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.

A SWEET SCENT OF LIFE |

July 27, 2012

Name: Mike T.
Returned from: Afghanistan
Milblog: c/o bouhammer.com

I race to the door before the storm hits, the chance to steal a second of the moment when that rain scent ignites the air, to feel the cool breeze that sends a small chill through your soul. I stand, staring into the ridgeline as the clouds gather in mass and the blistering sun seems helpless and retreats for a sparing moment. And then one by one they multiply; the sweet rain drops begin to fall. I just linger there in the safety of the porch's cover, thinking in silence until it is broken by laughter.

The culprits; my beautiful wife and son playing in the living room. I peek through the open window just to watch and listen in amazement. They have become the brightest of my colors, stopping the beating of my heart at times. They fill my soul with compassion and tenderness but even more, strength. As I turn back to admire the storm I can’t help myself; I have an overwhelming feeling of relief.

I have an amazing family that loves and cares for me so much, and for this life to come full circle is a blessing. I have finally made it to where I value the quiet bliss of holding my son while in the rocking chair, feeling his subtle heartbeat against my chest or playing lion, where we rub noses together and laugh. I revel in watching my wife move about the house while singing her favorite country songs,and holding her and simply saying “I love you."  She takes my pain away and eases my fears. For all her beauty and compassion, I find it is her forgiving eyes that consume me the most.

As I look east of the property I gleefully watch the lavender suckles succumb to the heavy rain. As it falls, it relinquishes its scent overpowering its predecessor, the rain. Still the laughter continues through the open window. I hear the music in my head. These are the lyrics that have kept me remembering the very best of this life. Some say the best is yet to come; for me the best has arrived.

For the war I know is over. I have come to terms with my little piece of it. I have taken ownership of my version of PTSD. Part of me believes that I will never recover from it, nor should I. Someone once said “You can never truly heal from anything," and I am fine with that. I think that will be a constant reminder for me to always appreciate what I have and continue on for those who didn’t come back home.

I slowly shift my weight and begin making my way to the door, following the pleasant sounds of laughter and small screeches, my son’s version of talking to us. I think to myself; I should laugh more, cry more, love with compassion, dance and sing more, bite my tongue a bit more and remember how this life is what I fought for. More...

This is for my wife and son, as you have given me life, joy, happiness, a sense of purpose. But most importantly you have shown me new colors, and they are so bright. I thank you.

Love, Michael.

 

Editor's note: The Sandbox will be on vacation until the week of August 20th.

NORMAL DAYS: THE RITUAL OF MOVEMENT |

July 23, 2012

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

The life of an advisor can hardly be called “normal.” However, as anyone in Afghanistan can attest, there is a sameness that settles in, a point at which there is a sense of “Groundhog Day.” It’s the repetition of the actions, the same trip made over and over again, that cause this impression. So, what’s a daily mission with the SFAT like?

I’ll spare you the personal rituals of the morning. Wake-up, showers and the like. Everyone does that, and having to walk a hundred meters for a shower is not that serious that it requires examination.

Today I’m going to try to put you in the Multi-Cam uniform, in the turret behind the machine gun as you roll through the outskirts of Mazar-e Sharif on your way to work as an advisor for the Afghan Border Police. In a later post I will try to put you in the uniform again as you go through advising Afghans for a day. I don’t usually write in this style, but I’m hoping to share the experience. Please forgive me if I don’t bring you fully into it.

Suiting up; most people don’t do this. Many here at Marmal do not do it, either. For us, it happens numerous times a week. The uniform is self-explanatory; pants, boots, t-shirt, blouse (yes, it is called a blouse). Then comes the body armor, weapons -- M-4 carbine and M-9 pistol -- gathering up the helmet, gloves and “go bag.” Your body armor carries the ammunition, and there is a magazine in each of the weapons,

Today, you are on the trip ticket, or “flapsheet” as RC North calls it, to gun an M-240 in the turret of an MATV (an all-terrain MRAP, or Mine Resistant Ambush Protective vehicle). This means that you will have to mount the machine gun, check the ammunition, put a can in the rack attached to the swivel mount the gun will rest in, test the electric drive on the turret, and make sure that all your equipment is secure in the turret as well.

It’s early; many people at home don’t even get up this early to face their commute. But it’s already bright outside, beginning to get warmer after a low in the mid 80s last night. The sky is blue and clear save for the light haze of dust. You are grateful for the breeze and hopeful that it remains breezy through the day.

Feet crunching on gravel, you lug your gear to the vehicle, open the back door -- a “suicide door” type door -- and place your weapon and pack on the rear seat. Then you crunch to the SECFOR (Security Force; they drive the vehicles and usually man the guns) tent and grab the machine gun. Returning to the vehicle, you climb inside the back, the floor of which is at chest level when you are standing on the ground, and make your way up into the turret in the center of the vehicle.

