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.

CHECKING THE CHECKPOINT |

March 29, 2012

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

Mentoring can be a hoot. The incidents of the past few weeks, little helpful things done by my fellow Soldiers, have made life a bit more… interesting. I mean that in the Confucian sense. That being said, my mentee is a Hajji, having returned from the obligatory pilgrimage only a few months ago. He is a literate, committed Muslim. His viewpoint on the Quran burning was summed up with, “We have illiterate people in our society, too.” He assumed that such ignorance of Afghan values could only come from illiteracy. I didn’t burst his bubble.

Part of mentoring is going where your mentee goes. COL Shiripir and I were having a conversation about going about his normal business while I am with him. I was beginning to feel like he felt that he had to treat me as a special guest and that this perception was keeping him from doing what he would like to do. I told him that my job is to go wherever he goes when I am able to be with him. The Colonel tested this statement immediately.

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A quick stop at a roadside stand for fruit to take to the ABP checkpoint.

“Good. I am going on Saturday to check on the Tulai (Company) I have out at the checkpoint as part of the operation,” he stated, observing me for my reaction.

“That sounds great. I’d love to go with you.”

I arranged for a medic, PV2 Hernandez, and a JFO (Joint Fires Observer), SPC Simon, to come with us, and offered my boss the opportunity to get out and about as well. I let the Colonel know about the force protection requirements that I had to meet in order to make the trip with him. He agreed to provide the requisite four trucks (Rangers). The medic is self-explanatory. The JFO was taken as much for his communications ability as for his specialty of calling for things that go boom. The medic can treat wounds, but we were going to be outside of radio range and he can use other means to get a bird in the air if we needed a MEDEVAC for any reason.

On Saturday we were told to hang tight in the parking lot and that the Rangers would be pulling up soon and would stage near us. I went over the procedures in case of emergency with those who were going out (turned out to be four Americans). Backbriefs (tell me what I just said) successfully done, we were ready to mount up when the ABP brought the trucks up.

LTC Grass and I hopped in COL Shiripir’s truck with our linguist, Walid, while the two younger soldiers rode in the vehicle directly behind us. With little fanfare, we were on our way. Walid, the Afghan-born American interpreter, rode between the LTC and myself in the back seat of the Ranger, and it was a tight fit with the weapons and the unforgiving body armor. Quickly, we were on the main road (the Ring Road), headed towards the checkpoint.

We got a few surprised looks when someone noticed us in the Rangers, but to a great extent we were nearly invisible due to the fact that few people pay attention to such a common occurrence as an ABP truck rolling by. Being back at street level gave a different perspective.

Sometimes a new perspective can be a good thing.

We rolled out of the city and into open farm land. The farmers in Balkh Province do something I’ve not seen elsewhere, tenting rows with neat plastic mini-greenhouses to get an early start on some crops. I don’t know yet what’s under the tentage, but if I find out, I’ll let you know.

As we worked our way west into the next district, we got off of the main road and passed through villages on our way to the checkpoint. The Rangers easily handled the rutted dirt roads. We passed through brief moments of normal village life, getting the briefest of glimpses of people, places and interactions. We passed through a Hazara village, a Pashtun village and a village populated by what the locals call “Arabs,” in succession. Seeing the subtle differences in dress was interesting.

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Domed roofs provide extra cooling in the summer.

As we neared our destination, the Colonel transmitted on the radio and one of the green ABP Rangers rushed forward, disappearing around a bend. He told us that he had sent a truck ahead to establish security. We nodded, thinking this was a good idea. Several minutes later, he told us that he had sent the truck with our two junior soldiers forward, apologizing for any inconvenience and saying that he hoped that this was not a problem.

It turned out well, but the two younger soldiers got a little concerned when they lost sight of us. They told us this later when we pulled up to the Khalat, formerly owned by a now-deceased Taliban commander, that the ABP was using as a patrol base.

As two of the trucks set up outside, our two trucks pulled into the gate of the compound and we dismounted. A small contingent of the Tulai (company) assembled into a formation and the contingent was presented to the Colonel by the Tulai commander with a salute and a formal greeting. The Colonel then spoke to the assembly and introduced me as his mentor and asked if I had anything to say.

I spoke briefly about how good it was see them, and how good it was to see that they all seemed to be in good form even in the spartan conditions. I then shook each of their hands. The formation was dismissed and we were ushered into the commander’s quarters for chai. The floors were covered in rugs, and there were traditional sleeping mats arranged around the perimeter of the small room. We were each bid to sit, and we dropped our body armor and weapons and sat down.

