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.

MEMORIAL DAY IN AFGHANISTAN |

May 29, 2012

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

This is Jon Stiles‘ fourth Memorial Day. I’ve already told how I feel about Jon’s passing, being taken from us on November 13, 2008. Many of us know someone who has offered their all and have paid that price in the name of our Republic and what it stands for. Jon is, to me, the embodiment of that level of sacrifice.

Many use Memorial Day to honor all those who serve and served, but it is not my day, nor is it likely to be. Even when I shuffle off this mortal coil, this will not be my day. I survived. Jon wagered his life in the service of our country, and his price was accepted, taken, the accounts adjusted to add one more to the roll of those to whom this day belongs. His life and all the days he may have lived otherwise were added to the price tag of our nation.

How much is just one of your days on this earth worth? How many did he lose? We shall never know, but if just one day is worth any effort to you, I can say with some certainty that had his life not been torn from him, Jon had many more in store. He was a vibrant man, full of life. He did not go as a lamb to slaughter but as a man who faced into the hurricane and stood firm against its force knowing full well what he could face, the power of it, and that he could have chosen to sit by idly. He was just one in a sea of such lives, of days given over to a purpose greater than one’s self. There have been hundreds of thousands of others in our nation’s history. But when I think of such sacrifice, I think of Jon.

He was my friend. He was the most awesome husband to his wife that I have ever met. He was not just a good guy; he was a model. He lived principles. He had built, with his own hands, much to live for. He wasn’t full of potential, he was full of achievement, courage, virtue and love. He was a hell of a man.

It has been said that the loss of one life is a tragedy, but a million is a statistic. Jon is my anti-statistic. He is the shock, the sadness, the tragedy, and the elevation of what the rest of us do through the price paid for it.  The days he will not live, and has not lived, add responsibility to the rest of us -- to me -- to do something just a little better, to care about what I’m doing here a little more. What I am doing here is not cheap, though I will not have that price torn from me. No, I will go home and see my kids. I will go home and live on. Jon went home to rest in our soil and left his price on the table here. There have been many others who have lost their lives here. The 37th Brigade has added three more to that total. Our FOBs and camps are named for a few of those who served and gave here. There are many others who have paid the ultimate price who shall not be honored with the naming of a FOB or camp or any such accommodation.

Memorial Day is about so much more than the dead of this war. It is about the legion of Americans who have gone before, who now rest in cemeteries in the United States (not all are in Arlington), and in Europe, in the Pacific, in Korea and Vietnam. It is not for the veterans passed, but for those who gave the last full measure in combat, whose lives were not given but taken by enemies of the United States. They stood between those enemies and their children, their mothers and fathers, their grandparents, their neighbors and friends and all who could not or would not go to stand as a human shield in the path of the flood of history. They changed the path of that flood, and for those whose conflicts are resolved, they changed that path for the better.

Jon also stood in the path of this flood and was swept into history with it. What remains to be seen is if we have the courage to see through what his blood has purchased; that we do not sell his life cheaply. He paid the price, but ultimately we determine the value of that purchase.

MEMORIAL DAY WEEKEND |

May 26, 2012

Name: RN Clara Hart
 Stationed in: a military hospital in the U.S.
Email: clarahart2@yahoo.com 

After eight years of taking care of the war wounded, I would like to re-post this 2007 Sandbox piece as a tribute to my friends who are currently deployed, and in honor of those who have given their lives for our great country. May their sacrifices and those of their families never be forgotten:

It is Memorial Day Weekend and I have suddenly realized a lot of things I never even thought about before. Years ago I was a sheltered Midwest kid whose only contact with the military was an uncle in the Air Force who I saw maybe once every five years. I’m ashamed to say the military never really meant much to me in those days. I simply never gave any thought to the people who fought, were injured and sometimes killed in serving me. As I write that it sounds incredibly harsh, and for that I apologize. 

Somewhere along life’s path I started making friends with people “in the military”. Things truly changed for me on September 11, 2001; a day I will remember clearly for the rest of my life. I lost friends that day, and I looked down at the faces of their beautiful children, who would never know their parents, lost to acts of indescribable evil and cowardice.

