been expected.

The Colonel is quick to get down to business, and I’m not sure if this is because he is familiar with dealing with Americans or for another reason. The meeting goes smoothly, but longer than intended. This is to be a short day for us; the Afghan holiday celebrating the day the Russians left Afghanistan is coming, and many will have the next several days off. For an initial meeting, all went well.

A second, shorter meeting with another Colonel follows. A third Colonel, who needs to get a little time with us, jumps into the meeting. This is not LTC Grass’ first meeting with either, although it is mine. Courses of action for the near future are agreed upon, and soon we are headed out to repeat the ritual of mounting up to move back to Marmal.

Second of Third Tour 0081 300x224 On A Clear Day

If you download this and zoom in, you will get some idea of the expanse of the city.

As we head out, the terrain slopes down towards the city of Mazar-e Sharif. I see the city itself for the first time, stretching out into the distance. It is largely on flat ground, contrasting with the way that Kabul laps up the bases of numerous mountains. I search the tableau for the famous Blue Mosque but can’t identify it. Mildly disappointed, I am still impressed with the size of the city laid out before me.

We head back to the mud at Marmal. We made incremental progress, and my mood reflects that positivism.

This mission happened yesterday. It was Valentine’s Day. Somewhere.

IN THE EVENT OF MY DEATH |

February 17, 2012

Name: Daniel Gade
Returned from: Iraq
Milblog: In the Event of My Death
Email
: daniel.m.gade@gmail.com

Before I was deployed to Iraq in 2004 I wrote a letter to my wife, Wendy, to be opened only in the event of my death. In it, I expressed my love and admiration for her, my gratitude for our life together, and my fondest hopes for her future with our daughter. She almost had to read it when I was seriously injured the following year. In the summer of 2011, while we were moving to West Point, I re-discovered the letter in a binder. I let Wendy read it, and her reaction gave me the idea for a book.

I'm currently in the process of collecting "last letters home" from others who have returned from combat alive, and from the families of those killed in action. I intend to publish around 50 of these letters with no commentary whatsoever: no politics, no opinion, and no spin. The letters will stand on their own as a tribute to all servicemembers, their spouses and families. Whether a servicemember is wounded, killed, or comes home unscathed, he or she has sacrified greatly, and his or her family has as well. Too often these sacrifices are unsung.

Proceeds will be donated to charities that serve military families.

If you'd like to contribute a letter for the book, please send it to me by either email (daniel.m.gade@gmail.com) or snailmail (3357 East Continental Road, West Point, NY 10996). Please be sure to include instructions on whether you would like your identity given, or if you would prefer to remain anonymous.

To find out more about the project, please visit my web site:
In the Event of My Death: Real Letters Home from Iraq and Afghanistan

FINALLY, AFGHANISTAN: THIRD FIRST IMPRESSIONS |

February 14, 2012

Name: Old Blue
Returned from: Afghanistan
Stationed in:
Afghanistan
Milblog
: Afghan Blue and Afghan Quest

I’ve arrived at Marmal, a German Air Base near Mazar-e Sharif. Now that the movement is over, I can say that we trickled into theater. Some of the brigade has been on the ground here for just over a month. Others have just arrived. Most of my team has been in place for several weeks at least. I was on the third to last (out of a bunch) movement to country, which was passed by the second to last and finally entered country at the same time as the final movement. Throughout the long, painful movement into Afghanistan, I kept in touch via email with the Lieutenant Colonel, LTC Grass* who is the deputy team chief for the Security Force Assistance Team (SFAT) that I am a part of.

Framed OLD BLUE Finally 1A couple of years ago, SFATs were called ETTs or PMTs. Embedded advisors. I’ve done this before, but this time I’m doing it with the Afghan Border Police. Most of the team have been working with them for a little while now. It will be a few days, at least a couple, before I meet any of the Afghans the team is working with. First, we have to do RSOI (Reception, Staging and Onward Integration) training. Counter IED stuff, check the zero on our weapons, that type of thing. You’re not allowed “outside the wire” until you’ve done it.  So that’s what Taco and I have to do for the next couple of days.

I hate arriving at a new place after dark. Actually, we got here in daylight -- right at dusk. It always takes a little time to get off of a C-17 because the pallets have to come off first before you finally file off of the ramp and go in whatever direction you’re pointed. The rear of the plane opens up and light streams in, the gaping aperture at the rear of the plane framing the bustle of activity on the flight line.  Added to the whine of the various systems on the plane, the noise of vehicles and equipment outside are blended with the overall din. It’s noisy.

