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.

EVERYDAY MEMORIALS FOR FALLEN FRIENDS |

April 27, 2012

Name: Charlie Sherpa
Previously embedded: with former unit in Afghanistan
Hometown: Boone, Iowa
Milblog: Red Bull Rising
Email: SherpaatRedBullRising.com

 


Merle Hay Road in Des Moines, Iowa, is a busy north-south road that links a decades-old retail and commercial district to Camp Dodge, the largest military installation in the state.

In addition to strip malls, shops, and restaurants, there is notably an Earl May Nursery and Garden Center located on Merle Hay Road. The business has multiple Des Moines locations, but only one that invites this locally popular alliteration: "The Earl May on Merle Hay."

In these parts, that passes for practically poetic.

The street is notably named after the first U.S. soldier from Iowa—and perhaps the first American soldiers—killed in World War I. Merle David Hay, 24, was one of three U.S. 1st Infantry Division soldiers killed in trench warfare near Bathelémont-lès-Bauzemont, France, Nov. 2-3, 1917.

The best memorials gently jolt us out of our routines and distractions, and remind us of those now missing from our daily lives. I have to admit, however, that I drive on Merle Hay Road nearly every day, but that the experience rarely causes me to reflect upon World War I. I'm in too much of a hurry. Other people are, too.

There must be a better way.

In another life and job, I write about architecture, construction, and community planning. Personally and professionally, I love exploring the ways that we invest meaning in places and things. Whenever I travel to our nation's capital, I make a point of visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. When I find myself on the grounds of Camp Dodge, I try to stop by the 34th Division Memorial, a small monolith that commemorates the Red Bull soldiers of World War II. In today's media hustle and 24-hour traffic, however, stone walls do not always an ideal memorial make. It's a question of mental space as much as it is physical real estate.

How do you make an everyday memorial, one that busy people will find meaningful and not morbid? One that's accessible, without risk of becoming commonplace? How does one person make a difference, helping to keep alive the memory of a friend, buddy, or family member?

Naming places and things, after all, takes some amount of collective time, effort, and money—people working together as towns, neighborhoods, or non-profit groups. That said, streets, schools, buildings, parks, and trails are all good venues for commemorating individual soldiers, units, or even veterans in general. Personally, I'd much rather see the names of public spaces evoke themes of duty and service, rather than have them sold to the highest bidder.

And, as mentioned in previous Red Bull Rising posts, towns and groups can also commemorate fallen soldiers with street banners and billboards.

So, where does that leave the rest of us, acting as individuals?

One of my old Army buddies makes a practice of posting via social media the names, ages, and of those soldiers who were killed during his unit's deployment to Iraq. Another ensures his unit's Facebook page commemorates the anniversary dates of those killed.

And I've taken to subscribing (by "liking") the Facebook pages of entities such as Iowa Remembers Inc., which regularly commemorates those Iowans who have been killed in service to their country. Here's a typical entry: "Remembering an Iowa Hero ... Army Sgt. Brent Maher, 31, Honey Creek, Iowa - 4/11/11. He is not forgotten."

That's short, sweet, to the point. It's almost "name, rank, and serial number," except for the little touches, like dates and hometowns. And "he is not forgotten" gets me everytime.

Here are some other ways that people can help commemorate their friends, family, co-workers, and others killed in service to their country:

  • -- Wear a photo button or commemorative bracelet naming a fallen soldiers. Or, if the soldier is an immediate family member, wear a gold star lapel pin. When people ask about what you're wearing, be prepared with a short answer or story about your soldier.

  • -- Place an automotive window decal on your personal vehicle, identifying a fallen soldier.

  • -- Post a Facebook cover photo depicting a fallen soldier.

  • -- Post a Facebook status, photo, or other social media update with the soldier's name and date of death.

The best memorials aren't designed to make people feel bad or guilty, but to remember and celebrate a life. What other 21st century ways have you seen to commemorate fallen soldiers, friends, and family? What can you do to help keep their memories alive?

Examples of Facebook cover photos courtesy of Chelsey Bliss (for Spc. Donald Nichols) and Amanda Justice (for Staff Sgt. James Justice).

THE VETERAN-CIVILIAN DISCONNECT |

April 23, 2012

Name: Ian Wolfe
Returned from: Iraq
Hometown: Minneapolis, MN

Why is there this disconnect between veterans and the rest of the country? I once thought I was alone in this feeling, that maybe it was just me who felt disconnected from society, that it was nothing related to my being a veteran. But as I talked with more vets, and read articles by vets, I found that I was not alone.

Some have related it to anesthesia of the populace in regards to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars; the distance and seeming unaffectednesss of the American people. Generally speaking, the American public endured no physical or emotional affects unless they were close to someone involved. It isn’t like WWII; there was no sense of communal involvement. It isn’t like Vietnam; it hasn’t quite inspired the emotions evoked by that conflict. It is something different, something unique, distant and fiction-like, able to be put out of mind. The Abrams doctrine, which held that when you send your military to war you take your whole country to war, is gone. The masses are anaesthetized from war now. We alone bear the burden, along with our famlies.

Others have discussed the idea of a “warrior class," the emergence of a new population which is becoming increasingly isolated on military bases due to the unique position they are put in, which the rest of the population knows little about -- just enough, usually, to use the idea as a tool for politics. It's often when some scandal is found that the populace becomes concerned with what we are doing, so we are only recognized in shame, leaving our own storytelling to try and prove we are not the sum of our worst.

I have no answers, except the feeling that I am not alone. At which I am both rejoiceful and fearful. I am not sure what it means for us, and for the country. How does a measly two-year deployment to Iraq change me so much? Or maybe it didn’t change me at all. Maybe I just see things differently now.

But maybe the split between the path of the country and the path of the veteran is worth looking into. Maybe it is for the better. For the veteran knows the world better then the fantasy the populace glimpses through edited news programming; a snippet forgotten quickly with the commercial break and the latest celebrity gossip.