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An ABP gun truck provides overwatch with a PKM.

There were some introductions to be made, and we enjoyed some pleasant conversation for a while while we waited for the chai, which was extremely hot when it arrived. We were informed that we would be staying for lunch. The Lieutenant who commands the Tulai briefed us on his patrol plan and showed us the limited but effective graphics of the operation.

It took very little time to grasp the concept of what they were doing. These men were organized and conducting daily operations, not just squatting in a khalat. I captured their graphics with my camera so that we would be able to share them with the rest of the team back at Marmal.

After discussing the joint operations that were being conducted with other branches of the ANSF (Afghan National Security Forces), the Police and Army, it was time for lunch. A soldier came in with a pitcher of water and a large stainless steel bowl. I explained to my compatriots what was occurring, that it was time to wash our hands. Starting with Colonel Shiripir, the bowl was held under his hands and water was poured so that he could wash his hands. Each of us then washed our hands in similar fashion and we were treated to one of the best Afghan meals that I’ve ever had.

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Inside of the dome.

Afghans are extremely hospitable hosts, and will try their best to over-feed you. Being hospitable, once you start refusing more food they ask if it didn’t taste good. I told the commander that the food was so good that he must give his cook my compliments. He summoned the cook and had me thank him myself. I think that made his day. After a lunch of pillau, beef, the obligatory nan, tangerines and chai, there was more conversation and pictures.

Lunch completed, it was time for a walkabout to see the ABP and what they were doing. More pictures. We saw where the ANA who were part of the operation were staying. Finally, it was time to leave.

The drive back to Marmal was long, but we drove right through the center of Mazar-e Sharif and within sight of the famous Blue Mosque. The ABP drove us right to the gate of Marmal and dropped us off, where we parted with handshakes and hugs under the amazed gazes of the Germans and the Armenian gate guards. We strolled in, our mission complete, and enjoyed a feeling of satisfaction after a day spent with our Afghan counterparts. Overall, it was a bonding experience for us, and showed the Afghans that we trusted them and were not afraid to go where they go in the same conditions they travel in.  We also gained insight into their operations and found that this particular Kandak is capable of conducting ongoing operations at the Tulai level and provide their own logistical support.

It was a good day.

DEVIL DOG FUN |

March 26, 2012

Name: Major Dan
Returned from: Afghanistan
MilblogAfghaniDan, Part II
Twitter: Mayordelmundo

I'd never in a million years have expected to be posting a Katy Perry video, but my colleagues at the Marine Corps' Los Angeles office made this happen, along with the outstanding Marines at Camp Pendleton who put up with days of a different kind of shooting, and gave Miss Perry a crash course in Devil Dog fun. Who needs a splashy new campaign when we've got this?

WHAT HAS BEEN LOST |

March 22, 2012

Name: MAJ Ben Tupper
Returned from
: Afghanistan
Hometown: Syracuse, NY

Southern Afghanistan is a land permeated with well-constructed and well-placed improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Many are discovered the hard way, by individual Marines stepping on them as they patrol the fields, farms, and irrigation ditches that crisscross Helmand and Kandahar Provinces. The blast rises straight up, into the body, and can result in wounds that require single, double, or even triple amputations. Yet one of the first questions commonly heard from the Marines who step on one of these IEDs isn’t about the status of their arms and legs. These Marines, like most men who walk the earth, are more concerned about something else.

The signature wound of small anti-personnel IEDs is the violent emasculating removal of some or all of the male genitalia, and in some cases even the buttocks. The problem of the loss of genitalia is becoming so common and so pervasive that, according to Ben Anderson’s No Worse Enemy,  the Marine Corps has issued over 25,000 pairs of armored underwear, known as  “Dick Diapers” by the Marines who wear them. These thick and clumsy carbon fiber undergarments  chafe, cause rashes, and generally make the wearer miserable in 100-plus-degree heat. But given the male affinity for his “parts," they have been embraced as one of the few offers of protection for the family jewels.  

Traumatic injuries of any sort are, well, traumatic. But this type of injury, the effective neutering of a warrior, is troubling in many ways, bringing the suffering to a whole new level. First and foremost, the loss of reproductive prowess literally negates one of the most important things about being a man; the ability to be intimate and reproduce. The psychological impacts alone are frightening to think of; a young man, used to a macho Spartan warrior culture, will have to process the complete loss of his sexual identity and ability.

The second challenge to recovering from a wound like this is our military culture’s approach to building resiliency. We build up toughness among our combat ranks through relentless verbal sparring matches that hold very little sacred.  One example of this is what we have coined as “winning the enemy marksmanship badge," aka the Purple Heart. We honor the wounded service member, but at the same time take a jab for their not getting out of the way of the enemy’s attack.

