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.

IT'S ABOUT THAT TIME |

June 27, 2012

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

Each deployment is a marathon, and this is my third in five years. I recognize the cycle. We were even briefed on it. Each deployment has its phases, and there is a phase of irritability, restlessness and discontent. That has been the past month or so. It makes it hard to write, because although there are stories of missions to tell, it’s hard to tell them in a voice that does not drip of that same restlessness and discontent. Especially when changes to our force protection posture means that we can get even less done. I can’t talk specifics about that at this time because of OPSEC (Operational Security), but our capabilities have changed, and not to make our work easier.

One thing I noticed during our abysmal train-up at Camp Shelby was that a briefing had been added that described these phases. I recognized them, and the cycle that they are a part of. Of course, it was just another briefing, and for those who had not done this before, it was in one ear and pretty much out the other. It didn’t ring a bell in their consciousness. There were no recognizable features. I can remind others that they had such a briefing, but they don’t remember it without prompting and the information was not retained. Perhaps the briefing is useful; perhaps it is not. It describes something that only those who have gone through it can comprehend.

The months of April and part of May were part of that cycle.

We still conducted missions. We still did our best to do what we need to with the Afghans. But we did it under that cloud of restlessness, irritability and discontentment. I have found it difficult to write, and have at times chosen not to write because I did not want the darkness of this time to fill the pages of my blog, to taint the experience of those who would wish to feel along with it through reading. And, sometimes, the motivation was just not there; “writer’s block” is real. When you aren’t sure what to say, it’s hard. When you know that what you have to say is dark and unhelpful, it’s hard. When you’re trying to fight through a weight on you and your team, it’s hard. Each of my previous deployments have had that time. I know that having leave helps. We did not have leave on this deployment. We will not. So there is no break for each individual to hit the reset button, to reconnect with their personal world in a physical sense.

Email, Facebook and Twitter are not the same.

Keeping the darkness from reaching back to the ones you care about is a concern. Soldiers have put a happy face on their experiences -- not all have, but many do -- for centuries. We don’t want to whine. We don’t want to cause undue worry; because there isn’t anything that anyone back there can do to break that part of the cycle.

The great thing about cycles is that they change, and the phases end. Given time, they will come around again. A very long deployment, like my second one (15 months), can bring that cycle around again. People get “crispy.” A little over-cooked. But it does evolve. Sometimes it’s an event. Sometimes it just fades into something else. It’s like any phase in anyone’s life (and we all have them) but this is a consistent thing in my experience, and it’s not just certain individuals. It’s practically a team experience, and it damages the dynamics of the team in the short term and changes them in the long term.

There are symptoms; I’ve already described the restlessness, irritability and discontent. There are other symptoms. Many military leaders call it “complacency,” but I have learned that it is a loss of focus. This is a dangerous time, because little things that never slipped through the cracks begin to slip through. The leadership will express frustration, sometimes even threaten to “tighten things up,” or whatever. Those things are not cures. In fact, they only heighten the crispiness and further strain the soldiers. Yet senior leaders know that it is their responsibility to refocus the team and they do what they know; but it is often counter-productive.

Most leaders cannot break or alleviate the cycle; but they can prolong it. We’ve seen some of that.

This is one of the times during the lifecycle of a deployment when the senior leadership puts a particular emphasis on personal protective gear. Body armor. Gloves. Ballistic eye protection. The groin protector (pee pee flap) on the body armor that is often ditched early on as being a waste of uncomfortable time.  (It is not there to protect the genitals as much as the inferior vena cava and organs of the lower abdomen, is useless for protecting against anything that blows upwards from underneath -- and it won’t stop a bullet, only fragmentation.) Risk-aversion reaches new heights and our chain, spurred by the loss of three soldiers, determined never to lose another -- although each of the dead was meticulously protected by their body armor from all threats...except death. Mission comes after such concerns as force protection, something that David Galula described as a sure way to fail in counterinsurgency. Audacity of action is quelled and even punished.

We have come to fear our counterparts. ”We” means the Coalition. The larger group. My little team does not fear the Afghan Border Police and feels handcuffed by the fear of the higher echelon. But the rules that come down from on high make it ever more difficult to demonstrate trust and a spirit of respect and cooperation. A man is not allowed to take reasonable risks, to balance his own safety with the ability to get real work accomplished based on his evaluation of the situation at hand and the needs of his mission. If he does he will be squashed like a bug by those who cannot stomach answering for why a man died or was injured in the name of that mission. Protecting ourselves has become the mission in the minds of those who can restrict us or punish us. These are the symptoms of the mid-tour doldrums, the darkness that creeps in to kill initiative, focus, teamwork and the sense of purpose that is all too important and that our unit (brigade) has in such short supply.