A large, strange vehicle resembling a tiny aircraft carrier pulls up to the rear of the aircraft and the pallets of bags and rucksacks (backpacks) are pushed across the built-in rollers onto the vehicle. Finally, the ramp is lowered the rest of the way and the human cargo can unload in two files. We were pointed at a set of buses that sat waiting, and dutifully walked to them under the weight of body armor, weapons and whoever’s carry-on bag we were handed as we filed off. The carry-ons had been stored during flight in a large plywood box chained behind the seat pallets locked into the floor of the plane.  Not given time to sort them out, they handed a bag to each person until the box was empty. We would sort it out later in a large Chinese-fire-drill-type activity.

Crammed into the buses, we were driven off the flight line and disembarked to load yet another series of smaller buses which then drove us to an area where we were told to ground our gear and go into a large tent for a briefing. In those few minutes I finally saw LTC Grass for the first time since the first week of January.

He’s grown a mustache, and it’s working for him.

We sat through a PowerPoint briefing on what to expect for the next couple of days and how things work at Marmal. Particulars like chow times and the little details; like don’t drink the tap water, brush your teeth with bottled water, three minute “combat showers” so that the septic systems don’t overflow. They tried to explain where things are, but the description of the route to the American DFAC (dining facility) was so convoluted that it was practically gibberish. By the time we emerged from the tent, it was dark.

I found the team’s accommodations, dropped off my gear and went to find the team’s offices. They were right where the LTC had pointed in the last daylight before the briefing. More long-lost teammates to greet me. Handshakes, chest-bumps, humorous remarks about how I still have a pulse, that I am not a figment of imagination. I roll my eyes at the hackneyed jokes and try to get the lay of the land. There is much to learn, and I think I absorbed perhaps a quarter of what was spewed at me. The team S-2 (intelligence) advisor, 1LT Steve** offered to be my guide to the DFAC, and off we went through the maze of tentage, over the bridges, through holes in the wall to the place where it seemed that everyone on this base had gone to eat.

There is a German DFAC and a an American DFAC on the base, but it seems that everyone prefers the American chow hall. I’m told that this is because the American DFAC has a wider selection and more of it. Now, what I said about everyone preferring the American DFAC is purely an impression, but the line was long and there were lots of Germans, Norwegians, Croats and the like in the chow line with Americans.

There is accountability for the partner nation forces, so I’m sure that we are being reimbursed for the meals. Just sayin’.

1Lt Steve gave me his version of the rundown on the events of the past few weeks, particularly his take on the ABP (Afghan Border Police) S-2 shop, which was informative. His overall impressions go into the bin with those of LTC Grass, COL Molosser*** and the rest of the team. In time, it will all congeal to form a larger picture along with my own impressions which, at the moment, are limited.

Being led to a destination in the dark is like being driven somewhere in the trunk of a car. I’m not sure I’ll find the chow hall easily on my own.

 

*Names have been changed to protect the innocent -- and sometimes to postpone conflict with the not-so-innocent. This one is innocent.

**Also not his real name. Also presumed innocent; at least until the Grand Jury returns a verdict.  

***Again, a pseudonym. Again, innocent. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.   

SENSATIONS, PERCEPTIONS, DIFFERENCES |

February 09, 2012

Name: Old Blue
Returned from: Afghanistan
Returning to:
Afghanistan
Milblog
: Afghan Blue and Afghan Quest

One thing that I try to do with my writing is to convey at least some sense of the feeling, the sensation of what it’s like to be here. I don’t know how well I do with that, but I try. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been in, or how many times you have deployed; deploying is an experience. First deployments are different. Each deployment has its own flavor, its own underlying tone. Some aspects never change; the interminable flight to Asia, for instance. Other things vary.

I can’t speak for anyone else. I can speak for the differences I feel in my perceptions, my sense of anticipation. I can compare these with observations of others, listening to those on their first deployment. Afghanistan was a mystery to me, my perceptions shaped partially by what I had read, what I had been told by others, and by my training.  But even with that shaping, there is no substitute for reality. You cannot train a feeling. And feeling, no matter what anyone says, is important. It is what they mean when they say "using all of your senses."

The unknown has a flavor. Anyone who has had a first day at a new school, a new job, been in a new place -- all of us -- know that.

First deployments are exciting in that regard.  Subsequent deployments have aspects of it, but in another sense the newness has worn off. Each deployment is different, though. Each time you’re going to a different place, doing perhaps a different job. And yet the smells, the sights and many of the sensations are not unfamiliar.