Soon after, a friend deployed to OEF, then another to OIF, and I gradually became more aware of the struggles and hardships they faced in serving. Cards, letters, toiletries, chocolates, meals in a can, little luxuries of home I packed in boxes and mailed off. Somehow at some point the military folks began to take up residence in my heart. They became, to me, the ones who fought to prevent future acts of terrorism. The ones who preserved my freedoms. And it was and still is my hope that because of what they did and continue to do I will never again have to experience the kinds of things I saw and lived through on September 11, 2001 and in the days that followed.

Tired and burned out from working trauma and flying medevacs I began to look at other nursing opportunities, and one in particular caught my eye. After many long months (we all know government jobs!) I was on my way to being indoctrinated into the military way of healthcare. They tell me I had to “in process” or “check in”, which really involved wandering around like a lost soul at various installations trying to get signatures on a single piece of paper. I learned quickly to bring a book, find a chair and settle in until they called my name. I learned when they ask “Last four?” they mean the final four digits of your social security number. An enlisted person took pity on me and began drawing a diagram of the rank structure so I’d have an idea of who was what. In the end the easiest solution was to call them all "Ma’am" and "Sir". Can’t go wrong there!

Later I would sit, mouth hanging open, bemusement etched across my face, as those around me discussed topics in what sounded like a foreign language. “Remember Janice? She used to be at USHS? Well she’s PCS’ing to BAMC. She finally got O6." "Smith, oh yeah, he’s TDY at MIEMSO." I still have days were I cannot even begin to understand what they are saying; too bad there’s not a dictionary that translates military acronyms into English.

When I began patient care, at least that was something I knew; familiar ground! In doing patient care I looked around and saw that these patients were respectful, they were polite and they actually said “Thank you”. Whoa!  What a concept! From an inner city trauma center where I had begun to think my name was “Bitch” to a hospital where I have patients who call me "Ma’am" and say, “Thanks for taking care of me." Awesome!

As Memorial Day is a time of reflection, I sit here and reflect on many things. I reflect and remember:

-- My trip to Arlington National Cemetery, section 64, where my friends, victims of the September 11th attack are buried. A trip to lay flowers at the graves and remember.

-- My wounded triple-amputee who told me I was the first woman (other than his mom and sister) to hug him without hesitation.

-- My OIF, who with his wife brought me small trinkets for my birthday and Christmas.  Never, ever, ever had a patient do that before!

-- My wounded special ops guy who hugged me so hard I literally couldn’t breathe until he let go. Thank goodness he didn’t hold on long!

-- The angel quilt that sits on my chair, made by the mother of one of my wounded. The box showed up totally unexpected and made me cry so hard the cosmetics ceased to exist. I hate it when the mascara runs!

-- The ones who leave and never say good-bye.

-- The ones we work feverishly on for hours and hours, praying "Please let this work..." but it doesn’t and our hearts are broken.

-- The amputees I ran the Army 10-miler with, all nine of them, and how proud I was to see each and every one of them cross the finish line!

-- The parents I spent hours with educating them on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) helping them to understand their son could not control some of the responses he was having.

-- The ones I watch struggle to stay in the military, but who are no longer able to do what they once did and so they grieve.

-- The courage, perseverance, and fortitude displayed by every single one of our wounded.

-- The ones I watched get married.

-- All the ones who I’ve cradled in my arms and allowed to soak the shoulder on my scrub top, and the ones whose hands I’ve simply held. Sometimes looking in the opposite direction.

-- All the ones I laugh with, pray with and for, and some who decide to hang around and become my friends.

-- All the new friends I have made, many still in harm's way, simply by posting my stories.

There are so many things to remember and reflect on this Memorial Day; three years of working as a civilian nurse in a military hospital have provided a plethora. Let me close by saying to all of you who have served, are currently serving, or will serve -- you have my deepest, most sincere gratitude and appreciation. You will always have a special place in my heart and in my prayers, and I will never again forget or take for granted your service and sacrifices.

 

THE THINGS WE CARRY STILL |

May 21, 2012

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

When I was in either high school or college, my kid brother and I were nosing around in a basement storage area of the Sherpa family home. In the dark, there were a few bags stuffed with Vietnam-era military gear, surplus left over from our father's time as a navigator on a U.S. Air Force cargo plane.

Usafstarsstripesreader_002
By the time of our basement explorations, Dad had left active duty, and was flying with the reserves. Unlike my brother Rain, I remember our family being in the active Air Force. I remember my shock when schoolyard playmates laughed at the way I said that just now: "My family is in the Air Force."