I joke often that I might be dead inside. It gets some laughs, and I laugh too, for I know it is not the case, not entirely. But I do feel different. I feel indifferent to things I feel society thinks I should care more about. I have little patience for things I feel are stupid or bureaucratic. The holiday seasons often drag along like a chore.

I find myself wishing to go back. But the closest I can get is as a nurse on a burn unit. I often want to stay, the trauma being the only thing that inspires a sense of importance or emotion, of something real. I don’t know what this is or what this means, but I know there are many people who feel the same way. Call it disaffection, irritation, depression -- whatever it is, it is inspiring a generation of veterans, for better or worse. With the suicide rate of veterans increasing I wonder if it is leaning towards the worse. But it could be fostered into something great for this country. Maybe this country needs people who feel disconnected, disaffected, and different, to lead the way into our future.

BADAKHSHAN 5: THE WRATH OF KHAN |

April 18, 2012

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

It had been a brutal winter in Badakhshan. One of the hardest winters in years had descended upon northern Afghanistan, and the farthest northeastern province had taken the worst of it. Rugged and mountainous, snowfall had lain heavy upon the slopes and closed off the passes. Some valleys, accessible only by foot or by donkey, had run dangerously low on supplies; especially the Afghan Border Police. Several outposts were in dire need of airlifted supplies. With Afghan airlift capacity, their wait would be long indeed. COL Mollosser agreed with the 5th Zone commander, a brigadier general, to try to provide some needed sustenance to one of the hardest hit outposts. He got buy-in from the American general who controls air assets in the RC North. Thus began a saga that would span weeks.

Four previous attempts had been shut down by bad weather. Members of the team, interpreters and a few Afghan officers had gathered at the helicopter ramp on four separate occasions, cargo loaded on the Chinook helicopters, only to be told that the capricious March weather over Badakhshan was too bad to reach the target. In the meantime avalanches occurred, which only heightened the need for the supplies. The fifth time, we hoped, would be the charm.

It was bright and sunny at Marmal, but Badakhshan is far from Balkh Province. The weather here hadn’t stopped most missions; it was the visibility in Badakhshan. The weather at Marmal was so nice that energy was high as we waited for word, tons of cargo loaded and our personal equipment positioned near the aircraft.

Finally, word came; it was a go. We quickly loaded on the Chinooks and Blackhawk. The auxiliary power unit (APU) on the Chinook I boarded, a small gas turbine, filled the aircraft with a constant high frequency drone that forced us all to don earplugs. The aircrew ran through their checks and finally the starter motors for the main engines began to spool up the turbines. A high-pitched whine climbed higher and higher until it peaked and settled into a constant loud whistling roar.  The gearboxes were engaged and the two massive rotors began to turn. The aircraft wobbled gently at first as the centrifugal force of the slowly turning blades pulled on it, finally turning fast enough to balance the forces.

My earplugs were the ear-canal-fitting earbuds of my iPod earphones. ”Don’t Tread on Me” by Alice in Chains filled my ears as the pilot pulled pitch, the engine noise and “whop whop whop” of the rotors grabbing air faintly noticeable in the background. It was the perfect music for the event.

Lifting off, the Chinook hovered out of its parking spot and turned towards the main runway. Our best view of the world around us was out the back of the massive chopper, over the ramp that was positioned level with the floor of the bird.  Buildings and parked aircraft slid across our view as we “taxied” out to the launch position. We hovered twenty feet off the ground as another helicopter slid into view behind us, also holding a hover. It was the Blackhawk, floating behind us as if suspended by a thread, bobbing slightly a few feet up and down as we did the same.

After what seemed an eternity of hovering, we moved forward and began to climb. The runway and finally the whole airfield appeared in our view out the back of the aircraft as we climbed away and to the east. We were finally on our way. It was over an hour to our first refueling stop.

I had a machine gun crew with me. For this mission, my job was securing part of the LZ. We would move out and away from the aircraft and assume a position to defend the Landing Zone against anyone who took it upon themselves to threaten the aircraft or the operation. We were not expecting any problems, but we can’t just go out and lollygag around without being prepared for whatever may occur.  SFC Brewster also had a small team on board, responsible for a different part of the “clock.”  We divide responsibility for 360 degree security into a clock. I was to position my team at about 7  o’clock -- 12 being the direction the nose of the aircraft were pointed -- and Brewster had 5.

The others on the aircraft busied themselves with a number of things. No one went to sleep. Several of the guys pulled breakfast bars out of their kit and began munching. A couple of energy drinks came out and were quickly downed by the soldiers. Most didn’t want to drink too much because of the lack of “facilities” aboard the chopper.  A full bladder on a long helicopter flight can be a challenge that only a Gatorade bottle and a bold spirit can resolve.

Long helicopter flights are boring. Once the excitement of departure wears off, there is really nothing to do but sit. Many people fall asleep. There is not always anything to look at, since the ramp door is not always open. It is always windy, loud and the ship vibrates. The sound changes, and when the helicopter hits turbulence, as sometimes happens especially at mountain ridgelines and passes, the ship pitches and rolls and the “whop” sound of the blades becomes pronounced. Sleepers will stir when this happens, and those who do not like to fly become agitated and visibly nervous.

Time becomes distorted, and other than quick glances out the bubble windows located behind some of the center-facing seats, there may be little awareness of the world around the helicopter. The music helped, and I bounced in my seat to the rhythm, happy to be airborne. I love to fly. The flight crew noticed my upbeat attitude and the door gunner looked back curiously for a moment to watch me enjoy the flight. I didn’t care.