Afghans and their peculiarities are no surprise. On the first tour, everything looked and felt strange. On subsequent tours, the organization and the personalities have been different, but the overall sensation of being there has for the most part been the same. When I hear the chatter of the new deployers, I pick up on the unknown, the attempts to understand, to predict the feeling, to not be surprised; they are trying to grasp the reality. But you cannot train a feeling, you cannot train a perception. And for each of us, it’s the sum of our perceptions that add up to a feeling that is the flavor of a certain time. Smells, sounds and music can remind us of the flavor of a time; that’s the flavor I’m talking about. It underlies entire experiences.

Newness adds its own flavor, and it's like a dish with too much cilantro; you don’t taste much else. At least at first.

Being a transient is a feeling all its own. On a first deployment, it's not something that you’re focused on initially. It’s a nebulous murk that you must pass through on your way to where you’re going, but it’s an overwhelming sensation. It’s like being the guest of honor at a meat processing plant.

This tour is like being the guest of honor at a meat processing plant with multiple E Coli violations. Unless this is how beef is aged, in which case menus that brag about “aged beef” will never hold the same allure.

First deployers, having never focused on the transient experience, are more impatient to get it over with. Being stalled in transit, as we are currently, is frustrating for everyone, but for them it is even more frustrating due to the surprise of having looked past it, only to have it loom so large in their current experience. It will pass, but for the time being it is the experience. For those with a previous deployments, the transient phase is dreaded. It is the first pain to be felt. The long plane ride to Asia, the misery of confinement, then the transient experience at places like Manas and Ali Al Saleem in Kuwait, and finally arriving and moving through RSOI (Reception, Staging and Onward Integration). The mission doesn’t start until this rite of passage has been accomplished.

A couple of posts ago I tried to note the perceptions of being loaded on the plane and being on our way. Many have written about such things, but it is the feeling of that moment. On the first tour, it is as significant in its own way as walking down the aisle. It is a sensation that is hard to describe. It is something that each of us would avoid if we could. You are stuck in your own head with an experience that you just want to be over. It is the dentist’s chair. At the same time, you are so there in that moment that the sights, sounds and smells are so very real. Fog, rain, snow, light or darkness, the brightness of the interior of the aircraft, the uncomfortable seats, the seemingly endless wait in that uncomfortable seat for the aircraft to begin moving, to lift off. The frustration of having been loaded and unloaded, of having taken off and flown the distance only to be turned around at the last minute.

For me, it cannot possibly be as torturous as for the young men and women who have never been there before. It’s frustrating for me, but I knew about this transient Limbo/Hell that we would pass through and potentially be caught in. For the new deployers, it is not something upon which they were focused, and this unexpected intrusion on their experience grinds on. Each time, with each delay, the excited chatter of the new deployers becomes more muted. Some are now in disbelief.They are so far from their imagined frame of reference that a sense of unreality creeps in. They voice this at times.

I don’t feel as if the deployment may somehow not happen. I know it will. Being back in Afghanistan will feel as it has before. I’ve never been up north, but it will feel like Afghanistan. The sound of Dari or Pashto being spoken will be familiar. The normal activities of Afghans on the street or in the fields will look... well, normal. Afghan offices will feel like Afghan offices. Working with an interpreter will feel like working with an interpreter. The crazy things that Afghans sometimes do will not be so surprising. The common sights, sounds and smells will not assail my senses as foreign and unusual. But I will try to note them and share them, because they can be remarkable.

Today will not be the day that I will once again walk the soil of Afghanistan. I actually do not know when I will. Weather, airlift priorities, the vagaries of Central Asia…

I bide my time.

GROUNDHOG DAY: PEACE? |

February 03, 2012

Name: Major Dan
Returned from: Afghanistan
MilblogAfghaniDan


This time last year. CO-bound from NC.



I continue to look back a bit lately, as almost every date over the past few weeks brought to mind something or other from a year prior. It's not as if the days of January and early February 2011 were so individually significant once I was stateside and reunited with family and friends, but they're etched in my consciousness as reminders, at least for now. I think a great deal of the previous year's emotions, observations and frustrations were jammed up, and I was much more interested in enjoying the fruits of a existence uncontained by wire and guard posts than I was in processing that weighty jumble.


Jan '11: Happy arrival at BWI with a new old friend.

1/31/11: Arapahoe Basin, CO -- Hindu Kush with lifts.

1/31/11: Skiing = welcome break from the blues.



Almost anyone who's been deployed at length, whether on ship or out in remote FOBs, will tell you that Groundhog Day holds a special meaning. Not February 2nd per se, but the phenomenon that the Bill Murray movie made all too real: the sinking feeling that every single day is merely a repeat of the last. It's a very STUCK feeling.