They laughed, didn't understand what I meant, said I couldn't possibly be in the Air Force.

I, in turn, didn't understand why they didn't get it. Didn't figure it out until I was an adult.

Now, a couple of decades and deployments later, I can better articulate the sentiment: One person wears the uniform, but the whole family serves.

Rain was born on a base in Florida, but probably was barely out of diapers when we left the Air Force. He didn't remember the flight suits and the black boots, the big cube bags and the poncho liners. Come to think of it, in the basement that day, I might've been foraging for those poncho liners. I might've already signed up with the Army by that point, to help pay for the back-half of college. Rain and I used to build tents out of the camouflage-patterned, quilted nylon blankets. When I joined the Army, I'd wanted to take them to the field.

Eventually, when I found them, Dad told me I'd have to get my own. The tactical blankets had gotten him through Vietnam, he said, and he wasn't about to give them up.

That day in the basement, we also found a couple of presentation cases containing medals and citations. Rain didn't know about these. I'd found them once before. There's a Distinguished Flying Cross (D.F.C.) in one of them—an award recognizing "heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in an aerial flight"—and a narrative about how, as a young man, my father used his sextant to monitor the damaged tail of the C-130 Hercules in which he was a crew member. The tail had been hit by lightning.

To this day, I have yet to ask my father about that medal. Or that moment in the air, when he might not have come home.

I remember not wanting to know for certain. While the just-the-facts citation made it all sound almost routine, Dad might've been a hero. He might've also had a close call. At the time, I preferred to imagine the former possibility, and to ignore the latter. Young men are immortals, after all, and their fathers should be, too. As long as they can.

I should ask my father about that medal someday soon. I have my own footlocker now. My own war stories. My own military baggage.

*****

In keeping with director Sam Fischer's objective that the movie "Memorial Day"
become a catalyst for conversations between generations, social media efforts regarding the film's upcoming release have often posed the question: "What's in your footlocker?"

The movie centers on a conversation between a 13-year-old boy and his grandfather, about the latter's World War II experiences. In the publicity trailer, the grandfather narrates:
I kept things from the war. And then I kept them from my family. Myself, too, I guess. Some people call them 'souvenirs.' ... I don't know. To me, a souvenir is a foul ball at a baseball game. These are fragments of memory ... shrapnel.

In combat, you start to question what's real and what's not. You take things along the way. Because if those things were there, then ... you were there. And it really happened.

I didn't loot. And I didn't steal. I collected things that would help me remember. What I didn't count on was: They don't let you forget.
****

In a recent SANDBOX post Iraq war veteran and author Colby Buzzell talks of finding stacks of slides his Vietnam-veteran father had taken while on foot patrol. His father was still alive, and they walked through some of the images together:
The dusty photo projector we were ready to give to Goodwill miraculously fired right up, so we decided to take a break from packing and go through the photographs. Beaming onto our living room wall were these beautiful shots of the Vietnam countryside, and shots taken from my father’s point of view while on foot patrols. He narrated the slides for me and as he saw different guys in his platoon, a warm smile would come to his face as he recalled old friends that he hasn’t laid eyes on in decades. We came to a shot of four or so young soldiers casually smiling, proudly standing around a bunch of captured weapons that, my father said, they discovered while searching a village.

His smile slowly disappeared. He remained silent for a second or two as he just furrowed his brows and studied the photo. Then he told me that all of the guys we were looking at were killed two days later during an ambush.

After that, it was time get back to work and look at those slides some other time, which of course we never did. I’ll always wonder what else was there. I imagine my father and I are part of a tradition of soldiers who have gone to war, taken a series of photographs and returned home to file them away, never to be looked at again.
*****

Stars & Stripes has launched a campaign to collect stories of service inspired by physical objects. The newspaper plans to publish the stories to celebrate Memorial Day 2012:
After more than a decade at war, chances are someone you knew, perhaps someone you loved, has given their life in military service to this country. But they aren't gone, not entirely. You have memories to call upon to bring them back to you, and you have physical objects that are a constant reminder of your fallen service member. Maybe a set of dog tags, an old T-shirt, a pickup truck or a tattoo.

To mark Memorial Day, Stars and Stripes wants to hear about your mementos and the people and stories that will forever be linked to them.
Click here to share your stories.