Every tour has a point, or points, at which morale takes a dip. There is a natural cycle, as natural as the stages of grief, that takes place over the duration of a deployment. They normally pass naturally as well. But these cycles can be stimulated by and exacerbated by the emphasis that senior leaders place on certain things. Confusion as to the purpose of our being separated from our families is one of those things, and being told that your job is simply to stay alive and unhurt is not a purpose.

These are things that affect the minds and spirits of those deployed...

MAIL CALL FOR MIL DOGS |

June 25, 2012

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

 

Photo: Spc. Zach Laker, Tactical Explosive Detection Dog ("TEDD") handler assigned to Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion, 148th Infantry Regiment, 37th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, gives a command to Sassy, his TEDD, while checking a vehicle at Forward Operating Base Griffin, Faryab province, Afghanistan, Feb. 24, 2012. Photo by U.S. Army Sgt. Kimberly Lamb

 

This Fourth of July, Midwest Living magazine is encouraging readers of all ages to send messages of support to a group of military dogs and handlers currently deployed to Northern Afghanistan and elsewhere.

The 2,800 men and women of the Ohio Army National Guard’s 37th Brigade Combat Team (37th B.C.T.) — historically called the "Buckeye Brigade" — are the first citizen-soldiers to deploy with military working dogs called “TEDDs.” The acronym stands for “Tactical Explosives Detection Dogs.” Using a variety of techniques, they sniff out bombs while serving overseas.

“Our job is helping to save lives, and being able to do something that machines or people alone can’t do,” says Spc. Devin Cooper, 23, of Columbus, Ohio. “What I like about the assignment is that I always have something to do: When people see my TEDD they always say, ‘I miss my dog back home.’ It’s just good company having him around.”

Published bi-monthly, Midwest Living regularly delivers tips and inspiration on pets, travel, food, home design and gardening. The magazine's editors originally explored the idea of sending "care packages" to the dogs and handlers, but learned that Uncle Sam provides all the doggie gear and food they require.

"This mail project seemed a creative way to recognize and remember our Midwestern citizen-soldiers while they are serving our country overseas," says Executive Editor Trevor Meers. "Focusing on the dogs and their handlers potentially offers people a new way to think about that story—and provides a simple way to act on their patriotic impulses."

Think of it as "mail-call for mil-dogs."

Midwest Living is published by Meredith Corp., Des Moines, Iowa, which also produces Better Homes and Gardens and Ladies Home Journal. Midwest Living reaches approximately 3.4 million readers nationwide.

In the "Discoveries" section of the July/August 2012 issue, readers are asked to send postcards, letters, and other messages of support to:

Buckeye Brigade
c/o Midwest Living
1716 Locust Street
Des Moines, Iowa 50309

The 37th BCT, historically known as the “Buckeye” brigade and for its distinctive circular shoulder patch (see right), comprises units from the Michigan and Ohio Army National Guards. In addition to a headquarters based in Columbus, Ohio, these include:

  • 1st Battalion, 125th Infantry Regiment (1-125th Inf.) Flint, Mich.
  • 1st Battalion, 148th Infantry Regiment (1-148th Inf.), Walbridge, Ohio
  • 1st Squadron,126th Cavalry Regiment (1-126th Cav.), Wyoming, Mich.
  • 1st Battalion, 134th Field Artillery (1-134th FA), Columbus, Ohio
  • 237th Brigade Support Battalion (237th BSB), Cleveland, Ohio
  • Special Troops Battalion, 37th BCT, Springfield, Ohio

There are 12 dog-and-handler teams deployed throughout the brigade. An Army veterinarian helps the handlers monitor their canine partners’ health. Dogs are carefully issued specific amounts of food each day. Treats are given as reinforcement for jobs well-done. By tradition, the dogs are considered to hold rank one step above their handlers.

Before deploying overseas in January, the teams trained at Vohne Liche Kennels, Inc., Denver, Ind., and in the Arizona’s Mojave desert. “The trainers incorporated stressful combat situations while working you with the dogs, yelling and screaming at you,” laughs Sgt. Anthony Utz, 25, of New Bremen, Ohio. “It was almost like basic training all over again.” Utz is the coordinator for the brigade’s TEDD program.

After the Buckeye units return stateside in fall 2012, the TEDDs will travel to Indiana for retraining and reassignment.