Standing on the platform above and between the seats to the rear of the radios, you place the gun in the mount, secure it with the pins and lever the ammo can into place next to it; one hundred rounds of linked 7.62mm ready to be loaded. You place your carbine and helmet in the turret and then squat to secure your pack to the back wall between the back seats with a bungee cord so that it doesn’t become a free-ranging object if the vehicle gets knocked over. That complete, it’s time for the convoy brief.

Everyone who is going out today is gathered around in a clear area of the lot in the tent area you live in. Soldiers are finishing breakfast brought to them in styrofoam containers by one of their buddies. Others drink coffee from mugs. Some drink meal-replacement shakes. Some drink energy drinks in place of coffee. Some are smoking. A few minutes later, the SECFOR Platoon Sergeant, the patrol leader today, lifts his clipboard and calls off the march order by vehicle number and the names of the crew and occupants. Each individual answers, as do you when your name is called. You’re the gunner in the lead truck.

The patrol leader goes over the mission, the routes that will be taken, any new information about things the enemy may be doing out there or significant events since yesterday, special instructions, location of the medic and satellite phone that is used in case of all other systems failing. He sums it up with, “TCs inspect your people for proper equipment and uniform. Be ready to stage in order in ten minutes.”

You make one more quick stop in the green plastic box to make sure that your bladder is empty before the trip. There is a fine balance between staying hydrated and needing to relieve yourself at an inconvenient or dangerous moment. Making your way back to the vehicle, you put on and snap together the harness that all gunners wear, which keeps them from being ejected from the vehicle in the event of an explosion underneath or a rollover. You climb up through the back, up into the center of the vehicle, lock your harness into the retractor on the floor and begin the ritual of getting set. One iPod earphone in an ear, helmet on, headset on over that. Gloves. Eye protection. Turn on the iPod, keeping it low enough to hear everything over the intercom or radio. You plug into the intercom and ask if the rest of the crew has “got you.”

“Gotcha,” comes the reply. You’re set.

The vehicles roll to the gate and in a minute the patrol leader calls for a REDCON (Readyness Condition) in march-order sequence. Each vehicle, or “vic,” calls out “Vic 1 (2, 3, etc in sequence) is REDCON 1 (ready to go).”

P1000484 1024x768 Normal Days; 1: The Ritual Of Movement

All elements call up REDCON status in sequence.

“Okay, 1, let’s push,” comes the call.

The music cheers you as you keep an eye out for the traffic that moves on Marmal 24 hours a day. Trucks, “Gators,” conex-moving pickers, semi-trucks, armored vehicles, bikes and pedestrians; you are the only one who can see much of what is going on around you. You clear each intersection and tell the driver what is going on outside of his field of view. Finally you pass through the gate to “outside the wire.” At a certain point the gun is loaded and each vehicle in sequence calls out that they are loaded and combat locked (the doors cannot be opened from the outside). The convoy passes civilian trucks bringing construction materials to the base, local nationals on their way to work for the day, and other vehicles, and snakes its way to the Afghan Border Police Headquarters where the real work of the day will be done.

The move takes you over a combination of dirt and paved roads. The dirt roads require that you keep yourself from slamming into the hard metal of the turret, machine gun and turret ring as the vehicle pitches and rolls. Each vehicle churns up dust and the light breeze is blowing across the road; it keeps most of the dust from any oncoming traffic from blowing in your face today. On other days, you’re not so lucky. Today it’s good.

 

P1000471 1024x768 Normal Days; 1: The Ritual Of Movement

View from the turret of the MATV on a dirt road.

Trucks and motorcycles come towards you, picking their way carefully through the potholes and bumps of the dirt road. Flocks of sheep and goats, tended by men or children, graze a couple of hundred meters away. You watch the sides of the road, the half-built houses and compounds springing up all around, the shepherds, the other vehicles and pedestrians near and far for any sign of unusual behavior or intent. Finally, you reach the paved road and begin to head into a more built-up area.

P1000503 1024x768 Normal Days; 1: The Ritual Of Movement

Shepherd.

You get your M-4 out and position it next to the machine gun. In town, you can’t be spraying fire willy-nilly; you must be precise if you have to respond. Pedestrians become more common; people going about their lives. If one makes eye contact, you nod or wave, then judge the response as either friendly, hostile or neutral. You watch rooftops, alleyways, windows and side streets for any indication that something has gone wrong. Almost anything can happen on any given day in Afghanistan. It usually doesn’t in this area, but it can. So you watch. You don’t point your weapon at people, but you know that if you see someone kneeling with an RPG pointed at you, you can raise the weapon and be ready to fire in less than two seconds.