*****

The Omaha World-Herald is collecting stories and pictures of Nebraskans and Western Iowans who served in the Armed Forces during the Cold War, including the Korean and Vietnam Wars, Strategic Air Command, Germany, and elsewhere. Some of the narratives will be featured in a book, similar to one published on World War II, while others will appear in the newspaper and online.

Click here to share your stories.

You can also e-mail your memory and photo to: atwar.athome@owh.com

Or mail to: Dan Sullivan; "At War, At Home" blog; Omaha World-Herald Building 1314 Douglas St., Suite 700 Omaha, NE 68102-1811

GIRL IN MIRMANDAB |

May 17, 2012

Name: Kyle McNally
Stationed in: Afghanistan

I was on a presence patrol in Mirmandab village, Helmand province. Partnered with Afghan National Security Forces, we were tasked with handing out books and wind-up radios in an effort to promote the Radio Listening Program, which teaches Afghans to read and write through a series of broadcasted lessons.

An education is a commodity in the third world, and we were soon confronted with a frenzy of boys all scrambling to get their RLP gear (it helped, of course, that we enticed them with soccer paraphernalia). Behind the eager faces of the crowd I saw a few girls peering timidly at us from behind a wall. I noticed that one of them was carrying a baby that was almost as big as her. Sensing I should get a shot of her, I raised my camera -- but she was already gone.

After the excitement subsided she reappeared, anxiously watching the RLP books that were now being rifled through by wide-eyed villagers. Again I raised my camera. This time she remained, but abruptly turned her face away.

Looking as disinterested as possible (as I’ve become accustomed to doing for camera-shy Marines) I ambled around the back of the crowd. When I emerged on the other side, the girl had returned her eyes to the books, and when she finally noticed me, my lens was staring back.

I think of all the photos I took that day, none so captured the importance of the RLP’s mission as the photo of the girl. A future is a bleak thing in the third world. Perhaps through education, Afghans, like this girl in Mirmandab, can secure one for themselves.

Framed McNally RLP

CONSEQUENCE |

May 14, 2012

Name: Eric Fair
Returned from: Iraq
Hometown: Bethlehem, PA

I enter my name into a search engine. There are 3,700 results. The word torture appears in most of them. I read the blogs. I read the comments that follow. I find more blogs. I pretend those don’t bother me either. I check e-mail, thirty-eight new messages.

Mr. Fair, I’m not at all sure why you have your panties in a twist. It seems clear that you were a willing participant, as a civilian contractor, in the interrogation process in Iraq. This is old news.

I navigate back to the opinion page of The Washington Post. The comments section is still growing. More than eight hundred now. I read the new ones and some of the old ones too. I read my article again. I check e-mail, fifty-seven new messages.

Eric, your words are empty and hollow. I do not accept a single one of them. But let me offer you a suggestion if you want to do the honorable thing: kill yourself. Leave a note. Name names. Until that day, I hope you never sleep another hour for the rest of your life.

I keep pretending not to be bothered. Then I drink. In the mornings I pretend to have slept. I watch Sarah drive off to work. We both pretend our marriage isn’t suffering. During the day I pack boxes; we are moving to Princeton. I’ll be studying at the seminary, pursuing ministry in the Presbyterian Church. I hope no one there reads the article.

The admissions office calls. I speak with the Dean. “I can’t get most students to read a newspaper let alone appear in one,” he says. “Maybe your time in Iraq will become part of your ministry.”

I enter the seminary’s administration building to file paperwork for my veterans benefits. I am early. The office is closed. Other students wait with me. I avoid them. I look at the pictures on the walls. They are black and white, taken during the Civil War. There is a grainy photo of Brown Hall with a blurred image of a student walking across the quad. I wonder if he is a veteran of Antietam or Gettysburg. I wonder if he knew Andersonville or Camp Douglas.

I enroll in a summer language class. I study Greek in order to read the New Testament more effectively. It reminds me of the Army. I studied Arabic in order to interrogate Arabs more effectively. I settle into a life of muggy morning walks to class followed by chilly afternoons in the seminary library. I arrive on campus in the early morning, review my homework, attend class, eat lunch, and then spend the rest of the afternoon memorizing verb charts and case endings. I return home in the early evening, tell Sarah about the day, eat dinner, watch the news, get drunk, and read e-mails with subject lines like Iraq, interrogation, and torture.