A fellow Officer friend of mine who served on my Forward Operating Base was shot in the rear end during a firefight, and because of the location of his wound, he became the “butt” of many jokes from me, and others as well. But this type of “ball busting” takes on a whole new depth when the wound actually hits and destroys a man’s balls. With an amputating wound to a man’s genitals, frankly there is no wiggle room for this gallows humor, which negates an important part of our military culture’s grieving process. A bullet wound, a burn, or even a missing limb are badges of honor that we see and respect. Yet the loss of genitals just doesn’t feel right. It is something that is unseen and unspoken, and frankly damn right uncomfortable to fathom. So as a result, a blanket of embarrassment and shame covers the wound, amplifying the psychological damage it inflicted.

I suspect that the vast majority of Marines and soldiers who have suffered this fate of damaged or defunct genitals go home and keep the nature of their injury a secret. They only reveal the true depth of their loss to those on a need to know basis. It is a wound that literally and figuratively will never see the light of day.

I suspect this shame and silence is how these wounded warriors deal with their loss of manhood, because silence is how I  handled my very similar, albeit non-violent, wound. I returned home from a year of war as an embedded Infantry Officer in the Afghan National Army with all my fingers, toes, and male parts physically intact. But because I had a raging case of PTSD, I found that my revving sex drive was stalled out by a flat tire. It turns out that erectile dysfunction is extremely common among combat veterans with PTSD. One study done by the University of California-San Diego found that the rate of erectile dysfunction was 85% for combat veterans with PTSD. This study concluded that “clinicians should proactively address the sexual concerns of combat veterans with PTSD." The key word here is proactive, because most combat veterans are keeping their problem a secret.

I mustered up the courage to talk to my doctor about my problem, and thanks to the magic of modern pharmaceuticals, the problem was instantly solved. Later, when I  mustered up even more courage to reveal to my combat buddies that I had been dealing  with this performance problem, instead of getting lambasted with jokes and ball-busting harassment, I got whispered requests for me to share my pill stash with them, since they too were having the same problems in the bedroom. I quickly became the Pablo Escobar of Cialis and Viagra, dealing pills free of charge  to my fellow soldiers who were too ashamed to go get their own prescriptions filled. 

The irony of today’s male warrior is that on the surface his psyche presents as a steely-armored juggernaut. Yet the truth is that at his core, he is as vulnerable as his exposed fleshy parts that make up his manhood. Those who suffer these wounds endure a hardship whose dimensions remain largely untreated due to the difficulty in accepting and processing what has been lost.  

 

THE STREETS OF AN AFGHAN CITY |

March 18, 2012

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

This was shot days after the Quran burning at Bagram. For us, it was a normal day of commuting to work with our Afghan counterparts. I’ve been trying to upload this video for about a week, and I finally got it to go. It’s over five minutes long, so there is lots to look at. It was originally shot in 720p high definition, but I think perhaps some of the hi went out of the def when I uploaded it.

This is just a part of the experience. Happy I could share it.

THE FEELING |

March 07, 2012

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

This blog is about the experience, and part of the experience is feeling it. I can relate to readers the way that it feels to be cold, I can relate to readers how it feels to crunch across gravel on the camp. I can try to relate how it feels to sit and converse with my Afghan counterpart. I can try to relate how it feels to ride in an MRAP through the streets of Mazar-e Sharif, the feeling of earphones and body armor, viewing the normal world of Afghans through armored slats and thick glass as we do our little part to influence their Border Police to make their lives better, safer and more stable so that we can have that at home, too.

How does one convey the feeling of being seven thousand miles from home while two countries go mad?  I swear, it feels as if so many people have lost their damned minds both here and at home.

Many of my blogging friends are talking about nukes and smallpox-infested blankets and carpets.

I read the comments on the news stories on dozens of outlets both liberal and conservative. They blame the Afghans for the violence. They cannot understand how a book can be worth the loss of lives, especially American lives. They cry out in rage for our immediate withdrawal, as if their moral outrage is now an excuse for wholesale abandonment -- failure -- in an effort they have grown weary of and no longer understand (as if they ever did). Our moral compass has no point upon it where an idea, much less the physical repository for that idea, is worth lethal outrage. They throw rocks and burn tires. We throw comments and flame those who dissent. It’s as much as we can care about anything.

Of course, we have those in our country who will destroy property and endanger lives over the outcome of a sporting event, but that’s usually a local affair and not a national outburst.