Radio traffic is minimal; only turns are being announced, by the lead and trail trucks, to ensure that everyone knows where the others are. Inside the truck, the driver and TC are chatting about something funny that one of the other soldiers did yesterday, a movie one of them watched, how many Afghans are sitting on the roof of a moving vehicle -- and the car approaching the intersection that the driver cannot see. It’s a mixture of business and informal chatter.

Today, most people seem friendly. Children wave or give a thumbs-up. Men respond with a casual wave or a nod of the head. Some only continue to look. It’s a normal day.

You have other passengers to pick up at another base just a few miles from the headquarters, and you are making your way to pick them up. You pass shops open for business with people taking advantage of the fact that it is not yet 100 degrees out while they shop. Children are on their way to school. Men are on their way to work. Traffic moves in a slow-motion chaos that verges on incredible, and yet civility reigns as cars, trucks, motorcycles, buses, taxis, three-wheeled Zarang carts and motorcycles weave through the streets and pedestrians like strands in a rug. Horns let others know that you are passing. Your convoy takes up a lot of space and is given deference at the many traffic circles.

P1000518 1024x768 Normal Days; 1: The Ritual Of Movement

We all have our own commuting style.

Arriving at the other base, the convoy makes its way inside and picks up other personnel with business to conduct at the headquarters. They have coordinated with the team for movement and are conducting business that will help the ABP and the team to reach their goals. For a few moments, you can relax. Here there is no threat to speak of. A few minutes later, each seat in each vehicle is filled. You glance down at the backseaters to the left and right of your feet. They are all buckled in. The ritual of REDCON is performed and you make your way back outside the wire again, repeating part of your journey as you continue on your way to work.

Back past all the shops, through the traffic circles, past more children on their way to school, more men on their way to work or at work driving trucks full of materials or goods; you head to the headquarters and the work of the day with your Afghan counterparts.

Finally you arrive at work. Entering the compound, the trucks park in a line and advisors and SECFOR alike begin to dismount; one always listening to the radio and staying alert. Body armor off, helmet and carbine in the truck, you grab a bottle of water to replace the sweat that now fills your blouse and body armor. Handheld radios are distributed so that you can stay in touch as you move about the large compound. A quick huddle; the time to report back to the trucks is given out.

When the work is done, the caravan of the morning will be repeated in reverse. But it will be hotter; well over 100 degrees. It’s just what you have to do.

You match up with your interpreter and head towards your counterpart’s office. This is the real work, what you’ve gone through all the trouble to get here for.

SAILOR VIC |

July 18, 2012

Name: Garrett Phillip Anderson
Returned from: Iraq and Afghanistan
Hometown: Portland, OR
Email: GarrettAnderson0311@gmail.com
Milblog: Iraq/Afghanistan and More

I was sailing through the hot summer’s air and I could smell the chlorine in the water shortly before we became one. I had gone in with my clothes on. I pushed myself up for air and the smell had turned sour, full of diesel exhaust and cordite. The brown river water was warm. One of the sailors on a riverboat gave me a hand; he looked twelve years old with a twisted smile and crazy in his eyes, the way that youth do when they have been in combat for too long or have taken a street drug that has taken them. Thick black smoke reached for an electric blue sky that hung over the river and shone through the canopy.

“Welcome aboard my boat!” he exclaimed, shaking my hand wildly. “This motherfucker is going all the way. Gonna’ take it to Thailand and open a bar, you know what I mean, man?” I didn’t know what he meant. Another sailor manning the fifty caliber machine gun was pumping away but the gun made no sound. All I could hear was his breathing and the brass casings bouncing off the deck. I gaped at my wet clothes and was in awe that I found myself in desert digital camouflage, a familiar site seemed distant. The sailors were dressed in olive drab with black boots.

“Fuck this Perfume River shit! All they give us is dead Marines coming out of Hue! Fucked up, man, I don’t want to be hauling these poor dead bastards!” Tracer fire erupted from the tree line and the air lit up like Christmas, but none of the gunfire made any noise. I looked at the nametape of the wild-eyed sailor and it all made sense. It read "Czito."
   
“Well what the fuck are you doing here, Anderson, you wanna come on my boat and not be conversational?” He twisted himself with intensity.

“What can a young man learn without war?” I ask.

The Czito scratched at his chin. His smile faded. “Don’t you come on my boat and ask me a question like that! This is where I live, man, same with the dead boys on the deck! Don’t be shitting where we live!”

A dead Marine sat upright and looked me in the eye: “Listen to the old man.”

“Just shut the fuck up Anderson and I will show you.”

