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.

HAKA FOR FALLEN COMRADES |

August 31, 2012

Name: Sandbox Duty Officer David Stanford

I feel compelled to post this video, along with the introductory text which accompanies it on YouTube:

 

Haka is used throughout New Zealand by many, not only Maori, to demonstrate their collective thoughts. There is a haka for each of the Services, as well as the Defence Force. Units with the NZ Army have their own haka. This video shows the soldiers of 2/1 RNZIR Battalion performing their Unit haka, powerfully acknowledging the lives and feats of their fallen comrades as they come onto the Unit's parade ground. It is also an emotive farewell, for they will leave via the waharoa (the carved entrace way) for the very last time.

Haka -- sometimes termed a posture dance -- could also be described as a chant with actions. There are various forms of haka; some with weapons, some without. Some have set actions, others may be "free style." Haka is used by Maori (indigenous people of New Zealand) for a myriad of reasons; to challenge or express defiance or contempt, to demonstrate approval or appreciation, to encourage or to discourage, to acknowledge feats or achievements, to welcome, to farewell, as an expression of pride, happiness, or sorrow. There is almost no inappropriate occason for haka; it is an outward display of inner thoughts and emotions. Within the context of an occasion it is abundantly clear which emotion is being expressed.

RESILIENCE |

August 27, 2012

Name: MAJ Ben Tupper
Returned from
: Afghanistan
Hometown: Syracuse, NY

Once a year I have the good fortune to attend a national reunion with veterans of the 42nd Infantry Division. It’s a great chance to join up with my buddies who, like me, have served in combat and find it therapeutic to gather around and chat about our times at war.   

But what makes this annual reunion unique is that while I am still serving in the 42nd, and am a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, the vast majority of the men attending these reunions fought their war over 60 years ago against Nazi Germany. Normally, this forty-plus-year age gap would preclude our socializing, but as all combat veterans can attest, there is a bond among warriors that transcends  generational differences.    

My time spent during these reunions with members of the “greatest generation” reveals a lot of what changed in Army life between WW2 and Afghanistan. One of the most substantial changes is the difference in how each war generation has handled Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The standard line you get from most of these WW2 vets is that they came home with a stiff upper lip, and moved on with life unaffected by the traumas they had experienced in the war.

So when we gather, the discussion will eventually return to the disparity in how the greatest generation and the latest generation of veterans cope with the after-effects of combat. The WW2 vets wonder why they could go off and beat Hitler with his tanks, Luftwaffe, and naval vessels, and come home emotionally fine. Why, they ask, are my peers, who are fighting a ragtag band of Taliban with rusty rifles and homemade booby traps, coming home with PTSD and other mental health problems in much higher numbers?    

It was during one of these very discussions that a regular attendee at our reunion, a WW2 vet we call Shorty, put a big crack in the stoic mythology of WW2 veterans unencumbered by the ghosts of war.

Shorty confessed to our group that he had been plagued by nightmares for years when he came home from WW2, but had kept it a secret. This news was a surprise to everyone present, because Shorty had never mentioned this before to the group, and despite his diminuative nickname, he was nothing short of a combat decorated hero. I think we all had always taken Shorty to be one of those stalwart guys who successfully packed away his traumatic memories when he came home from war. 

Shorty shared a story of how in 1945, as the American Army was driving deeper into Germany, his squad came upon a farm cellar that they believed German soldiers were hiding in. Shorty and his men had heard noises coming from the cellar, so they approached it cautiously with weapons drawn. One of the American soldiers issued the order for those hiding inside to come out and surrender or the cellar would be blown up, but no one came out.  

Shorty crept closer to the cellar entrance, removing  a grenade from its carrying pouch, and prepared to toss it into the cellar. At the very moment, like the proverbial “bat out of hell,"  a German woman  came vaulting out of the dark cellar, followed by her children. 

Shorty’s memory of the woman he almost killed was intimate. He described her tears that mixed with the farm cellar’s dirt and painted her cheeks a shade of muddy brown. He remembered the grey trousers she was wearing, and the smell of urine as she ran past him. A long wet stain spread down her thighs as she fled with her terrified children.      

Had she lingered just a moment longer in that dark farm cellar, it would have become her family’s tomb. And judging by how Shorty’s voice was trembling at this point of his story, that was an outcome he never could have gotten over.       

While his encounter with the woman only lasted seconds, his relationship with her lasted for years. The terrified children and the woman in the urine-stained pants would return to visit Shorty in his dreams. Nightly, his mind would be take him back to the German farm, and force him to make that split-second decision again and again and again. In this cruel nightmare, the outcome was always in flux, and the explosion of the grenade would sometimes wake him in a cold sweat.   

We didn’t know it at the time, but this would be the last story Shorty would ever share with us at a reunion. He passed away this summer at a ripe old age that too many infantrymen from our division never lived to see.

We knew Shorty had been battling a handful of debilitating medical ailments for years, and it impressed everyone that he still had the stamina to travel across the country every year to reunite with his wartime buddies. But for me, what stood out most was Shorty’s example of resilience; a man who stared down terminal illness, the German Army, and the equally formidable ghosts of war, and lived to tell the tale.