Mr. Fair

I still have a .45 caliber 1911. I suspect you know the firearm. I’d loan it to you gleefully if you get really depressed. And I’d happily take whatever legal consequence might come my way for having done so. You’d be doing the world a favor by removing yourself from the gene pool.

With revulsion at the subhuman you and others like you surely are.

I get to know my fellow students. There is a children’s book author from Boston, a mathematician from Los Angeles, a youth worker from Kansas, an actor from New York City, and a former NFL lineman from Florida. One is a recent graduate from college. One has been traveling in Europe. One is middle-aged. One is retired. There is not a single veteran among them.

I say nothing about Iraq. I mention in passing that I’d served in the Army, worked as a police officer and then gone on to consult for the U.S. government, but I never mention the words Iraq, contractor, interrogator, or Abu Ghraib.

As Greek consumes my mornings and afternoons in Princeton, Abu Ghraib dominates what remains of my day. I return home to the apartment and field phone calls from reporters in Philadelphia, filmmakers from Norway, psychologists from Boston, authors from the world of academia, lawyers from Amnesty International, and investigators from the Department of Justice.

Someone tells me to speak with a lawyer. The lawyer tells me not to speak with anyone. He tells me not to antagonize the government. He tells me to be honest. He tells me he will keep me out of prison. He tells me to focus on Greek. He arranges a meeting.

I tell my professor I am sick. I put away verb charts, participles, and lexicons, board a train for Washington, D.C., and meet with Department of Justice lawyers and Army investigators in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol. I disclose everything. I provide pictures, letters, names, firsthand accounts, locations, and techniques. I talk about the hard site at Abu Ghraib, and I talk about the interrogation facility in Fallujah. I talk about what I did, what I saw, what I knew, and what I heard. I ride the train back to Princeton. I start drinking more. Sarah takes notice. I tell her to go to Hell.

I sit for my final Greek exam in August. It is a passage from Paul’s letter to the people of Thessalonica.

You yourselves know, brothers and sisters, that our coming to you was not in vain, but though we had already suffered and been shamefully mistreated at Philippi as you know, we had courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in spite of great opposition.

I am not one of the believers in Thessalonica. I am one of the abusers at Philippi.

There is a break before the start of the fall semester. The campus is quiet. I spend time alone in the seminary library. I read Karl Barth and Reinhold Niebuhr. I read C. S. Lewis and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I read Kurt Vonnegut. I pretend I will make a good Presbyterian pastor someday.

The semester begins. I enroll in a preaching class. One week we study poetry. I memorize a poem and perform it in front of other students. The professor asks me to read lines over again. My pace is too fast. I haven’t stressed the right words. “Like a devil’s sick of sin.” It still isn’t right. I say it again. “Good,” he says. “Bring that energy to the pulpit.”

I make new friends. None of them read newspapers. I join a flag football team. I agree to volunteer as a referee. I show up for a game, don my striped shirt and blow the whistle. Players from both teams are furious. I am a terrible referee. One player is particularly incensed. He approaches me, grabs my shirt, pulls me toward him, and then shoves me to the side. “See, see, this is what they’re doing. They can’t do this. It’s called holding!”

In Fallujah I am grabbing a detainee, shoving him to the side, moving him through a line of Iraqis who have just been taken from the battlefield. Some are still bleeding. One is missing part of his face. We are processing them, sorting them into groups for future interrogation. Well-dressed ones to the right, shabby looking ones to the left, faceless ones to the medic. The well-dressed ones are likely men of influence. The shabby ones are the pawns. But the shabby ones never seem to understand directions. They just stand there looking dumb. So we grab them and shove them and push them.

I return to the apartment after the game and find Sarah. I tell her about the student who shoved me. I tell her I will kill him. I am angry. I am yelling. I am yelling at Sarah. Thirty minutes later I am still angry. I am still yelling at Sarah. I say something terrible. I leave to buy whiskey.

Mr. Fair, I am a former WWII vet. You think you saw hell, well pal let me tell you that you haven’t seen anything that bad. Don’t be ashamed, you did your job. What you saw was no worse than some college fraternity initiation ritual. Have a good life and sleep well from now on.

I visit the seminary chaplain. She directs me to the office of student counseling. There is a questionnaire with multiple-choice questions. I elaborate on additional sheets of paper. The head counselor calls the next day. She will see me personally. We meet. We talk about terrible things. She tells me I am smiling. She calls it a defense mechanism. I tell her more terrible things. I ask her if she thinks I am a terrible person. She smiles. She says no.