 

The aircraft began to descend and maneuver, and it was clear that we were approaching somewhere that we intended to land. The landscape was fairly flat, with mountain ridges to the south and east. Kunduz. We circled and finally landed to refuel. Everyone must get off the chopper when it refuels. We all took our weapons, leaving our packs on the bird, and filed out the rear of the helicopter as the massive blades swung rapidly overhead. Everyone’s first need was to relieve their bladders, and once that was done we watched and waited as the fuel lines fed fuel to the heavily laden choppers. The whole process took perhaps ten minutes, and then we loaded back up and the bird moved to a pad to wait while one of the other birds finished refueling. The process completed, we took off again, a rotating view of Kunduz spilling into the rear of the open fuselage. We climbed towards the east.

Open plain gave way to steep ridges of bare rock. Some of the formations were truly impressive, massive folds of stone shoved into the sky by utter force of colliding tectonic plates. The Hindu Kush is still growing, still young as mountain ranges go. Snow had swept across the mountain faces, clinging where it gained purchase and throwing the nuances of the rock into sharp relief.

The crewman in the back of the Chinook would periodically lower the ramp until it was level with the floor if the aircraft, providing a better view if the changing landscape. He would often sit with his legs dangling above the tableau being reeled under the aircraft by the massive rotors spinning in counter-rotation above us.

 

The choppers beat across the sky, chasing the spaces that were absent of rock, winding through riverine passes while the sharp stone walls wound past. Villages could be seen wedged between the river and the steep slopes of the narrow valleys. Living communities, tucked away in the nooks of the living rock.

Popping ears and changes in perspective gave signs of an impending landing. The helicopter began to make a series of turns, banking so the landscape trailing away behind the bird slides and tilts in the aperture at rear of the fuselage. A large town -- a small city --  began to wind out behind the aircraft, tilting and sliding as we maneuvered towards the German Provincial Reconstruction Team.

The massive Chinook reared, nose high, rotor blades clawing and slapping the air. Our view out the back contained no sky, only the ground, and it drew closer. The big bird slowed, began to level, and settled towards earth. With a slight bump, the Chinook mushed into its landing gear and the straining against the gravity ceased. The aircraft seemed to sigh.

We filed off the lowered ramp, making our way to a small Hesco enclosure that contains a porta-john. We stayed clustered near this enclosure as German fuel trucks roll up to fuel the birds. This was Faizabad, capitol of Badakhshan.

2012 03 17 11 50 27 96 1024x579 Badakhshan 5: The Wrath Of Khan

Refueling at Faizabad, Badakhshan Province, Afghanistan.

After fueling we reboarded the aircraft which lifted and hovered to an area away from the fueling pads, settling to earth outside the walls of the PRT compound. The engines shut down. We needed to wait while a pair of Apaches flew to our objective and checked visibility.

We waited.

A German vehicle, a small Mercedes SUV, stopped near the nose of the bird where COL Mollosser sat on the lowered ramp at the rear of the aircraft. Two Germans dismounted, looking around for someone to talk to.

“Colonel,” I called, “someone’s here to see you.”

“I’m a Colonel,” he called back, “I’m used to people coming to me, not the other way around.”

The German Major stepped to the rear of the Chinook where Colonel Mollosser greeted him much more warmly than his previous statement would have led one to believe. After what appeared to be a pleasant chat, the Germans departed, only to reappear a few minutes later.

Several pans were placed on the hood of the vehicle and we were treated to cannelloni and a type of German meatball.

2012 03 17 13 53 04 187 2 1024x576 Badakhshan 5: The Wrath Of Khan

Cannelloni and meatballs... mmmmm.

Finally, word came back; let’s go.

Again the ritual of takeoff was performed and we climbed away into the mountain passes. This was to be a short flight compared to the flights to this point. Mountains framed our aircraft more tightly than before. Dramatic stone faces slid past, striations showing the tremendous forces rearranging the planet’s surface in super slow motion.

The crew chief sat on the pallet covered in bags of flour. He spoke into his microphone then leaned in towards SFC Brewster, shouting to be heard over the constant roar. Brewster shook his head. Turning towards me he shouted to be heard over the same howling noise.

“We’re turning around! We’re going back!”

“No way!” This must be a joke. We were nearly there.

“Yep, that’s what he said!”

The helicopters began to bank, turning around in a narrow valley. The Apaches, flying ahead, didn’t like the visibility. We were indeed turning back.

You could feel the team deflate like a tire in an old cartoon.

The trip now went into reverse. Back to Faizabad, refuel and then head westward. Again the rolling tableau wound out behind like a broad roll of painted paper. The other choppers hung in the sky, swinging left and right, in and out of the aperture view through the rear of the Chinook.

 

We didn’t stop at Kunduz. The trip back was quicker, but the noisy isolation of the Chinook overcame the waning enthusiasm in each soul and drove every soldier into his own thoughts. Some slept, most sat quietly in the windy noise, alone in the midst of the group.

Landing at Marmal was completely anticlimactic. Accomplishing this mission would have to wait for another day. The next day, we were back at work out at the Zone HQ.

 

A SECOND KNOCK AT THE DOOR |

April 15, 2012

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

Framed CJ SECOND KNOCK coverA couple of weeks ago, I had the privilege of being able to view a new documentary called A SECOND KNOCK AT THE DOOR. It covers an issue that is taboo within military families and is underreported by the media, like most things related to war.

The term “friendly fire” evokes memories of Patrick Tillman, the American football star who left the NFL to join the United States Army after 9/11 and was subsequently killed in Afghanistan. The controversy behind Tillman’s death included the Army’s cover-up of friendly fire, which unleashed a media maelstrom as was told in the documentary The Tillman Story. For Christopher E. Grimes, then a graduate student planning his Master’s thesis in Public Policy at Northwestern University, the case provoked a question: how many other cases like Pat Tillman’s are there? The result of Grimes’ thesis research is the award-winning documentary feature A Second Knock at the Door, which shares the heart-breaking stories of four families who have lost loved ones due to friendly fire.