I pushed myself up for air and the chlorine smelled pleasant on a hot day in Los Angeles. Victor Czito, an ancient friend of my father and Navy Vietnam Veteran, had pushed me into a pool not realizing that these days pushing people in pools usually involves electronics. We drank fine tequila and he told me his story of the Perfume River. In the year 2012 nobody hates war more than The Czito because somewhere on a riverboat is a kid scared shitless as I was in Fallujah. The young man continues endlessly rocking away at his fifty caliber and the young intense sailor screams over the noise of the gunfire loud as an exploding sun: “Anything he fucking wants!”

A FAMILY'S WAR |

July 13, 2012

Name: CAPT Doug Traversa, USAF, Retired
 Returned from:Afghanistan
Hometown:
Tullahoma, TN
Milblog
: Afghanistan Without A Clue
Email: dougtraversa@gmail.com

A few of you may remember me, if you’ve been reading The Sandbox from its earliest days. I spent a year in Afghanistan, from June 2006 – May 2007, embedded with the Afghan Army’s Central Movement Agency, their only transportation unit. I won’t rehash the old stories, as my purpose is to talk about the war today and how it affects my family. 

After returning to the states, I finished my career at Arnold Air Force Base in Tullahoma, Tennessee, retiring in January 2009. After that, I became the lay minister of the local Unitarian Universalist Church, and have been in seminary for the last three years.

Soon after my retirement, both my sons joined the military, my older son Taylor joining the Army, and my younger son Ryan the Marines. If my daughter Elise ever decides to join the Navy, we’ll have all four branches covered.

It wasn’t long before I had the unsettling experience of sending not one, but two of my children off to fight in the same war I was in. I know I’m not the first to have this experience, but there is something intuitively wrong about watching my sons head off to the seemingly endless Afghan War. People often ask me for my opinion on the war. Those of you who read my posts years ago may remember that I was optimistic and hopeful. I no longer am. My sons would both probably agree. Their experiences are a combination of the surreal and the insane. I suspect that every one of their compatriots would also agree that our involvement over there makes no sense at all. 

I find this very interesting, because I still see hawks on TV telling us that "the troops” don’t want to leave Afghanistan now, that it would make all of our efforts, all of the lives lost, a tragic waste. All I know is, I have yet to meet a single military member, not one, who thinks we should still be over there. These mythical people may exist, but I would place them in a very, very small minority. 

When did I lose hope? After the last farcical “election,” when it became clear that once again, we were backing a foreign government that came to power through rigged elections. That, to me, was the last straw. It had all been a waste. And once we pull out, and US dollars stop flowing, watch what happens. I feel such sadness for everyone who has lost a loved one in this utterly useless war. That’s my opinion, and I’m sticking to it.  

I’ve urged Taylor and Ryan to submit stories to The Sandbox. The stories they have told me are wild beyond imagining. Taylor is still in Afghanistan, so his stories are fresh from the front lines. Ryan made it back safely last Thanksgiving, and in two more months Taylor will hopefully be home too. And then I can stop checking my computer on a daily basis to see that my son is still alive, and hasn’t died in this idiotic war.

So I now hand off this post to Taylor, with the first of hopefully many of his stories.

  Framed TRAVERSA family

Taylor, me, and Ryan at Taylor’s wedding.


Editor's note: CAPT Doug Traversa was one of the first contributors to The Sandbox. His numerous posts include JINGLE TRUCKS, CHILDREN, BE AFRAID, HAN'S HISTORY LESSON, and THE GREAT WALL.


IN APPRECIATION OF SLEEP
Name: 1LT. Taylor D. Traversa, US Army
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Hometown: Greensboro, NC
Email: hermandasgerman@hotmail.com

Normally sleep is an event a person looks forward to, a time to unwind, relax, and decompress. As time progressed throughout my deployment, a deployment dubbed by the media as the last major offensive in Afghanistan, sleep slowly morphed into a task, a requirement to move into the next day.

Within two weeks of arriving to our small COP (Combat Outpost) in Eastern Afghanistan, along Highway One, I awoke to my tent shaking due to a deafening explosion. Highway One is the primary commerce route in Afghanistan, It loops around the whole country, providing the major means of transportation throughout the country. Coming from a field artillery background, I have heard many explosions and learned to sleep through them, but now it was different. Did the explosion come from artillery or mortar rounds from the enemy, a friendly vehicle hitting an IED (Improvised Explosive Device), or perhaps our EOD (Explosive Ordinance Disposal) team detonating an IED that had been found? 