Of all the things one could do in this country with the demonstrated potential to cause such outbursts, burning the Quran tops the list. We have inadvertently bombed weddings and suffered only a fraction the outrage that disrespecting the religion, even if “inadvertently,” has caused. If there were one thing to avoid doing in this entire country, burning the Quran would be it. We spend literally tens of thousands of man-hours and millions of dollars to avoid causing civilian casualties -- as well we should -- in order to attain our exceedingly poorly stated goals. Yet we cause more chaos in ten minutes of book burning. We can blame the Afghans all day, we can talk about how most of them can’t even read the book that was burned, we can spout off about hypocrisy and curse them as a backwards people.

It solves nothing. All we are doing is feeding the insurgents.

How does it feel? Frustrating.

It’s frustrating to know that after ten-plus years, about a quarter of which I have been personally present, we still don’t have the discipline to not make such “mistakes.” To us, burning a book by “accident” is an understandable mistake. But in a country where our enemy is constantly telling the people that we are here to destroy Islam it may serve to some as confirmation, turning a skeptical observer into a rock-throwing rioter.

In this country, piety is respected as much as education, regardless of literacy. It is a moral value. Millions of Catholics have given something up for Lent, and millions of others have not with no fear of reprisal. In all my time in Afghanistan, I have yet to see an Afghan willing to break the Ramadan fast in a way that would cause his fellows to judge him a poor Muslim. It is a core value in this religiously homogeneous culture. They have a word, “Qari,” (pronounced “Cory”) for those who can recite the Quran from memory. That doesn’t mean that they have to be able to read it first. And to be a Qari is a respected thing.

It’s not like being a Kentucky Colonel.

There is no way in hell I could memorize a book, much less the Bible.

Our people took a careless action with the one thing that could possibly inspire such widespread rage, and over 30 people are dead, four of them Americans. It’s like the perfect storm of ignorant jackassery. This rivals the bags of rice coming off the boat from the United States to a hungry Vietnam, each being stamped in Vietnamese as it came off the boat under the eyes of approving American supervisors who could not read Vietnamese, “A gift from the people of the Soviet Union.”  Except it has greater weight to the insurgency both here and at home than the rice bags ever did. It is still an example of inexcusable ignorance of the environment in which you are operating. That, my friends, is a clear sign of a lack of discipline, of attention to detail in what is important in this particular mission.

The Afghans did not burn the books and blame us for it. We did it; and we freaking knew better.  

It’s not like we didn’t know this type of thing had the capacity for such a nasty reaction when not even one year ago we saw such outrage when that “Christian preacher” in Florida decided to commit homicide by YouTube. It is the red button that you don’t press in this country.  My judging the red button to be inappropriate, backwards or hypocritical does not alter the value system here, and we are the ones who are seeking to gain security by working to stabilize Afghanistan. Making the strong appearance of attacking their value system at its core does not help them to edge towards progress. Following it up with a vitriolic reaction to their anger does not help me to avoid the problem in the future, only to feel justified in continuing to ignore and disregard the values of those I would help.

With many of my veteran friends and 99% of all citizens who bother to leave a comment on a news site raging about how these people are barbarians and not worth our time and effort -- and with months to go on my third tour -- how do I feel?

Isolated. Outcast. Alone. My will to fight the good fight has the gravitational pull of the black hole that is the loss of national will dragging it towards the event horizon. It feels different. It is a sea change that is occurring… or has occurred.

We have lost our national will to the point that the troops over here sense it. It’s an underlying feeling, a sensing more than a feeling, that whatever we do, it doesn’t matter. We are here, tasked with something that our own civilian masters, if not the majority of our own people, don’t support us in. Our poorly stated national objectives, the inexorable pulling away from a task that those of us who are close enough to see can tell is not ready -- we sense it.  Enough progress was made to say that we put in a peak effort, but that peak effort was always on a timer. It was given just enough of a chance that had it brought massive success it would have been welcomed.

And if it didn’t, a claim to have made that effort would suffice.

My efforts, and the sacrifices of my friends like Jon Stiles have been sold for the sake of domestic politics. It’s not about getting anything done; it’s about leaving. By a certain date. Or, as it used to be called in Congress, “a date certain.”

If our efforts and sacrifices are not made -- and sold -- in the intelligent pursuit -- the purchase -- of sensible and well-stated goals and outcomes that favor the United States for not just an election cycle but for the following decades, then they are being sold cheaply. This I resent with all my heart and soul.

My problem is that I actually think about that and what it means. Some people don’t think about stuff as much. They are happier. Still, even they know. They just don’t think about it.