When I was first asked if I wanted to review the film, I was hesitant. I tend to see most documentaries coming from the film industry about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as slanted against reality and in a manner that casts a negative light on our troops. So, admittedly, I went into this with skepticism and a desire to at least warn my readers about the film. What I found was quite different.

A Second Knock at the Door is a very unbiased and objective view of what families go through in finding out that their loved one was killed by friendly fire -– or even just the suspicion that that is what happened.

The military as a whole, and the Army specifically, has learned a great deal about how to handle suspected incidents of friendly fire since the Tillman case. The military has recognized that hiding or minimizing the truth is not beneficial and only makes matters worse.

The film rightly highlights that fratricide, the actual term for “friendly fire,” is a given in war. There has never been a war and will probably never be one in which a troop is not accidentally killed by a friendly force.

When I was in Iraq, we suffered a close call near the town of Al Mishikhab, south of An Najaf. Our Cav Squadron broke off by troops to envelop the town. Mishikhab is located in a fertile area along a river I can’t remember the name of (didn’t write it in my journal for some reason). C Troop (Crazyhorse), 3-7 Cav crossed the river to the east and then began pushing north. A Troop (Apache), continued along the main MSR on Route 28. At this point, a major sandstorm was blowing through but nothing to the level of one that came a few days later. At a point along the route where our two troops’ movement began to come closer together and parallel each other, our troop was mistaken for enemy movement. We had been fighting the Republican Guard and had them in a pincer movement. Unfortunately, FBCB2 was not as widespread in early 2003, and Apache thought we were enemy tanks through the haze. A Bradley opened up on us with its .50 Cal machine gun. Immediately, the nets filled with frantic calls for cease fire as leaders recognized friendly fire. Thankfully, no one was injured in that brief encounter as only a few bursts were shot out.

Unfortunately, such is not the case for some families.

The Army’s policy on informing the families of fallen soldiers is to “give them the truth, they best they know it and as fast as they can.” This was not the experience of the four families featured in the film, that had to wade through red tape and wait between six months to a year to have the deaths confirmed as friendly fire only after repeated inquiries. The families of Sgt. Lee Todacheene (Farmington, NM, Navajo Nation), PFC Jesse Buryj (Canton, OH), PFC David Sharrett II (Oakton, VA) and SPC Wesley Wells (Libertyville, IL) open their homes and their hearts to share their stories of loss, betrayal and frustration.

Oftentimes, it’s just as confusing for military officials as it is for families to find the truth. The “fog of war” affects us all, and the truth doesn’t usually come out until autopsies are done and questions arise. Because our troops are so highly trained to prevent, if not miminize, fratricide it’s easy to immediately conclude in most cases that this isn’t an option.

Grimes does a commendable job of undertaking intense research and sharing both sides of the issues -- the families’ and the military’s. His research shows that following the Gulf War I, where the number of deaths resulting from friendly fire accounted for 17% of US combat deaths, the Department of Defense completely revised casualty reporting procedures associated with friendly fire, requiring that the Army provide casualty information to the next of kin in an “accurate and timely manner” after a “reasonable suspicion of fratricide” is established.

A Second Knock at the Door is a gripping documentary that has earned Best Documentary nods at both the East Lansing Film Festival and the Sycamore Film Festival. The DVD version was officially released on March 13, 2012 and is available for purchase at the documentary’s website at www.asecondknockatthedoor.com.

THE RED IN THE CENTER OF THE PATCH |

April 10, 2012

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

This is the post that I’ve been dreading, but I knew it would come. For the first time since WWII, Ohio’s 37th (then a division, now a Brigade Combat Team that includes many soldiers from Michigan) has lost lives in combat. Several days ago, out in Maimana, an insurgent wearing a suicide vest Framed OLD BLUE The Red in the Center of the Patchapproached a group of Afghan Police and their mentors and detonated his vest. The indiscriminate violence of that act took many lives. Among the dead were two Americans; SFC Hannon and SFC Rieck. A third, CPT Rozanski, died of his wounds within hours. Five other soldiers were wounded, most of them severely. Two are still fighting for their lives.

All three of our honored dead leave families behind. Children, wives, parents and siblings. Each of our wounded has a life. Each has a story. Every single one of them was born into loving arms and was, in that moment, the most loved being in the world. Each was born into hopes and dreams, and none of those hopes and dreams involved being blown up by a madman with explosives strapped to his body. Each one is or was a volunteer; they raised their hands. Some had to compete to get on this particular mission. Each took those hopes and dreams and the love of many hearts with him every day he left the wire.  

These men did not willingly give their lives, but willingly risked them. They placed their health and their lives as a wager on the altar of freedom, not as lambs to slaughter but as the sheepdogs who defend the lambs from the wolves. Theirs was no unwitting nor willing sacrifice. Not given, but offered with a challenge; come and take this if you can.

The insurgent commander who sent the madman to do this deed did not strap himself with explosives but sent instead a minion who was not likely in possession of a strong mind. Instead of standing in open combat, he stole those wagered lives in a way that protected himself at the expense of another -- or so he thinks. We will kill him for it, for this will not stand without repayment. Like a pit bull who has finally bitten someone, there is no reconciliation. For him there is no more opportunity to lay down his arms and rejoin the society he seeks to seize control of. No. He has earned his fate. He will not likely die in open combat, but terrified by a sudden rush of sound and fury in the night. There is no saving him.

As the old Irish curse says, “May he die screaming.”

The news stories about the event are disturbing. Some stories reported that they were acting like a bunch of battlefield tourists, strolling in the park and taking pictures. Some depicted the soldiers as having opened fire indiscriminately in the aftermath of the attack, killing children in the process. One such story appeared in Stars and Stripes of all places, which apparently cut and pasted directly from al Jazeera. None of these stories are true. Not one American fired a shot following the blast. They were performing a mission, not wandering around like a bunch of carefree war tourists.