No matter what the explosion was, I was jolted out of my deep sleep and looked at SSG G, the company FSNCO (Fire Support Non-Commissioned Officer) who was on his sixth deployment. Without hesitation Gio (what I call SSG G for short) screamed "Get to the bunker!" and we both jetted for the concrete “C” barrier outside of our tent. Gio seemed to think the explosion was incoming rounds; I had nothing to compare the noise to. As we squatted in the bunker, illuminated by the eerie glow of moonlight, we heard the bustle and yells of confusion throughout the tiny COP. My legs started to grow weary after crouching within the bunker for a couple of minutes. Gio looked at me with a shrug, and we decided to move back to the tent to grab our gear and move to the TOC (Tactical Operation Center). As the Fire Support Officer for an airborne infantry company, it is my responsibility to control all mortar assets, helicopter support, and Air Force support.

With one foot outside of the bunker, I heard the whiz and whoosh of what seemed to be an RPG round go flying over my head. Gio ducked back into the bunker with me right on his heels, both of us thinking “What the hell was that?” Within seconds we got our answer, as the sky lit up with a blood red glow. Gio and I looked at each other with the same thought: “Oh shit.” The red parachute flare that lit up the sky was the signal to implement the COP defense plan and had been shot into the air by the Sergeant of the Guard. We scrambled for the tent, grabbed our rifles and body armor and sprinted for the TOC. 

The TOC was abuzz with activity; no one seemed to know what was going on. One thing was clear, that at this early stage in the deployment there were many kinks that needed to get worked out. People were in various states of dress, some in full battle rattle, others in PTs with body armor and helmet, and yet others in just PTs, clearly having rushed to the TOC to help out. A phone call to Battalion quickly painted the picture that we were all hoping not to see; one of our sister companies had hit an IED, two kilometers up the highway. From the sound of the explosion, we knew that it was a massive IED, and all expected the worst. 

Gio and I quickly sprang into action, contacting battalion to get air support in case an ambush was to follow, laying mortars onto possible trigger man locations, and briefing up our Forward Observer who would likely have to go support our sister company. The IED ended up being over 120lbs of homemade explosives, enough to shake the ground two kilometers away from the explosion. Thankfully no one was seriously injured in the explosion, and after a long recovery mission to secure the destroyed vehicle we were able to return to ours cots and tents to sleep and recover for the next day.

The IED was a major wakeup call for me. While no one was hurt, it was the first instance where I was shocked awake to some major incident. The next couple of weeks brought a number of nights where I would jolt out of sleep due to hearing what I thought was an explosion. Often the noises that woke me from my half sleep were things as simple as a door slamming or a person stomping into the tent. Due to the cap on the number of people deployed and minimum manning at our COP, I constantly needed to run to the TOC to support the paratroopers on the ground, whether it was troops in contact, the FOB up the highway taking mortar or rocket fire, or an ANA or AUP checkpoint being attacked. 

This responsibility started weighing heavily on my mind as I was trying to sleep, causing me to stay in state where I constantly had one ear open waiting to rush to the TOC, awaiting that dreaded tap of a runner from the TOC to fetch me, or the whisper of some poor sap given the unfortunate task of finding me. It seemed nearly every time I would start to reach a state of comfort in my rest cycle, whether it was over a period of a week or a month, some catastrophic event would happen and I would be reminded of just how real the war was, and the importance of my job. My body started to feel the wear and tear of restless nights. I would wake up sorer than when I went to sleep, with a splitting headache being caused by the grinding of my teeth in my sleep. Awaking in the morning was a blessed moment as I realized I had made it through the night with no major incident and was one day closer to going home.

As a POG (person other than grunt) in an infantry unit, you are often treated or viewed as a second class citizen, but as the deployment continued to grind on, the infantry men began to realize the importance of my small five-man fires cell. As we started to take more IDF from the enemy as well as get into fire fights more frequently with them, the paratroopers gained a new appreciation of the job the fires cell did. The sight of a helicopter or A-10 Warthog over a group of paratroopers on the ground was always a boost to morale and renewed confidence after a traumatizing event. The screams of victory that resound from the paratroopers when an Apache, Kiowa, or A-10 engages the enemy, began to renew my strength to shove myself out of bed every day. 

Paratroopers that I saw on a daily basis, who had often not given me a second glance, started thanking me for all the hard work and support of my fires cell and how impressed they were with our ability to kill the “bad guys.” This new-found appreciation was just what everyone needed to keep going. Despite still being awakened at least once a week to support the paratroopers, I was able to sleep much better knowing my job was saving lives and that I had finally been accepted into the privileged ranks of an the infantry paratroopers.  