I meet with a PhD student from South Africa. He is working on his dissertation and wants to talk to me about forgiveness. He tells me about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that followed apartheid. Men were granted amnesty in return for their confessions. He believes we should consider the same thing in this country. He thinks I would be a good candidate for such a process. The other option, he says, is Nuremberg-style trials. He doesn’t think that’s a good idea. But there must be consequences, he insists. Forgiveness requires consequence.

In the spring I appear on “Radio Times,” a PBS radio program out of Philadelphia. I skip a class on systematic theology and drive into the city. Calls are taken from listeners. Many have questions about my motivations for going public, some want to know what can be done to prevent future abuses, and others think I haven’t gone far enough. Some ask about torture, others about seminary. Someone wants to know what I think about Dick Cheney. The last caller is screened by the producer during a brief promotional break. He is angry. The producer wants to know if I am comfortable fielding his questions. I accept. He asks me if I believe in Hell.

The hour is up. The interview ends. I am the first of two guests that morning. The next hour is about to start. I remove my headphones, gather my notes, and move out of the way. The producer meets me outside the studio and thanks me for my time. She leads me out a back door to the guest parking lot. It closes and locks behind me.

Eric, I hope you burn in hell for the rest of your life, you son of a bitch. You’re a piece of shit.

Later that Spring, I attend a conference entitled No2Torture at Columbia Seminary in Georgia. The conference is attended by notable members of the antitorture movement within the Presbyterian Church. The speaker list includes Lucy Mashua, a torture survivor from Kenya. She has endured female genital circumcision, forced marriage, and then additional abuse for speaking out. She is there to speak for the victims of torture. I am there to speak for those who tortured them.

We break into small groups. Each group has a large placard placed on the wall in front of a table to identify its purpose. My placard reads “Victims and Perpetrators.” Lucy, the victim, sits across from me. We are surrounded by other participants who want to hear what Lucy and I have to say. We say nothing. A photographer approaches. We stand for a picture. People gather to watch. Someone says it is a vision of Heaven: victim and torturer hand in hand. We are not hand in hand.

I sit and listen to the speakers. They talk about torture. They talk about the Roman Empire and the early Christians. They talk about Just War and The Doctrine of Last Resort. They talk about Nazis. Then I am introduced. I read my article. They applaud.

Mr. Fair, You should be tried for treason. I hope that terrorist in your dreams catches up with you and reminds you that he is there to kill Americans including you. You have disgraced the uniform you once wore.

Back at Princeton, I interview for a summer internship. A church is looking for someone to run its youth program and preach on a set number of Sundays. We talk about my background, my education, and my interests. They ask about my first year at Princeton. I try to talk about class, but they read newspapers, so they ask about Iraq. They say I should preach about war. We talk about interrogation. They are interested. They ask more questions. I am tired, so I answer them.

I talk about Abu Ghraib. I talk about the detainees. None of them would cooperate. None of them would work with us. None of them would tell the truth. They all pretended to be farmers or mechanics or fishermen. They pretended to be drivers or cooks or clerks. No one was Republican Guard. They all hated Saddam. They all supported America. No one was hiding weapons in their backyards or explosives in the irrigation canals. None of them knew anything about the teams of men burying artillery rounds in the highway. They insisted it was all a misunderstanding. But the rockets and mortars kept coming. Incoming rounds killed detainees, melted their bodies into a mash of blood and pus. IEDs killed our friends.

And so we deprived detainees of sleep, or made them stand for long periods of time, or shoved them or grabbed them or manipulated their diets. We blared loud music, kept them cold, kept them lonely, kept them scared. It made some of them cooperate. Maybe it would work on others too.

Then I went to Fallujah. It was worse. More people were dying. My friend was standing next to a car. It detonated. He disappeared. They found parts of him the next day. We detained and deprived and grabbed and shoved and isolated and abused as best we could.

I grew weary. I went back to Baghdad. It was quiet there. I thought about where I’d been. I thought about what I’d done. I quit. I went home. I applied to seminary. I published an article in The Washington Post.

The interview ends. I return home. The nightmares are waiting on me. I dull them as best I can. The church calls the following week and offers me the job.