WAR PHONE HOME |

June 20, 2012

Name: Garrett Phillip Anderson
Returned from: Iraq and Afghanistan
Hometown: Portland, OR
Email: [email protected]
Milblog: Iraq/Afghanistan and More

The early morning hours were passing in the ghostly low-lit glow of my computer clock. The dog was reclined on our sofa and resting her head on her paws, gazing through my soul or looking for a date, I can never tell. A friend was calling and the phone was ringing. I hate the phone; anyone who knows me knows this. It is a strange irrationality of mine, but my level of discomfort turns to panic as I let each ring pass. Sometimes I flip a switch inside and pick it up, other times I watch it play through to the end and take a moment to get over it.

My theory is that I hate the phone because I was a platoon radio operator during the battle of Fallujah when I was nineteen, and every time somebody called me out there it was an emergency. I had to monitor the net for unit reports on friendly movement so that my platoon did not walk into another’s gunfire. One time I had told a tank that it would be clear to fire on a building. Shortly after, I watched a dozen Marines from another platoon take cover behind the same building, out of sight of the tank. The tank’s turret shifted and pointed toward the building. When there are too many people talking on a radio channel, the net gets tied up and I have to wait for a person to stop talking before I can talk to them. I frantically held down the button to my handset repeating over and over, more panicked and more panicked, “Cease fire, cease fire, cease fire!” When I let go of the button I could hear the tank power down with a sound like a vacuum cleaner and my handset answered back, “Roger, cease fire.”

Other times I would need the radio to call for a medical evacuation of friends who had been shot or killed or hit by explosives. Most days my ear was stuck to my handset for eighteen hours and nothing special, but during the times that nothing happened a person could not help but wonder what the next horrible phone call might be. I turn my knob to our battalion channel and sometimes the breaking news of the day is a friend from another company has just been killed, or I am sleepy on hour seventeen but keep nodding to the sound of empty radio static, a noise like television snow, filled with a cold panic that if I succumb to the sleep, my friends will die because of me. Sometimes Nate Douglass would call my apartment late at night and I would not pick up. I would want to cry for fear but did not feel well enough to help someone who needed real help. I would take a moment to recover and carry on with the endless web surfing. He just wanted to talk. So did I, but war is a bitch and we both know it.

One time I picked up the phone for a number I did not recognize and it was Luis Munoz, our old point man. He had moved back to Mexico after the service and was calling to tell me about the violence he was witnessing. He said it was worse than Fallujah and he had a child to raise. He had been shot through the leg in Fallujah so bad that he was told he would never walk again. When we reunited Luis was in physical therapy walking with a cane in his early twenties. By the time he was discharged from the Marines as a wounded warrior he was jogging.

Rich Casares had been hit by an enemy hand grenade in Fallujah. It had damaged one of his eyes. The doctors put an air bubble behind it; I had to write him, because he was in a Texas Prison. When he wrote me he asked for a picture of Fallujah that looked really good so he could have it tattooed across his back. Paul Johnson has a kid, and Donald Blais will soon; they live in Connecticut today. During the battle they rushed into a burning house to ferry the bodies of their wounded friends, without being ordered to.

One early morning in my dark apartment I picked up the phone for Nate Douglass who had also been hit by an enemy hand grenade. We had been best friends in Fallujah. We talked about our struggles coming home and then we talked about the day that he had been hit by the hand grenade. He would reference the morning and I would retort with my perspective of the same thing. When we got to the operation, he would talk about what he saw inside a house while I would tell him what I saw outside of that house. I realized that the story flowed naturally and that if I had the other members of our platoon who were there that day I was sure that we could reconstruct the story with even more depth. I told Douglass that night that I had an idea for a documentary that would tell a story of real life heroism and struggle, a film that might answer questions for outsiders and for those just returning from their story.

Note: That documentary project was posted on Kickstarter and has now been fully funded. Production began on Memorial Day weekend. Here is the pitch video:

HONORING THE EXCHANGE OF LIFE FOR LIFE |

June 11, 2012

Name: Alex Horton
Returned from: Iraq
Milblog: VAntagePoint and Army of Dude

The face never comes into view in my dreams, but I know it’s him. The twisted mouth is agape, molded in an eternal gasp of shock. The lower half of his body is gone, and there’s a black hole where his guts should have been. When Chevy was blown from the Stryker hatch, he took flight for an incalculable measure of time before landing on the slat armor of his vehicle. His uniform was blown off, which never happens in the movies. But he was whole, as complete and pure as the day he was born, I’m told. I never got the chance to see for myself before he disappeared into a body bag. The continuing ambush prevented that.

Memorial Day comes early and often for the men in my infantry battalion. During the unit’s second tour in Iraq in 2006 and 2007, we lost 21 men from three companies and attachments. We lost 17 in the span of four months during the Battle of Baquba.