I just got an email as I was typing this, that was sent to multiple recipients by someone who, if I gave you his name, Google would easily recognize.  It started out, “So this is what it feels like to lose.”

Thanks, man. Do you realize that I’m still here?????  Kinda like talking about how messed up a burn victim looks while he’s sitting in the room. Dude, I’ve got months to go, and I’ve got this coming at me?

My brother’s war was Vietnam, and I think that I’ve gained some small appreciation for how he felt, even though this is no Vietnam. The loss of will, the national fatigue that gives way to dehumanizing and/or demonizing those whom we are supposed to be helping to grow. I sense it more than feel it; the will to succeed has gone nearly completely, the will to excuse growing stronger. We are seeking our excuses and in this moment we have found one to add to the list so that the loss here will be a justifiable loss if not a moral imperative.

***

Meanwhile, I’ve had numerous requests for more pictures, so let’s see what we can do…

For some reason, this version of WordPress only allows three sizes of pictures, and the largest winds up cutting the picture up.  Each of these can be downloaded to see much more detail.   My camera is a five year old HP Photosmart on its third tour, but it’s got the most effective anti-shake of anything I’ve seen, so I keep using it even though three tours in a grenade pouch has made it cranky and temperamental.

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Interesting architecture in MeS.

There is a lot of really interesting architecture in Mazaar-e Sharif. Afghans have a strong sense of aesthetics. It may not always jibe with our own -- take jingle trucks, for example. But it is a sense of aesthetics, and sometimes the results can be very interesting. Every Afghan city is a kaleidoscope of styles, from traditional mud and straw to metal and glass.

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Snow on the mountains and concertina wire.

Sometimes I try to juxtapose the Rockies-like beauty of the Hindu Kush with the accoutrements of conflict. There is something stark about mountains in winter which may seem to forbid human access, but there is something even more stark about concertina wire, the only reason for which is to forbid human access. Beauty and the beastly.

It turns out that mud and straw construction is a pretty good construction solution in this country. It’s not something completely foreign to us, when we call it "adobe."

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Satellite dish on a mud hut... technology and tradition.

Of course, “adobe” sounds so much more quaint than “mud.”   But it’s not uncommon to see technology and tradition mix in unlikely ways. Satellite dishes on traditionally-constructed houses. Afghans on Facebook, Twitter, blogging.

The city of Mazar-e Sharif is a sprawling city. Its daily patterns are probably more similar to those of a large city in America around the turn of the 20th century than our patterns of life today.

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Mazar-e Sharif from a distance.

The same challenges, the same issues with electricity, services, law enforcement. Except that the extremes are greater now. You can have a dirt lot and a banking center that does direct deposits side by side. From a distance, you can’t tell that this is a city in Central Asia. It just looks like "a city."

When we drive through I see daily life unfolding all around us. We are separate. We are in a bubble that travels through the life that goes on all around us. Iron bubbles, steel elephants that make their way through the streets of people leading challenging lives. When I watch movies about, say, gangsters in Chicago or in New York in the heyday of the bootleggers, I think that the everyday people were affectedby them in one way, shape or form.

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The average family just had to hope that they never showed up on the radar screen of someone like Al Capone. Or that they never had to consider borrowing money from a mafioso. Here it is similar. Organized criminals, politically-motivated insurgents, warlords who know that you can’t spell “warlord” without “war;” all have their impact on the lives of the little guy trying to make a living. The parents, the young men trying to make their mark on the world and feeling the allure of easier money, street cred, a little power and influence.

Our own libraries are full of the cautionary tales from similar times. Our own history shows examples of criminality, or corruption, of political dynasties run amok.

But here, we rumble through these daily human dramas in our metal bubbles, insulated from all knowledge of what these individuals and families are going through. We don’t know what their concerns are and can only guess. We are insulated from them by our blast-resistance. We are kept from them by inches of ballistic laminate viewing material.  We are held aloft by massive tires to make room for our blast-deflecting hull shape as we shuttle along our way. We are a momentary distraction in the day of those who are living in these neighborhoods.

We will never know them. And they will never know us.  We will never have a conversation. They will never hear me speak my limited Dari. I will never hear their opinions, their concerns; hear their viewpoint.

But we sleep securely at night in our massive camp. Guarded by the snack that smiles back:

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Goldfish...

 

SPEECHLESS |

March 04, 2012

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

I really don’t know what to say anymore. Finding the words to write into a blog about my experience here in Afghanistan has turned into an event of endless frustration and torture. Motivation has dried up in my personal drought. Being here is a mental and emotional daily beat down. Experiencing war first hand (from a surgeon's perspective) is nothing like I thought it would be and something I was ill-prepared for no matter how much effort I put in prior to this deployment.