Newspapers in the US and the UK published photos of the grim aftermath, violating the dignity of the dead and dying. For that, I am eternally angry. The editors of any publication that did so had best never meet me and be identified as being responsible for the publication of such war porn. It would not go well for them. Just because they could didn’t mean that they should.

The team that was hit was an SFAT (Security Force Assistance Team) like the one I am a part of. It’s actually part of the group of small teams that I belong to. This team worked with the Provincial headquarters, mentoring the Provincial Police Chief and his staff. The Afghan Public Affairs Officer, or “PAO” as they are known in military parlance, was doing a mission that included a visit to a radio station and then distributing radios to college students. Some local residents were interviewed as well. The PAO from the 1-148 Infantry, the unit supporting the SFAT in the area, was there to work with the Afghan PAO. The Afghan Police element was detailed to provide security for the operation.

Some PAOs sit the war out almost exclusively within the walls of a compound, but CPT Rozanski didn’t. Not this day. He went out to support the Afghans and partner with them.

Some reports say that the locals had warned them about “wandering around the town.” They did not.

These men were doing a mission. They were supporting the Afghan Police in their mission, and that means going with your Afghans and doing what they do. That means that sometimes insurgents will try to kill you. They want to frighten the Coalition into staying on the FOB. These men knew that lives can be changed or ended instantly here. They were out there, doing their jobs, and the worst happened.

In Afghanistan, almost anything can happen on any given day; it just usually doesn’t. Sometimes, however, it does. This is an example.

Before the smoke cleared, men with cameras -- perhaps covering the events for local media, perhaps documenting the strike for the insurgents -- descended upon the dead, dying, and wounded and began snapping pictures. One of the wounded recalls wanting to shoot the vultures, but being unable to. The resulting pictures of dead and wounded Americans are all over the internet. Many newspapers published them and earned my undying emnity. If you haven’t looked at the pictures, do yourself a favor and don’t.

There is no dignity at the moment of death. There is no dignity in agony. The dignity comes from the purpose in their hearts, the reason that they subjected themselves to the risk of such incredibly lethal, destructive violence. Those pictures do not show that dignity. Without the context of the honor of their hearts, which cannot be captured in a photograph, the only thing captured is the inhuman lack of dignity in that moment. A photograph may appear to be coldly objective, but it lacks this greatest of contexts and is therefore highly subjective. To view these men in that vacuum is to fail to grasp the reality of that captured moment, and to view only the absence of dignity; which is to objectify the dead.

Objectifying human beings, especially their deaths, is not good for the human soul. It is the natural state of the sociopath, and bringing even a bit of that into your own soul depletes you. Now, some will not be able to help themselves, but I’m telling you that it never feels good after having seen the result of extreme violence in that moment where the context of the man is missing, where the viewing of a human being as an object is unavoidable. Those men do not deserve to be gazed at in their agony. They do not deserve to be gawked at where they were tossed by the horrific violence of that last moment. When the dignity of their spirit cannot be conveyed, when they become horrific objects to the human eye. I can’t stop you, but I can ask; please don’t. For you, for them, please.

When men have had their lives taken, there are honors to be rendered by those who have the sure and certain knowledge that these men did possess that dignity. It doesn’t make the horror go away, it doesn’t make it all better. It is grim, but it is demonstrating the utmost of respect. It is the external echo of our internal loss and our true belief in the dignity of the sacrifice made, the purpose in their souls. It is grief, respectfully shown. It is the time when strong men and women shed tears of loss.

The first is the “ramp ceremony.” The streets of Marmal were lined with members from every nation represented on this base, and there are quite a few. Led by the Germans, every one of our partner nations lined up to show respect, to symbolically defend the remains of now defenseless men on their final journey. To salute as they passed. Any ill to be spoken of any of these nations was, in that moment, moot. They were our brothers and sisters, and it breaks my heart with its power.

Our partners created a wall here at Marmal where plaques are affixed, each bearing the name and date of every soldier lost in the RC North from every nationality since the beginning of the war. At a ceremony yesterday three men had their names enshrined, plaques unveiled to show their names in a way that keeps their names alive here, so that we can remember and so that those who follow may say their names if only in their own minds as they read them. “Lest we forget.”

The German hospital at Marmal, for the second time, strove heroically to save the lives of 37th Brigade soldiers. None have died after reaching the care of the Germans. I cannot adequately express my thanks for their professionalism and caring. They have been magnificent.

I would also like to laud Soldiers’ Angels for the loving care and respect they give our wounded as soon as they arrive in Germany. They provide an informal connection, reaching back to us and forward to the families with non-medical communication. They never violate ethics. They will actually hold the hands of our wounded while the medical staff is working hard to save lives. Soldiers’ Angels care for the heart, freeing the busy doctors and nurses to care for the body in the sure knowledge that no soldier will go unloved. And nobody does it better. They are wonderful, awesome people who do things as volunteers that I could not keep my sanity through. They spend time with people who are having the worst, scariest days of their lives and bring a smile, a blanket, news from home, a message from their brothers, or a warm hand to hold.

This is likely not the last of the casualties for our brigade. This is just the beginning of the fighting season. Not all days are grim. Most aren’t, in fact. The exposure level varies due to the jobs that people are assigned to do, as it has always been. Some have jobs that take them out, some have jobs that keep them inside the wire. Some have choices and exercise them as their hearts and minds lead them. Some strive to go out and are not permitted due to their assignments. Some are nearly always exposed.

Most are willing to place their wager on that table and dare anyone to try and take it from them. Some will have their wager taken, because that is the nature of war.

On any given day in Afghanistan…

Update:

Seven insurgents who were affiliated with the suicide attack in Maimana have been killed and two others arrested in the past 24 hours. The release of that information was cleared through our S-2.

THE SHERPATUDES |

April 09, 2012

Name: Charlie Sherpa
Previously embedded: with former unit in Afghanistan
Hometown: Boone, Iowa
Milblog: Red Bull Rising
Email: SherpaatRedBullRising.com

These epigrammatic tips are a mix of maxims regarding organizational analysis, knowledge management and working in a TOC (Tactical Operations Center).