 

BADAKHSHAN VI: SUCCESS! |

July 10, 2012

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

The average day of the 5th Zone ABP Mentor Team (the SFAT, or Security Force Assistance Team) is comprised of making our way to the 5th Zone Headquarters, near Mazar-e Sharif (MeS), and working to make slow, incremental changes to the way that the staff there works. But sometimes we get to do some pretty cool missions that take us far afield.  My post on the unsuccessful mission to Badakhshan was an example of what we call a “non-standard” mission. Non-standard missions are the most interesting, and the most fun. We don’t plan them because they are fun, though. They serve a purpose -- they just happen to be fun and interesting as well.

The mission to Khwahan, Badakhshan, had been planned for weeks and the purpose was two-fold. First, we were attempting to have a KLE (Key Leader Engagement) with the leadership of the 5th Zone ABP’s 6th Kandak (battalion). The second purpose, and most pressing to the men of the 6th Kandak, was to drop much-needed supplies to them. They had been out of rations for weeks. Khwahan is only accessible by road for a few months a year. Once snow begins falling on the northern slopes of the Hindu Kush, the village becomes practically cut-off from the outside world. Numerous attempts had been made to reach Khwahan by air; most had fizzled on the launch pad. One, the mission referenced above, made it almost all the way there. That mission died at the refueling stop at Faizabad, the capitol of Badakhshan Province. On March 21st, 2012, we attempted the mission again.

Marmal, the largest Coalition base in the RC North, sits a little southeast of MeS, and has a civilian air terminal as well as all the military fixed- and rotary-wing military air units that occupy the airfield. The 1st ACB (Air Cavalry Brigade) was headquartered at Marmal at the time and provided the rotary-wing lift capability for units in the RC North. Several times, air assets had been diverted to other missions, causing our mission to Khwahan to be rescheduled. These  do not even count as attempts. By late March, the weather had started to change from the bitter cold, rain and snow in Balkh Province. But the elevation in Balkh is not nearly as high as in Badakhshan; this makes a real difference in the weather. Badakhshan was still in the throes of late winter, while Balkh, our launching point, was emerging into early spring. Simply, the weather where we left was not necessarily the weather at our destination.

Once again, tons of palleted supplies would be loaded on two Chinook helicopters and one Blackhawk in preparation for the long trip to Badakhshan in hopes of being deposited for use by the men of the 6th Kandak. Once again, members of the 5th Zone ABP SFAT would load up to secure the LZ and hopefully conduct a Key Leader Engagement with the leadership of the 5th Zone’s 6th Kandak. The morning air was still chilly as we drove around the end of the airfield and offloaded our gear, positioning near the aircraft. Each man wanted to be hydrated, but not too hydrated, as there are no “facilities” on a Chinook, and we had a long flight ahead of us. Gear was checked and re-checked. We joked in a relaxed state of anticipation, half-expecting the mission to be called off -- again -- at any moment. Finally, the call came; the mission was still a go.

Pessimistic jokes were made as we strapped on body armor, helmets and rucksacks to load up on the helicopters whose blades were beginning to turn already. The loud roar as we approached the aircraft became an incredibly loud, high-pitched whine as we neared the yawning tail ramp. We loaded in behind the pallets of supplies and took our seats near the ramp, spread on each side of the fuselage facing in. I shoved the earphones of my iPod into my ear canals and powered up the music as the aircraft vibrated under me. Alice in Chains filled my ears: heavy metal music just seems appropriate for a chopper ride to a destination high in the Hindu Kush that I’ve never been to before. The helicopter taxied forward, turned and rolled towards the taxiway near the main runway and lifted off the ground.

Chinooks always seem to hover forever before a mission actually launches. Lots of systems are checked by the aircrew as the bird hovers in position fifteen to twenty feet off the ground. We could look out the bubble-shaped windows and see the other Chinook hovering nearby, the same ritual being followed within. Finally, a push was felt and the scenery outside began to turn and fall away. We were climbing and turning. Another helicopter slid through our view out the back of the big helicopter as the ground receded and the sound of the rotor blades indicated they were chopping and grabbing big chunks of air.

2012 03 21 09 26 40 711 1024x576 Badakhshan VI:  Success!

View out the back of the Chinook as we climb away from Marmal.

We climbed to altitude as the temperature dropped. Each man made himself comfortable with whatever gear he had brought along for the purpose. I prefer the local desmah, often called a shemagh. I wrapped my head and face and settled in as Alice in Chains beat away at my ears, the whines and roar of the helicopter’s engines, blades and hydraulics muted in the background behind the music. The views are limited when you are facing inwards along the sides of an aircraft, and the tail ramp was raised for part of the mission.  Still, what views we could steal from the aircraft of the northern slopes of the Hindu Kush were beautiful.

2012 03 21 10 25 50 988 1024x576 Badakhshan VI:  Success!

The mountains of the northern Hindu Kush from the Chinook.