Trauma has continued to flow in a bloody river of sorts. Yes, I have made a difference in soldiers’ lives, but I’m at my emotional wits' end managing war ravaged amputations of our soldiers' limbs and death. When I’m overwhelmed with trauma my mind has a mental block to the situation I’m surviving in, but when periods of monotony compose my days between the traumatic ones I find the only way to escape is sleeping. At least I can dream of my life back home; my wife, my kids and everything I love. There is no romanticizing the job I do nor the life I’m forced to live here in Afghanistan and the same could be said for the endless ravaged heroes I care for on a daily basis. Their efforts far outweigh any I could bring to this table; that’s why we call them heroes.

It seems these past few weeks have dealt the worse hand to the E.O.D. soldiers. The volume of IEDs that insurgents are placing has increased and their wicked tactics have worsened. Not only are the primary IEDs being placed to damage passing coalition vehicles, but secondary devices are put nearby to maim or kill E.O.D. personal whose mission is to disarm them. One such incident our FST had to deal with is rather noteworthy.

Four E.O.D. soldiers were on a mission to disarm a suspected IED. Prior to getting to the suspect position they encountered an unknown large IED that blasted the MRAP they were traveling in. The force was so intense it picked up the vehicle and flipped it end to end. When the rescue crew arrived it was determined the area was unsafe due to multiple secondary IEDs in the immediate area. The extraction plan was then changed. A medevac Blackhawk was used to hoist the injured soldiers to safety and they were then transferred to our forward surgical unit for treatment. When they arrived all four were brought into our facility. Only one of the four soldiers was able to drag himself in under his own power; the others were carried in on stretchers.

It was apparent that the injuries were to the lower extremities. One soldier's legs was covered in his own blood and he was writhing in pain. It was not obvious what the injuries were to this soldier on my initial views. This soldier’s multicam uniform was quickly removed and one of our general surgeons began his trauma resuscitation while I focused on the effected extremity. Once his pant leg was removed there was an obvious open tibia fracture staring at me. I continued to use trauma shears to cut of his leather boot and was taken back at what I saw; his foot was amputated in the middle of its length. What amazed me was his boot was completely intact with no obvious signs of trauma. The force of the blast was of such a magnitude that it caused this level of injury. I later learned the hull of the MRAP was intact, so it was the shock wave that propagated through the floor that caused this injury. I immediately had our radiology technician take x-rays to further assess the damage. The injury was worse than I could have imagined. Nearly every bone in the soldier's foot was severely fractured into pieces no bigger than an inch or less, and the end of the tibia was unrecognizable. This was among the worst lower extremity injuries I had ever seen. There was no chance of reconstructing his lower extremity, thus I was forced to take the soldier to the operating room where I amputated his leg; one of many I have been faced with here in Afghanistan.

Two days following the E.O.D. soldier's leg amputation lightning struck again; this time my emotions had a hard time controlling themselves. 

A young 19 year old U.S. female Specialist was on a mission in the rugged terrain north of Jalalabad with her fellow unit soldiers when they hit an IED. An extreme blast was encountered similar to the last group of soldiers we dealt with days earlier.  A medevac Blackhawk was dispatched to their position and they were transferred to out FST. When the Blackhawk landed they were quickly transferred to our trauma bays for evaluation. Of the four soldiers sent to us for medical care a young female specialist and an American born translator fared the worst. My attention focused on the 19 year old Specialist. She was screaming from pain; tears drenched her face. Her leg was covered in blood and the bottom of her boot, which was ripped open, was slowly pouring out blood. A tourniquet which was ineffectively applied to her leg was failing. One of our general surgeons started the resuscitation while I focused on her leg. Her injury was severe to her lower leg and even though I had not seen x-rays or removed her boot I knew what was likely from the soldier I dealt with days earlier.  Our anesthesia provider was trying to calm her down with sedation with minimal success. I was able to finally remove her boot on the injured leg; everyone in the immediate vicinity was taken aback by the extent of injury. I knew without a doubt that reconstruction of this soldier's leg would be unacceptable based on the severity of the injury. Amputation of this young woman’s leg was the only option.

My heart kind of dropped with this realization. This would be the first female amputation for our team and me personally from a traumatic cause. Time stopped within myself while my mind tried to comprehend the ramifications for this soldier.  This soldier was young and just starting her life. She was a college student, not married and without children. Her life will now sail a different course that she or her family never anticipated. 