Behold, the "Sherpatudes":

1. Continually ask: "Who else needs to know what I know?"
2. Continually ask: "Who else knows what I need to know?"
3. Never speak with complete authority regarding that which you lack direct knowledge, observation, and/or suppressive fires.
4. Never pull rank over a radio net.
5. Let the boss decide how he/she wants to learn.

6. Let the boss decide how he/she wants to communicate.

7. "I am responsible for everything my commander's organization knows and fails to know, learns and fails to learn."

8. Know when to wake up the Old Man. Also, know how to wake him up without getting punched, shot, or fired.

9. The three most important things in the TOC are: Track the battle. Track the battle. Track the battle.

10. Digital trumps analog, until you run out of batteries.

11. Always have ready at least two methods of communication to any point or person on the map.

12. Rank has its privileges. It also has its limitations.

13. Let Joe surprise you.

14. Don't let Joe surprise you.

15. The first report is always wrong. Except when it isn't.

16. The problem is always at the distant end. Except when it isn't.

17. Exercise digital/tactical patience. Communications works at the speed of light. People do not.

18. Your trigger finger is your safety. Keep it away from the CAPS LOCK, reply-all, and flash-override buttons.

19. The warfighter is your customer, and the customer is always right.

20. Bullets don't kill people. Logistics kills people.

21. Knowing how it works is more powerful than knowing how it's supposed to work.

22. Cite sources on demand. State opinions when asked.

23. Work by, with, and through others. It's all about empowerment.

24. Do not seek the spotlight, Ranger. Let the spotlight find you. Then, make sure to share it with others.

25. Both the Bible and "The Art of War" make this point: It's never a mistake to put oneself in someone else's boots.

26. Humor is a combat multiplier. Except when it isn't.

SMUGGLED IN A BLANKET OF SAND |

April 06, 2012

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

As mentors, we go where our counterparts go and we do their missions with them. Sometimes we are teaching, sometimes we are recommending, and sometimes we are being supportive. We are also sharing their experiences and taking in their world. You can’t really advise and mentor very well when you don’t understand the world of the man whom you are trying to help develop as a professional. The mission to the checkpoint was one of those missions. I took along others on that mission, partly for communications, partly for security, and partly because if I didn’t, the mission would have been stopped.

Another such mission was our recent one to the Aquina Border Crossing Point (BCP). Aquina is out west in Faryab Province, on the border with Uzbekistan. It’s about 160 miles from Marmal. The ABP Zone Commander, a General and the mentee of COL Mollosser, needed to go to Aquina for a cross-border meeting. He planned on making the journey by wheel, and it was decided to support that mission. This was decided, in part, because the Colonel goes where the General goes and does what he does. Another reason was to keep the General safer with our armor and firepower. Faryab has a significant Taliban presence which has increased over the past few years.

There is a Taliban commander in that area who has a Dishka, a 12.7mm (.50 caliber) Russian-made machine gun that is quite capable of penetrating the MRAP. It’s a big honkin’ gun that shoots big honkin’ bullets a half inch thick. Khoob neys (not good).

The mission planning was very detailed, as could be expected for a 320 mile round trip to be done using MRAPs in one day. A stop by the Zone’s 2nd Kandak was built into the plan, since we would be right around the corner from them at the BCP. We needed to take as many trucks as possible, and since we would be so far from support, all kinds of contingency plans had to be made. Communications, MEDEVAC and recovery of a stuck or broken down vehicle had to be planned for, with each part of the mission having a different plan based on the availability and distance of resources. And in those contingencies, we would perhaps have to depend on others. For instance, the day we got the MRAP stuck in that precarious near-rollover position, it took five hours for the maintenance crew to arrive on site from about 15km away. What if we needed recovery assets over 50 miles away? What if we needed recovery assets from 0ver 100 miles away?

Never mind what happens if they arrive at an average speed of 3km/hr.

We SP’d (Start Point; when you begin a mission) from Marmal at 0330, picked up a few additional personnel -- often called “pax" -- at Spann and headed west on the Ring Road. At first, very few people were out, and we had to be vigilant for darkly-clad bicyclists in the dark. In a world where a bike is a common form of transportation, there were those who were making their way to or from work in the wee small hours of the morning. As time passed, more pedestrians, bicycles, animals and finally cars and buses began to share the road.

As we moved into open country, donkeys loaded with brush would appear in the darkness, headed into town and accompanied by fathers accompanied by sons who looked as young as perhaps 8 to 10 years old. Their shapes would loom out of the darkness, where the gunner or myself would note them verbally, in the case the driver, PFC Rogers again, could not or did not see them. Occasionally a pedestrian, cyclist, donkey cart or tricycle cart would materialize in front of us, headed in the same direction as ourselves. The prospect of sudden disaster hung over this phase of the mission.

The sun began to rise behind us, and the landscape looked much like northern Ohio; nearly flat, rolling farmland with dwellings and villages scattered across it. We drove westward for hours and passed through the city of Sherberghan, where there were many friendly waves from what appeared to be a largely Uzbek or Hazara population. We drove further west, and the land to the south of the ring road began to look like desert. This was noted by the gunner.

“Hey, that looks kinda like desert.”

The wind had picked up, and windblown sand began to dance on the road in rhythmic sets of waves in the same manner as light snow will dance on the roads in Ohio in the winter. Another observation came from the gunner.

“The sand on the road looks like snakes.”

“Two things,” I told him over the intercom, “and the first one is to stop eating the mushrooms.”

I never got to the second thing because of the laughter.

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View from the turret of the ABP vehicles at Aquina.