Near the end of the semester, a BBC camera crew follows me around for the day. “Act normal,” the producer says. I stand in front of smart-looking buildings. I sit at a desk and pretend to read. I sit with a friend at lunch and pretend to have a conversation. I enter the chapel and pretend to pray. The crew sets up chairs on the main quad for an interview. I am illuminated by two large spotlights. In the background, the senior class sits for its graduation picture. I see them pointing at the lights.

Eventually, I quit.

In Iraq I attend chapel. I recite The Lord’s Prayer, take communion, and say The Apostles’ Creed. The Chaplain offers a benediction.

May The Lord bless you and keep you.

May the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you.

May the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.

I go to work. I review the next interrogation. It will be the youngest brother again. He frightens easily. I tell him I will protect him. I tell him he will remain anonymous. I cover his head with a burlap sack. I muzzle his father and brothers with strips of duct tape and file them into the room. I tell him a confession will free his family. It won’t. It works. I remove the sack. He cries.

I pretend not to be bothered.

 

This article originally appeared in Ploughshares.

MENTAL DRAGONS |

May 09, 2012

Name: Genevieve Chase
Returned from: Afghanistan 
Milblog: Army Girl
Email: armygirlblog@gmail.com

When people ask me about my deployment experience, I tell them that I learned a lot. The hardest part of my deployment was the forced relationships and coexistence with people who were once complete strangers -- people that I might not otherwise have ever associated with. Rolling outside the wire wasn't hard, it was an adrenaline rush; the interpersonal dynamics and working relationships were what nearly undid me.

War, and all of its experiential offerings, made me more of who I am. It forced me to go within and find the strongest and most real parts of myself and pull those to the surface of my being, beyond the lies and programming that I had believed about who I was. In some cases, it answered some mysteries. Could I hold my own? Would I remember what to do if the shit ever hit the fan? If faced with direct contact, would I freeze? run? or fight? Would I be able to bring all of my battle buddies back? Those were the questions I tortured myself with then.

In essence, I confronted some of my personal mental dragons. It's hard to articulate beyond that, but I suspect that many of you get it. I just felt like sharing.

 

Army Girl was a frequent (and the first) contributor to The Sandbox during her 2006 deployment. Her posts include OUR TIME, COMBAT, A FEW CHOICE WORDS, and GENERATION KILL.

MY FATHER'S WAR PICTURES, AND MINE |

May 02, 2012

Name: Colby Buzzell
Returned from: Iraq
Milblog: My War

I asked a couple co-workers, like me, Iraq War veterans, what they think of the photographs printed this week by the L.A. Times. You know, the ones with U.S. soldiers posing with the remains of Afghanistan suicide bombers. One of my colleagues shrugs: “Who didn’t come back from Iraq with pictures like that?”

I chuckled as I thought to myself, he’s right. No, neither of us came back home with a scrapbook full of soldiers playing naked Twister with Iraqi prisoners or using Iraqi KIAs as human urinals. But mentally flipping through the pictures I did take, I see the shot from that time our platoon was called out to where a car bomb had gone off in a heavily populated civilian part of Mosul. What sticks out in my recollection isn’t the carnage, but seeing guys in my platoon matter of factly pulling out their cameras for a Kodak moment.

I chuckled as I thought to myself, he’s right. No, neither of us came back home with a scrapbook full of soldiers playing naked Twister with Iraqi prisoners or using Iraqi KIAs as human urinals. But mentally flipping through the pictures I did take, I see the shot from that time our platoon was called out to where a car bomb had gone off in a heavily populated civilian part of Mosul. What sticks out in my recollection isn’t the carnage, but seeing guys in my platoon matter of factly pulling out their cameras for a Kodak moment.

When I look at these latest trophy photos to be published, which soldiers from the 82nd Airborne took in 2010 with the corpses of bombers in Afghanistan’s Zabol province, I don’t feel shocked. If anything, I feel bored.

 

I’ve experienced war. As an infantryman, I know what it’s like to go out and hunt armed insurgents, and I know what it feels like to be hunted by armed insurgents. I’ve watched insurgents killed and injured, and I’ve seen them try to kill and successfully severely injure my fellow service members. I’ve watched a decade of war go by, and it seems like the only time I see real outrage—a sign that America is really paying attention—is when a photograph of a service member posing with a dead insurgent touches some collective nerve. To me, these are just a bunch of pictures taken by desensitized soldiers screwing around. Nothing more, nothing less.