Each year, from March to June, the calendar bleeds with somber anniversaries. The ghosts of a six-man squad huddle around May 6. They lived together, trained together, and when they were attacked during a late-night mission, they died together. We mourned them weeks before Memorial Day arrived, when folks back home looked forward to a long weekend and cookouts.

Remembrance can be an exhaustive process, spread throughout the spring and marked with individual days of reflection. The closer the calendar gets to Chevy’s day, the more introspective and isolated I become. Pictures and memories from the platoon flood Facebook, and phone calls crisscross the country. For the first few anniversaries, we traded memories and wept together. But now that it’s been five years, the topic of death and war has partly eroded. These days we talk about having kids, or being old and out of place at college. We have new stories to tell. We’ve partitioned off the painful ones.

Just like in combat, where heavy gear pulverizes knees and grinds down backs, carrying the burden of recollection cannot be sustained. At some point you have to let go. Memories of the fallen are knotted with the consequences of chance: Why did I live when a father died? Why was I given the chance over someone else? The search for answers cripples many veterans who have forgotten what the dead have truly given us: A chance to fulfill a life they willingly gave up.

Memorial Day for those of us who have fought is not simply a broad recognition of the sacrifices rendered by the dead, but an understanding of the exchange of life for life. Chevy’s gift to us wasn’t so much his skill or his grit. It was an endowment of time, at first measured in the seconds after his Stryker was toppled to its side. He absorbed the beginning of an ambush that could have killed more men. Those seconds he bought us stretched into minutes and hours, transformed into days, weeks. They built years. His gift was a nanosecond exerted under thousands of pounds of pressure that crippled steel and broke his body, but the effects stretch into the infinite. For the men of our platoon, every new life created, every new career, graduation, marriage, divorce, every discovery flows along the detonation cord tied to the stack of anti-tank mines that exploded under Cpl. Brian L. Chevalier, Chevy to us.

Sometimes I have another dream, but this one is of my former team leader, Jesse, who was killed while I was on leave. I’m riding in a school bus on the highway in what looks like California. Everyone has their backs to me, and I look out the window to see another bus going the other way. Jesse’s hanging out the window, and he’s waving, with his big goofy grin. I don’t know what the wave means, though I know he’s happy to see me. But I can’t go with him. Not where he’s going. Not yet, anyway.



This post originally appeared in the At War section of The New York Times. Alex Horton, a longtime contributor to The Sandbox, is a public affairs specialist at the Department of Veterans Affairs, where he writes for the department’s blog, VAntage Point. He served for 15 months as an infantryman in Iraq with the Second Infantry Division. Follow him on Twitter: @AlexHortonVA

MEMORIAL DAY AFTER ACTION REPORT |

June 05, 2012

Name: America's 1st Sgt.
Returned from: Bahrain
Milblog: Castra Praetoria
Email: [email protected]

Sandra Mendez is a Gold Star family member. Her brother Lance Corporal David Mendez fell November 12, 2005 in Amiriyah, Iraq while assigned to 2d Battalion 7th Marines. The Mendez family immigrated from Guatemala City to Cleveland in 1991. From the early age of six young David knew he wanted to be a U. S. Marine. A portion of United States Route 42 and State Route 3 is named in his honor.  

In her desire to remain connected with her Marine family, Sandra maintains close ties to her brethren here at 3/25. She is no stranger to the Marines and Sailors of our battalion. This week she paid us a surprise visit and brought chow! She really is family!

Just getting back from a vigorous session of light body maintenance, I joyously greet Sandra in the galley.

 

Young Marines attack the chow line while it is still hot.

 

Chicken in mushroom sauce, spanish rice, salad, fruit, and lumpia (yay!) were all on the menu for lunch. The ladies had slaved away all morning in our galley so they could serve up a treat for their Marines.

America's SgtMaj samples some lumpia. Quality Control is important!

 

When everyone had gotten a heaving plate of home made goodness, Sandra asked to speak to assembled Marines.

"You guys are my family."

 

She told us about her brother and how as soon as their family settled in America he had wanted nothing but to be a Marine. As she now considers all Marines her family she chooses to honor his memory, particularly on Memorial Day week, by doing something for her extended family in his name. Knowing her tribe well she cooked up a storm of grub and we spent the afternoon greedily stuffing ourselves like pigs.

Aargh! Gold Star cupcakes! Who can resist?

 

Gastrointestinal jollification aside, Sandra's visit was a welcome treat. I haven't often had the opportunity to rub elbows with my extended Marine family, my people, my tribe. It was a great way to kick off the Memorial Day work week and I am honored the likes of the Mendez family would name a jarhead like myself one of their own.

Semper Fidelis!


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