As we neared the the city of Ankhoy, the wind was picking up and visibility was beginning to get limited. We headed north towards the BCP and after what seemed an eternity arrived at Aquina.  A sandstorm was holding spirited sway over the BCP, and a fine coating of dust was starting to accumulate over everything in the vehicle. I put on a pair of my WileyX glasses with the foam seals around the frames, wrapped my head in a shemagh (or desmaah), the colorful scarf that it ubiquitous in Afghanistan, and stepped out.

2012 03 15 11 20 44 718 Smuggled In A Blanket Of Sand

Desmah-wrapped Blue. Yeah, that's me. In a sandstorm. Eyewear courtesy of WileyX.

I was immediately pelted by fine sand. I have been in a number of sandstorms from Helmand to the Mojave, and each has its own quality.  While the sandstorm in the Mojave was like getting sandblasted, this one was like high pressure hosed with moon dust. It permeated, and did so quickly. My covering did a fair job of keeping the sand out of my mouth and nose, but I could still smell the rock dust that it was. I could feel the grit in my teeth, and the seals around the Wileys, which have never failed me, permitted tiny amounts of the finely ground stone into the space around my eyes.

2012 03 15 10 28 34 194 1024x576 Smuggled In A Blanket Of Sand

View of an MRAP from 10 feet away.

An Afghan approached as I stood talking to SFC Louong, a Cambodian-American NCO who I had the privilege of working with on my first tour. He had taught himself Dari so well that he actually passed the linguist test. Someday, perhaps, I will tell his story. The hard part will be figuring out who will play him in the movie they should make about him. The Afghan approached and asked me a question which Louong interpreted. They had apparently brought up working dogs only a couple of days before.

(Via Luoung) “Will the sand hurt the dogs?” he asked.

“Not as long as they have some cover,” I told him, “where are they?”

“In that building.”

“They will be fine.  How often do you have these storms?”

“I have only been here for three days, so… always,”  the Afghan concluded.

SFC Luong went about his business, and after answering the call of nature (not the most comfortable thing to do in a sandstorm), I found no reason to remain outside and got back into the TC seat. On the tiny ledge of the screen of the commander’s display, a quarter inch of moon dust had accumulated like a tiny snow drift. Everything was coated in a layer of tan moon dust. The dust was literally getting in through the door seals and, of course, through the open turret. Still, it was amazing how much of the stuff was getting into every single space on the vehicle. Eyes and nose were full of fine dust. Nothing was untouched.

Outside, it had gotten worse. Visibility was terrible, and vehicles only a few meters away were viewed as through a heavy snow. The pictures look like fog, but that is in fact flying sand. It’s actually more like flying sand dust.

The foreign contingent came and went inside. We waited. I dismounted and remounted several times, each time dealing with a painful process of clearing the sand from my eyes. I started to get questions.

2012 03 15 10 28 17 997 1024x576 Smuggled In A Blanket Of Sand

These Turkmen brought to you by Chevrolet. Chevy. Like ground rock.

“Are they staying for lunch?”

“I don’t know. I would assume so,” I offered.

“Crap. I’m already tired of this sandstorm. It’s not fun anymore. Let’s go!”

There was nothing I could do but sit there in the relentless wind tunnel of dust; just like them. It gave the world a sense of unreality. The world became very small, dimly lit and uncomfortable. I was in and out of the vehicle a number of times, usually for a good period of time, after which I would have to spend painful minutes getting the incredibly fine sand that had made it past the desmah (shemagh, the ubiquitous bandana-like piece of cloth worn by nearly all male Afghans) and the seals of my normally very trusty WileyX’s out of my eyes.

One NCO, who had nothing more protective than his wraparound sunglasses, had so much sand in his eyes by the end of the day that it actually hurt to look at his eyes.

When lunch was served, an Afghan soldier came out to our vehicle with a platter of food literally wrapped in a small blanket, which kept the sand out quite well.  There was rice, nan, beef, chicken and riverfish.* We ate a little and let everyone know that there was Afghan food available. Normally, our soldiers will flock to eat Afghan food, but on this occasion, most of the food remained uneaten.

The Afghans warned us that the Taliban with the Dishka were talking about us. I assume they were monitoring ICOM chatter. They told us that the eager ones wanted desperately to fight, but the leadership was less enthused due to the storm.

2012 03 15 12 29 08 741 1024x576 Smuggled In A Blanket Of Sand

Turkmen on the move.

Time marched on through the relentless penetrating sand. After what seemed like six hours, it was finally time to move. We moved at a snail’s pace for miles through sand that at times totally obscured the vehicle just in front of us.  Several times we lost sight of the lead truck completely. We guided on the road by being able to see the ditch just beside the vehicle. It took over two hours to go just a few miles, and every moment of it was interesting.

The blanket of sand wrapped us in a shroud that kept us from the view of the Taliban and their powerful Dishka. The young ones, the ones with no combat and a desire to see the elephant, were disappointed.   Having seen what the words, “torn asunder,” actually mean, I can say that these young’ins could live the rest of their lives without seeing that elephant, and the only thing that will be the worse for it is their pride. I told them that someone in that convoy has a purpose in this world that it wasn’t time to end that day, and that’s why we were wrapped in a blanket and literally smuggled right past the angry Taliban.

2012 03 15 14 21 30 837 1024x576 Smuggled In A Blanket Of Sand

That is an MRAP two vehicle lengths in front of us... and we're moving.

As we neared Ankhoy, visibility picked up a bit and it just looked really foggy. The choking dust was still flying, but it was not nearly as dense. We proceeded to the headquarters of the ABP’s 2nd Kandak and dismounted to again be made miserable by the merciless dust. Imagine having the contents of a vacuum cleaner bag blown directly into your face through a fire extinguisher, and that’s close. Finally, it was time for the long return trip. We retraced our steps through the rest of the afternoon and into the approaching night.

By this time my camera, which has been with me for 2.125 tours, had been destroyed by the sand. When the camera is powered on, the lens deploys and two shutters open exposing the lens. Not anymore.  I have disassembled the camera and cleaned it as best I could. It will never work again. I’ve taken thousands of pictures and dozens of videos with that camera, but it is no longer and I shall miss it. For what it was, it did yeoman’s work.