Trying to avoid too much fluids, each of us munched on such things as granola bars, power bars and beef sticks. The idea was not to fill up, but to make sure that the energy was there in case things got active. Having never actually seen our destination, we had no idea what to expect of the local security situation.

Again, we landed at Faizabad for refueling. Again there was the wait while the AWT (Air Weapons Team) performed route reconnaissance to determine if the weather would allow us safe passage. This time the word was “Go.”  We loaded up quickly and flew towards Khwahan. This leg was much shorter, and soon the Chinook began to descend and bank -- a hint that we were nearing our objective. My specific job on this mission was to take a machine gun crew and secure a portion of the LZ (Landing Zone) while the choppers were on the ground. I scanned out the bubble windows and the now-open tail to orient myself to the LZ as we swooped around the village. The first bird went straight in, but our bird orbited for a few minutes before making the approach.

The Chinook flared, the view out the back ramp limited to the rotor wash-beaten ground. The aircraft began to level as the rear landing gear made contact, the nose pivoting gently down until the aircraft settled and sat on its gear. The tail ramp lowered until it made contact with the ground and out we went. Oriented, I led the machine gun crew with the M-240B machine gun towards my chosen spot. ABP soldiers of the 6th Kandak were already forming a perimeter, and after finding the gun crew a spot with good visibility and slight cover, I touched base with the ABP  in Dari. Their smiles at hearing me speak to them in their own language brightened the businesslike mood of the moment. The roar of the choppers was not nearly so loud from there.

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Corporal Mentaraptor secures the LZ with the 240 Bravo.

The valley was stunningly beautiful. Snow-clad mountains ringed our view, the river that ran through the valley the actual border with Tajikistan. The fields looked manicured, the teeth of sheep and goats trimming the vegetation, no doubt. The village lay nestled at the foot of a mountain, a mud parapet aside the LZ still carried an ancient ZPU-23 anti-aircraft gun next the hulk of a BTR-60; testaments to an earlier conflict, a reminder that history has neither stopped nor forgotten Khwahan.

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An ancient anti-aircraft gun guards the LZ as watchful ABP assist.

While maintaining observation I glanced back to where the pallets of supplies were being offloaded. The helicopters raised their noses off the ground and rolled a few yards forward as the pallets slid out the back and flopped onto the ground. Efficient. We remained in place for only ten or fifteen minutes before the call came over the radio to pick up the gun and make our way back to the Chinooks. We loaded up as villagers gathered at the end of the LZ for the biggest circus they had seen all year, watching as the two big Chinooks and the Blackhawk lifted off and we made our way homeward.

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Chinooks disgorge much-needed supplies.

For the flight home we had more people on our chopper. The Blackhawk was going to land at Kunduz to that COL Mollosser and the SGM (Sergeant Major) could stay overnight there and link up with our mobile team. They would return the next day to Marmal. The flight back to Marmal seemed to go quickly. We landed to the view of the setting sun and taxied to where the big Chinooks would once again rest silent.  We gathered our gear, filed off and set about returning to our camp to break down our loads, clean our weapons and equipment and prepare for another, much more mundane, day of normal operations.

 

JULY 4TH |

July 03, 2012

Name: Garrett Phillip Anderson
Returned from: Iraq and Afghanistan
Hometown: Portland, OR
Email: GarrettAnderson0311@gmail.com
Milblog: Iraq/Afghanistan and More

Time is becoming more relevant to me as a younger aging man. I think I am moving in the direction of better understanding the inevitable cruelness of mortality as I am shifting from the invincible mirage of youth to the realistic tangibility that is a fragile life. I received a postcard today inviting me to attend my cousin’s high school graduation and for a moment the world went still in the way it does when the hairs on the back of my neck raise and I am left to think about a decade before. I was seventeen years old when I touched the turf of school for the last time in the month of June and on Friday the 13th, with six hundred-and-sixty-six fellow graduates from Palmdale High School; we had started the class with closer to nine hundred I am sure.

My father had been an embedded reporter serving in Iraq since March of 2003 and was able to make it home in time for me to graduate. That night my family and I went to dinner on the nice end of town and as a high school gift I was given new swim trunks. A few weeks later I took a Greyhound bus north to where my Uncle lived so that I could pump propane for him during the summer and before I left for boot-camp.

The war in Iraq seemed impermanent listening to the radio news as I traveled from grocery store to grocery store replenishing waning supplies of propane for the store’s floor buffers that would keep shiny tile for happy suburbanites. We rode in the cab of a Ford pickup with a 200-gallon propane tank in the covered bed of the truck that fueled our trip and my Uncle Chuck’s livelihood. He raced cars for fun and during his free time would travel the indy “sprint-car” racing circuit from California to Colorado. A sprint car is a homemade land rocket that must follow specific standards to race, with a fuselage constructed of panels of carbon fiber in the shape of a bullet attached to an oversized engine that requires a land pilot to navigate a field of speeding death asphalt. These drivers race for nothing more than the rush of speed. That year Uncle Chuck informed me that this would be the hardest work I would ever complete in my life, and that when it was done I would be ready to be a Marine.