Photographs of war casualties are about as old as the camera. Legendary Civil War photojournalist Matthew Brady did it constantly, and photojournalists have followed suit ever since. If Confederate and Union soldiers had ready access to cameras, you don’t think they would’ve been recreationally photographing the war?

Gallery: 14 Controversial Photos

US Afganistan Photos

Damian Dovarganes / AP

My father, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, carried a camera with him in Vietnam. I found that out shortly after my mother passed away, and my father put the family house I had grown up in on the market. Growing up, he hardly ever talked to us kids about his experience in Vietnam. To get him to say anything was like pulling teeth. While helping him pack up, I came across a mini leather-bound Bible, with a note to my father from his mother quoting John 3:16 and passages inside highlighted by her. Next to the Bible was a box filled with hundreds of 35mm slides. It was the first time my father had seen the Bible or the photos since returning home from the war.

The dusty photo projector we were ready to give to Goodwill miraculously fired right up, so we decided to take a break from packing and go through the photographs. Beaming onto our living room wall were these beautiful shots of the Vietnam countryside, and shots taken from my father’s point of view while on foot patrols. He narrated the slides for me and as he saw different guys in his platoon, a warm smile would come to his face as he recalled old friends that he hasn’t laid eyes on in decades. We came to a shot of four or so young soldiers casually smiling, proudly standing around a bunch of captured weapons that, my father said, they discovered while searching a village.

His smile slowly disappeared. He remained silent for a second or two as he just furrowed his brows and studied the photo. Then he told me that all of the guys we were looking at were killed two days later during an ambush.

After that, it was time get back to work and look at those slides some other time, which of course we never did. I’ll always wonder what else was there. I imagine my father and I are part of a tradition of soldiers who have gone to war, taken a series of photographs and returned home to file them away, never to be looked at again.

I didn’t pack a Bible when I went to war, but I did take a digital camera. I remember thinking that I wanted to document my experience, just in case I ever wanted to look back on it. I haven’t, but the photographs are on my hard drive, though I can hardly picture them in my mind’s eye and don’t much care to open them.

I was in my mid-20s when I deployed, just a year or so older than my father was when he’d gone to Vietnam. Back then, you only had so many shots on a roll of film, which you then had to get developed. Now, you can shoot as much as you like and share the images a moment later without thinking anything of it, literally for the world to see.

This is for the best, I think. It means there’s now ample documentation of aspects of war, like trophy photos, that people who haven’t experienced war need to see. Perhaps Americans need to see these photographs for the same reason that Franklin D. Roosevelt pushed Life magazine in 1943 to run a cover photo of dead American soldiers sprawled out on a Papua-New Guinea beach. The president felt Americans were becoming a bit too complacent about the war, and he wanted to remind them of the reality of what was going on across the oceans.

Today, the American public doesn’t much like our wars, and they’re not paying much attention to them either—and the government would love nothing more than for citizens to remain disengaged as they ever so slowly wind down. And what better way for that to happen than to simply not show us the war? Photographs help Americans see the wars, to remember something wise that Robert E. Lee said during the Civil War and that still holds true: “It is well that war is so terrible, or we should get too fond of it.”

Having experienced Iraq, I’m damned to see the world through a different lens. I’m not quite sure what most civilians see when viewing these graphic images: maybe it’s one of those things where if you stare it long enough a hidden picture us supposed to emerge? But having been there, what I see in the photos, and what I hope others do, is a look at what these wars are doing to all of us.

 

The above essay originally appeared on The Daily Beast.

Colby Buzzell's work has been featured on The Sandbox several times previously. Here is a link to his post RETURN TO SENDER.  And here is MEN IN BLACK, a short film adapted by Richard Robbins from My War.

Colby Buzzell is the author of My War: Killing Time in Iraq and Lost in America: A Dead End Journey. He served as an infantryman in the United States Army during the Iraq War. Assigned to a Stryker Brigade Combat Team in 2003, Buzzell blogged from the front lines of Iraq as a replacement for his habitual journaling back in the states. In 2004 Buzzell was profiled in Esquire’s “Best and Brightest” issue and has since contributed frequently to the magazine. The Washington Post referred to his article “Digging a Hole All the Way to America” as “A Tour de Force Travelogue,” and his article “Down & Out In Fresno and San Francisco” was selected for The Best American Travel Writing 2010. His work has also appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle and on This American Life. He currently lives in West Virginia.


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