I switched to using my Motorola Photon, which I have equipped with an Afghan SIM card, and used that to take pictures.

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Street scene in Ankhoy. Dust storm abating.

On the way to Aquina, there had been chatter inside the vehicle. Now there was little. The sandstorm had beaten us up pretty nicely, and combined with fatigue, it was much quieter in the vehicle. The stress of driving in the blinding sand was now replaced by the stress of driving fatigued in the darkness while sharing the roads with ever-creative Afghan drivers. Even the welcome sight of the outskirts of Mazaar-e Sharif did not buoy the spirits much. Everyone just wanted a shower and bed.

The Taliban were indeed frustrated about their failure to engage us. The next day apparently the weather broke a bit, and some men of the 2nd Kandak went on a water run to get drinking water from a nearby source. They were ambushed and one of them was killed. Many of us feel that the Taliban took out their frustration on the ABP.

The journey to Aquina stands as the marathon mission.

AFTER THE SLAUGHTER |

April 03, 2012

Name: Matt Gallagher
Returned from: Iraq
Milblog: Kerplunk

Since the March 11 massacre in Kandahar, in which Staff Sergeant Robert Bales allegedly killed sixteen civilians, there’s been a distinct increase in tension in Afghanistan. Rocket attacks on NATO bases in the south are on the rise, according to multiple U.S. service members currently deployed there. On March 14 an Afghan employee of Camp Bastion deliberately drove a truck into a group of soldiers as Defense
Secretary Leon Panetta’s plane was landing there. That same day 200 or so U.S. Marines were told to disarm before going into a Camp Leatherneck tent to hear Panetta speak. And the Taliban have walked away from negotiations, a process American and NATO diplomats have been cultivating for months.

At a March 14 press conference, President Obama and British Prime Minster David Cameron stressed that the shooting would change nothing, though they are accelerating the changeover of NATO forces from a combat to a support role in anticipation of a full exit in 2014. There are currently about 90,000 American troops in Afghanistan — down from 101,000 last summer, with plans to draw down to 68,000 by September.

At least some veterans and soldiers agree that the incident needn’t be a turning point. “This only has strategic ramifications if we decide it does,” Andrew Slater, a former Green Beret officer with multiple deployments to southern Afghanistan, told me. “Right now it sounds like it’s just one guy losing his mind, and it would be a mistake to draw too many conclusions from this, in terms of what’s happening across the country.” He also suggested that the accidental Koran burnings last month will resonate far longer with the Afghan people than what happened in the Panjwai district of Kandahar—the complete inverse of the reaction stateside.

On the tactical and operational levels, too, the murders might have little impact. Commenting anonymously in order to speak more candidly, a U.S. Army company commander currently in Afghanistan wrote in an email, “I don’t see this changing too much, day-to-day. We’re already being asked to do the impossible, this just adds to it.”

The notion that the shooting will generate a renewal of hostilities is far-fetched because it’s difficult to restart something that’s never stopped. “[Panjwai has] always been one of the most violent parts of Kandahar,” Slater said, “in ’04 and ’05, we were doing big clearing campaigns in that valley.” After a pause, he added, “That was seven years ago.”

‘We’re already being asked to do the impossible,’ said one company commander, ‘this just adds to it.’

This constant state of violence was a familiar refrain among veterans of Afghanistan I spoke with. João Hwang, a former U.S. Army counterintelligence agent who served there in 2003–04, told me about a Panjwai leader who tried to establish a bazaar in the area to promote trade, only to be killed, Hwang believes, by the Taliban, which has a stranglehold on the area.

But at least one of the guiding concepts of the war is going to have to change. When the U.S. military began stressing the importance of counterinsurgency operations in Iraq in 2007, the “strategic corporal” became all the rage, a phrase so overused it emerged as the camo equivalent of “synergy.” The idea is that the split-second tactical decisions of lieutenants, sergeants, corporals, and privates can carry strategic-level consequences. Twenty-year-old kids with rifles were given crash courses in ambassadorship, social work, and Middle Eastern history. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes it didn’t.

Five years later, the inherent limitations of the strategic corporal are being revealed in Afghanistan. The shooting wasn’t carried out by a kid; the alleged killer is 38, a three-tour veteran of Iraq who had spent eleven years in the Army. That an experienced soldier would do such a thing shows all the more starkly that the promise of strategic-corporal training is slimmer than military leaders had hoped. It takes many to build. It just takes one to destroy.

And there is little question that the shooting and other recent events are affecting perception of the war in the United States and in Afghanistan. Panjwai has pundits recalling 1968’s My Lai Massacre, in which at least 347 Vietnamese civilians were killed by a U.S. task force. The events are not really parallel, but that hasn’t stopped the Vietnam comparisons. Former Assistant Secretary of State Philip J. Crowley—who resigned in March 2011 after criticizing the Pentagon’s alleged mistreatment of Bradley Manning, accused of spreading secrets to the Web site Wikileaks—took to Twitter as news of what happened in Panjwai came out. “This is the Tet moment in Afghanistan,” Crowley wrote. “The string of recent incidents will send public opinion in both countries into permanent decline.”

Time will tell what effect that decline might have on the soldiers in the region. The company commander who thought the shooting would itself have little impact was less certain about the overall trajectory of the conflict. “That’s for the historians,” he wrote. “We’re just going to keep grinding away, doing our best.”

And what does that entail exactly, post-shooting?

“We went around apologizing to the tribal leaders, reminding them this was not reflective of America’s military, reminding them of our dedication to their people and their villages. Most of them just nodded and didn’t say much. One said, ‘The Russians told us the same things.’ I didn’t really know how to respond to that.”

 

This essay by longtime Sandbox contributor Matthew Gallagher originally appeared in the Boston Review.


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