That year he did not hire the standard pit crew that came as a natural fixture to the other sprint cars on the circuit. Nor did he hire an extra spotter whose job would normally be to watch the racing car with a pair of binoculars and call, over a radio connected to the driver, the positions of his enemies on the track. In the summer of 2003 Uncle Chuck let me know that I would be performing all of these jobs, pit crew and spotter, and I would push start his car onto the track driving a four-wheeler. With this development and since he unlike the other drivers owned his own car this would be a way to save a pile of money. It was a brilliant plan. Most sprint car drivers had sponsors who owned their car but Uncle Chuck had built his own and that season it was finishing top three.

I had heart, but zero mechanical talent; I had been raised by a newspaper man whose father had nailed his garage door shut after it stopped working properly. My dad could change a tire and that’s about where my expertise ended. Uncle Chuck let me know that if he blew a tire I would have to help him change it on the track.

The process for a race worked like this; after we did a onceover of the car, checked the fluids, tire pressure and fixtures I would hop on a four wheeler and push the race car onto the track full of other race cars speeding well over a hundred miles an hour, after I did that without killing myself I would ride the four wheeler to the spotting stands where the other more mature spotters would laugh as I came running up the bleachers. My Uncle would race the first and last lap blind and at the end of the race I would get on the four wheeler and he would tell me whether or not he needed to be pushed into the pits, which were made up of large trailers full of tool boxes that the cars could be transported in when they were not racing. Chuck had an old horse trailer he had rigged into a race-car trailer; he lived "Do it yourself." Sometimes the car could make it to his trailer with the momentum of the last lap but the engine would die below an idle because it operated only at a high rate of RPM.

His kids were with him, my cousin’s C.J. and Jessica. They would watch the race while their dad and I worked. One time the announcer happily explained to the audience that a new driver who had turned 18 years old was participating in her first race. I got to the spotting stands and the thunder sound of the cars on the track was rumbling as I sighted in on Uncle Chuck. The insiders knew him as “Mad Dog”,a play on his last name Maddox, but he earned the name for being an asshole on the track. The girl’s car got too close to the Mad Dog and he turned into her, both cars went up on two wheels and she became too shaken to race up at the front with the pack. Chuck was laughing on the microphone and I could hear her spotters swearing as they began to give me the stink eye and curse my Uncle. One of the spotters told me to tell my Uncle to, “Watch his ass in the pits.” I radioed the message to my Uncle and he laughed and told me everyone could hear us on the net and that he would see me in the pits.

I ran down the aluminum bleachers and mounted my four-wheeled steed. I cruised through the mud and back to the trailer where Chuck’s car would soon roll up, but there was a crowd; the girl’s sponsor and pit crew were waiting for him. They were swearing as soon as I got there so I picked up a tire iron because I had heard about pit fights and these people seemed pissed. Chuck’s never-ending classic country music was playing from his jerry-rigged tool box as his car came in neutral to the trailer. The girl’s sponsor was a fat guy and he started screaming at Chuck that he would kill him if he ever touched his car again. From under his helmet Chuck sarcastically responded with, “Fuuuck you”. The sponsor had not heard him so my Uncle repeated himself after taking his helmet off with a smile: “Fuuuck you.” I gripped the tire iron but there was no fight. My Uncle was too slick for a fight. He got his mission done and moved along to the sound of a party; to this day he lives an eternal weekend earned through hard work. My cousin C.J., who was a boy of eight at the time, became my hero when I was in Fallujah and his mother wrote me about him building a shrine with my pictures and candles, and praying to it.

That last night in Colorado was July 4th and my Uncle wanted to know if it was alright with me if we left before the fireworks. I couldn’t see why not because we had more work to do and more summer to live, but that night we drove through the empty desert of Wyoming and the black night was illuminated with fireworks far off in the distance for hours. That night we all slept in the same room together and Uncle Chuck told C.J. and Jessica, “Your cousin is going off to serve our country and we should be very proud of him.” They agreed and we slept.

At some point I woke up in war, and the day after, I received a letter that my cousin is graduating high school. I will be there, and this summer he will work for me as I film a documentary capturing my life since I turned eighteen. A year after I worked his father’s car I left for war. My praying cousin will hear the story but live at peace. When I am done with him he will understand something. He will never have worked this hard in his whole life. I remember how fresh the world seemed and how dark it became. What can a young man learn without war?


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