The young soldier was brought back to the operating room for her unexpected meeting with fate; and in the end mine as well. Our anesthesia team gently put her to sleep and then my work began. Once I finished she was extubated and transferred to the post-surgical area to recover. While I was completing my surgical records the young specialist asked for me, so I went over to her side to see what she wanted. Once by her side she looked me in the eyes and asked how everything went. My heart dropped with emotional discomfort and personal turmoil at that moment. I was taken off guard that she was not only so lucid this soon after surgery, but by the simple question she asked at a moment for me like this. Most times I have only good news to tell my patients; your knee replacement went wonderful, your shoulder is going to do excellent, but this soldier’s reality is different. I put my hand on her shoulder and told her what was done; her tired eyes swelled and tears flowed and she grabbed my hand on her soldier. I immediately went into “positive mode” as I usually do in hard times with patients. I explained the technological advancements in prosthesis design and that she will walk again. For men it’s an easier sell; there is nothing feminine about prostheses. The social ramifications seem much more negative for a female in these circumstances. I spent about 20 minutes compassionately discussing the soldier's situation with her and then she blindsided me with another request; can you tell my mom? Uneasily, I agreed.

When injured soldiers come to our FST and they are stable, we have a dedicated cell phone for them to call their families to let them know what happened and that they are okay. Soldiers and their families are always appreciative and it gives a noticeable relief to the injured soldiers. 

The young Specialist dialed her family and after one bad connection I could hear the phone ringing in the background, then “hello” from a woman’s voice. She slowly led her mom into the situation without any specific detail of the injury. After about five minutes of patiently waiting she handed the phone to me. The soldier's mom really did not understand the extent of the injury and now the stressful discussion lay on my shoulders. It was as hard to tell her mother the situation as it was telling someone their family member had died, back in my surgical internship. Her mother did not take it well as would be expected; she and her husband nearby were sobbing profusely. She had a hard time accepting the reality of the situation, and must have asked me the same questions five times during a 10-minute conversation. I tried to be as insightful and positive as I could. Once I was finished with the discussion I handed the phone back to her daughter. Their following conversation was laced with crying, and words of love.

My time here has been nothing short of an emotional and mental roller coaster; parts born from my Afghanistan experience and others from the stress of being separated from my wife and children. I’ve shed more tears in the last 5 ½ months than the last 15 years of my life, some related to the injured soldiers I’ve treated but most from the heroes our FST has lost. I was anticipating this experience would strengthen my personal fortitude but in reality it has taken my positive points of view and skewed them into jadedness. My days have been filled with unexpected emotional forecasts and over time this lack of control becomes overwhelming. The stress of family from a distance, the constant threat of attack, soldiers' injuries and demise, and the lack of an outlet to relax deteriorates your strength as a person over months on end. I’m not here to judge the grand reasons we are still within this theater of war. The only valid perspective I can give is my own, and can tell you on a personal level this environment is not for me. I feel like I’ve been locked in a cage of moral negativity and pushed to live a life not of my choosing. The army I signed up for in December of 2000 is not the army of present day. I don’t know how I will look back at this experience in 10 years and I hope I can glean some positivity from it, but today I feel that is unlikely.  

I have a little over three more weeks here in Afghanistan before I start the long journey back to Kentucky. I may be leaving this war here in Afghanistan but I’ll be confronted with a different unfamiliar post-war family reconstruction when I arrive home. My young boys are at war with me for being gone and don’t communicate with me at this point; although they asked Santa for their daddy to come home from the army for Christmas. The newborn daughter I left two weeks after her birth does not know her father and my wife has learned to live without her husband in her daily life. I have learned to live without the responsibilities of a father and have become a self-centered personally indulgent individual. I have a lot of social reintegration myself waiting and it’s not going to be without a sizable amount of stress. Fortunately for me I have been able to maintain communication with my family. The soldiers who are isolated living on the Afghan mountainside are not so blessed. I can’t even begin to imagine the turmoil they will face with home reintegration. 

It seems back in the U.S. many individuals support the troops in various degrees. Some offer gratitude, nods and handshakes, and others are active in supporting our troops through their time, sending care packages, writing letters, knitting hats, and making a difference in a soldier's world both in theater and Framed Duber selfback in the United States. I don’t want to rain on someone’s proverbial parade, but if you aren’t going to take an active part in making a difference in our troops' lives don’t bother with the handshakes, nods and superficial forms of gratitude; we know you're happy in your comfortable world where you don’t have to risk everything for a nation that we as soldiers care so much for. The last thing freedom needs is to be cheapened by superficiality. Everyone has the opportunity to make a difference. You can shy away into your protected corner or spread your wings and let freedom ring loud and clear. The choice is yours. God bless America, and all individuals who seek freedom.

