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.


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.  



Wow that's crazy to even imagine getting a wound like that. The amount of personal hell any man would have to go through is unthinkable. I was deployed in Afghanistan in 09 and let me tell you the number of injuries caused by ieds are way more common than injuries caused by actual enemy engagments. It makes my blood boil thinking about how cowardly the Taliban are

The hidden costs of war are infinitely greater than any numbers in the War Department budget.

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