BECAUSE I SAID SO |

August 21, 2012

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

I dug a hole with a Marine whose last name was so long that I will refer to him as Alphabet. Alphabet and I were training to be infantry Marines in February 2004. I liked Alphabet because the instructors had instructed us not to sleep but Alphabet slept anyway. Alphabet descended from Persia and was quick to let you know. He was supposed to be awake and providing conscious security behind his weapon as I dug a hole to prepare a defensive position for simulated enemy invasion. We had spent the day climbing up a mountain and I couldn’t blame Alphabet because there were no real enemy coming to storm the mountain so as I listened to his heavy breathing and watched his shoulders rise and sag I reminded myself that I was tired too so maybe if I let him get away with it, he might return the favor. The last time I saw Alphabet was on the last day I spent in Camp Fallujah, Iraq. Just like a war movie; he told me he could not wait to get out of this place. I concurred, that night he boarded a helicopter and Alphabet has been dead ever since.
   
I remember a Marine who had been shot in the head. I looked down even though I told myself not to. His eyes were rolled back and the sun broke through the hole in his empty skull, the sunlight making the thinner parts around the open wound glow orange, the first time sunlight had ever shone in his head. I remember a Marine about my age, he was overweight and one time walked himself to death on a forced march in Okinawa during a black flag day. A black flag is flown on base to let other Marines know that it is too hot to conduct strenuous training on account that walking in the heat with a combat load on has been known to raise a Marine’s core temperature which might have nowhere to go other than total meltdown on a day so hot. One of the Marines in my unit replied after hearing the news, “Fuck ‘im he should have hydrated.” March or die!

One night the squad leader of 1st Squad asked if anyone wanted to go back to base to make a phone call for the first time in three weeks during a battle my unit had been told we would only spend four days in. Each Marine declined so the squad leader volunteered himself and a close friend. The next morning an order came down that we would not be allowed to throw hand grenades as we entered each house that was to be cleared during the day’s operation. This was a deviation of our standard operating procedure. Later that day the replacement for the squad leader who had returned to base was killed and six of our Marines were wounded. At the end of the night that city block was destroyed by a massive airstrike, which packs more punch than a hand grenade but was only used after all enemy contact had ceased.

The first time I came across an enemy dead body was after I shot him to be funny. We could smell his potent stench from houses away but earlier in the day had been given the order to shoot all dead bodies so when I did to lighten the mood, my Lieutenant looked at me in disbelief and said, “Good Anderson, you want to be a smart ass and shoot very dead bodies? You can check it for intelligence.”

I asked my old roommate for some gloves and he handed me a pair as I approached what used to be a very tall Arab man’s corpse lying in the doorway that led to a kitchen. At the time all I could see were his two legs sticking out from under a blanket that had been draped over him, covering above his knee caps. The blanket was soiled and stained black. It smelled like someone had left a refrigerator full of meat open in the hundred degree heat and I pulled the blanket back. It appeared that the intelligence the Lieutenant was searching for had flown out of the front of the large man’s face after he had been executed as I noticed that his hands were bound. There was not much of a face left; I remember sticky stinky black goop, scattered teeth and being amazed at the sight of a real life dead man, which would cease to amaze me later on as there were to be many more corpses to see. Down the street were thirty-one Syrian foreign fighters that would all be dead in a few hours. I think those Syrians killed the tall guy during a Fallujah house-jacking so we killed the Syrians and now they kill each other.
   
When I got out of the Marine Corps I would think about these things and how I wished I could see them again just to check on them and make sure they were real. Human misery was not something I had been exposed to growing up in suburban Southern California and part of it fascinated me and the other part horrified me the way a pre-adolescent poking a dead animal with a stick on a hot afternoon might feel after dinner with the folks.

The army suicide statistics doubled within a month recently. I hate when people ask me why we are there because to tell the truth, I don’t care. It is not the trigger pullers' job to care about why they are there, their job is to carry out the bidding of superiors who are trusted and act as the omnipotent sword of American policy. American civilians are the reason we are there.They are represented by elected representatives of their constituency. If the constituency puts enough pressure on their politician, policy sways with the majority demand. Why are we there? We are there because you don’t care, because our society is too lazy and detached to do anything about this problem which may be a dinner party conversation to many people I know but was and is a very real reality to me and those like me. Sometimes I wonder if the people of Afghanistan don't want the Taliban in charge, why we don't let their constituency throw the Taliban out, and if Al Qaeda comes out from their crab shells in Yemen then why can’t we do what we have been doing in Yemen and kill those nasties from the sky? In the end this is what is going to happen anyway.
     
Sun goes down and up go the statistics of some more suicides of honorable people offering sacrifice to a complacent society that can’t afford a warrior’s understanding much less a war. Up go the statistics of active duty service dead, gunned down by people we are supposed to be training, but fuck you troop, you signed the contract. March or Die! Why? Don’t ask a vet, ask your congressman and tell him or her why you think war in Afghanistan is or is not the bee's knees. Because I would not hesitate to invade any country for any reason as long as it was alongside people I cared for, which is what my primary motivation to succeed in battle was, not to think about lazy people whose concept of foreign diplomacy is the television until the next commercial. Unless you record your television, in which case you may fast forward through the content which does not interest you. In which case you stopped reading my writing paragraphs ago.

 


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