As predictability is about the last quality I regularly seek in a routine, I've come to realize that I experience more of that sensation now than I did in Kabul. The major difference, of course, is that it's within my power to change my current situation, whereas orders are orders, and responsibilities require a certain daily diligence. It was anything but an ordinary day for me six years ago, when I attended my first memorial service in theater:


AfghaniDan: Farewell to a brave Marine


Anyway, rather than thinking of a large rodent I prefer to think of the 2nd of February as the birthday of James Joyce -- properly commemorated in my college days with a session of music and reading of passages from the iconic author at a local pub. To this day I thank you, Dr. Jim Murphy, for that fine tradition.


"There is not past, no future; everything flows in an eternal present."



On to the present... Peace talks. If you're looking to become seriously baffled by what exactly is taking place -- or about to take place -- or possibly about to potentially take place -- in Qatar -- or Saudi Arabia -- or Qatar and Saudi Arabia simultaneously, feel free to continue reading. Here's a choice quote:


It is also not clear whether the United States would welcome two tracks of talks, especially if it is excluded from one track, though American officials have said often that any negotiations would ultimately have to be “Afghan to Afghan.”

Got that?  It's clear as mud, even by US-Afghan diplomacy standards.



Afghan Officials Consider Own Talks With Taliban


Aref Karimi. (Agence France-Presse / Getty Images)



Perhaps it feels like Groundhog Day for the Afghan people in the larger scheme of things, with generally a longer view of history and the forces taking shape, despite a much shorter average life span -- for it looks to me like a sequel to the devastating civil wars of the 1990s could still take shape unless the will of the people prevent it. Coalition forces are exiting over the next two years, the reconstituted and confident Taliban enjoys the support of Pakistan's ISI and will almost certainly at least share power, and the former Northern Alliance would like to preserve strong ties with the West but is severely hampered by the rampant corruption associated with it. Most Afghans say that the public does not want draconian Taliban rule, and I believe they are right, but with a crucial qualifier: given the choice between Sharia-backed law and order and unchecked corruption, I believe the rural majority currently fence-sitting will choose the former once again -- and in a land where 75% of the population lives in rural areas (wait, that's a utopian's dream, right?), that's enough to force at least a split if not a tragic re-run.

While I don't take every word of what I've read from the report at face value (and neither should you, for reasons laid out in the article), it would be foolhardy to dismiss it entirely. Brig. General Jacobson's cautions are relevant -- this is largely the perspective of the recently-detained being interrogated, and there are likely various motives for saying what they say -- but to then add this comment could strike the public as being very...inflexible:


"No reason for ISAF or the Coalition to believe that there is anything to be changed."

Excerpts from the report itself can be found in the link below. I think it's an important enough compilation to peruse. You may notice that I did something below against my inclination toward complete editing integrity, and changed the BBC's capitalization manipulation of NATO. I'm sorry, BBC. Yes, you're English and all, and should be the authority on this, but it's not "Nato" and it's not "Isaf," which turns them into what could be mistaken as Finnish and Algerian first names, respectively (no offense to either culture). They are organizational proper names, in all capitals. I'm waving the American flag and not relenting on this one.
A more optimistic view of prospects for peace is espoused by Yahya Massoud, brother of the late national hero, Ahmad Shah Massoud. It's worth a read for its insight and advised course of action, though I'm afraid that a key component of his approach involves a robust ISAF presence locking down the border with Pakistan -- something that increasingly looks to be unavailable as an option, as Coalition troops depart and turn over areas to Afghan security forces.
This passage in particular stood out, as it falls within my former 'lane':
So far, the government has missed an opportunity to use the media to advertise the Taliban's shortcomings and rally its supporters in popular protests against the insurgency. The voice of the people must be heard on this matter. Media, civil society, and local leaders should open channels to express popular resentment against the Taliban -- and ISAF and the Afghan security forces should publicly commit to ensuring their safety when they undertake these efforts.

I believe he has a good point, in that the government (starting at the very top) can do much more to criticize the Taliban and rally the opposition. But that's the intent of a government looking to strike a deal with that opposition. There, clearly, is the divide between President Karzai and his former allies. Resentment of the movement is expressed by other officials more often, most notably the Ministries of Defense and the Interior, but their orders come directly from the presidential palace too. The problem with ISAF committing to ensuring safety of leaders down to the local level is that it's foolhardy to make promises that can't be kept, and too much of that has happened already. Despite the best of intentions and the most diligent of security, breaches happen and informing happens...too much, in some quarters.
A closing excerpt, also from brother Massoud, serves as a poignant reminder to those who -- in the interest of peace, withdrawal or general naivete -- believe that a kinder, gentler Taliban is upon us...
Indeed, the Taliban are prepared to go very far in their jihad. They will spare no human life or piece of their country's history in their attempt to remake Afghanistan in their image. If it were within their powers, they would not even stop with the sun.


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