Thanks for coming along for the ride.

I’ll be home very soon Melissa, Turin, Talon and baby Myla. I love you more than you will ever know.

MAYHEM |

March 02, 2012

Name: Major Dan
Returned from: Afghanistan
MilblogAfghaniDan, Part II
Twitter: Mayordelmundo

Framed Afghanidan Koran 1


For once, I don't know what to say. I've been dwelling on Afghanistan all month, before fellow advisors were shot dead in a ministry where I would sometimes work, before the riots even kicked up. And now, for what seems like the first time in over ten years, everyone everywhere has something to say. Few, of course, know what the hell they're talking about (in my humble opinion). Some certainly do. I'll attempt to discuss in a following post the killings at the Interior Ministry, and the grave fallout from that.

Here's some background, in case you're just catching up:

Afghanistan Koran Protests Claim More Lives

An Afghan friend asked in an email the very same question that baffled my former comrades as we discussed the incident that triggered it all, the day it became widespread public news. "Why would they burn the holy Quran of all things, and if they had to, why on earth would they leave evidence of that for Afghans to see?"  This has all been pretty well obscured by everything that has transpired since, as Americans in increasing numbers angrily demand that we leave, now. But it's so incredibly frustrating. Nothing, and I mean nothing, has presented such convincing evidence that we just aren't learning a thing, if members of our coalition -- 11 years into this conflict -- order the burning of the population's most sacred relic. And then leave half-charred examples behind for locals to discover.

Framed Afghanidan Koran 2


Some apologists have pointed out the reason for the burnings: prisoners were passing inscriptions to each other in the texts. Well then, handle it delicately. And don't claim from the highest levels later that it was inadvertent. Others have said, "So what? It's just a book! Now people are dying." That is true. But it belies a grave misunderstanding of how fragile an environment this counterinsurgency presents. You play the hand you're dealt, and the hand we've been dealt is Afghanistan, with all its immense challenges and sensitivities. You cannot hope to win over a population when you're found to be burning their Quran. That should have been made 100% crystal clear by now.

 

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Some personal context is relevant here. When a previously obscure "pastor" named Terry Jones (pardon my cynicism over that title -- he lacks even a degree in theology) decided to make a point by announcing his plans to burn copies of the Quran in 2010, it ignited a round of deadly rioting in Afghanistan and elsewhere around the world -- just based on the intention of a few radicals in Florida. Jomes relented after public pressure from many, including Gen. Petraeus, but eventually did it anyway after a "trial" in March 2011, and further mortal riots ensued. It was evident from my conversations with Afghan colleagues, based solely on the threat, that it mattered little how relatively insignificant this man was and what his rights are in the United States. What mattered the most to them, as senior military officers and Defense Ministry officials, was how this act would go over with the Afghan people, since it reflected upon US troops, and Afghan government and military by extension, a dark stain of insult to their religion and way of life. Those perceptions were emphasized over and over throughout that period, by thoughtful and intelligent men who want only stability and progress for their country.

Framed Afghanidan koran 2B
 

Protestors outside Bagram, eight days ago.


We spoke often, with our counterparts/advisees and within our training command, of the repercussions from Jones's intention, and that's what we were trying to prevent by bitterly opposing "statements" such as that. Many in the United States angrily denounced the good general and others who took that stand, in the interest of our protected right to free speech and (I believe) a genuine desire that Afghans would begin to show greater tolerance for viewpoints at odd with theirs. But it's simply impractical, as those on the ground know too well. Our mission, at least in my training-focused command, was to build the capacity of Afghanistan's security forces and institutions so that they could protect their people and gain their trust. We were trusted by our colleagues, but the 99.99% of Afghans without international advisors had no one to trust but their family/tribal/religious leaders, who saw a culture in their midst that would burn their holy book. And regardless of the circumstances, that's what they see now -- only it's being done directly by those in uniform.

Meanwhile, the fighting among armed combatants continues, far from the glare of Kabul and the other cities. This could have (should have) been the story of last week:

Marines Sweep Uncharted Areas of Khan-Neshin During Operation Highland Thunder

Framed Afghanidan Koran 3


Or even better, the story below could have been it. It warms a skier's heart, that's for sure -- as it should the heart of anyone who would like to see a positive sign of peace and stability in Afghanistan:

Afghanistan Set to Host Second National Ski Race

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