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.

TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN |

September 26, 2012

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

In my documentary And Then They Came Home I ask Marines that I served with the same thirty questions, so that I can gauge patterns in their responses eight years after our shared point of trauma. One of my questions is, “Do you think a warrior ever comes home?” I am now preparing to film my own interview, which will leave only one Marine in Mexico to be filmed when I return from my wedding.

I meditate on my own response. My life-long hometown friend Antonio has been sleeping on my couch for the past few weeks, stringing filmed pieces together so that editing will not be a hassle and we will be able to make our December deadline for the film.

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Location shoot for And Then They Came Home. Indiana, 2012.

Photo by C.J. Maddox.

Does a warrior ever really come home? I couldn’t tell you, because deep in the beat-up wallet I bought after my 2006 deployment to Afghanistan is a National Guard ID tucked behind my plastic cards and license. In April of 2010 I wrote my Guard unit a letter of resignation and have not had to put my uniform on since. I am contracted until December 2013.
 
I don’t know what it is like to come home, I haven’t been there since I watched my southern California suburbia youth haven disappear in the rearview mirror of my recruiter’s SUV, bound for Los Angeles to catch a bus for San Diego three weeks after I turned eighteen in August 2003. You are now leaving childhood, Palmdale California 1986-2003.

I survived two combat deployments, serving in the Marine Corps from August 2003 to August 2007 as an infantryman. A historian might note that those were the most violent years of the war.

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Breaking locks and burning blocks; Fallujah. Iraq. November 2004.

Photo by Garrett Anderson.

One day I found myself honorably discharged from the Marine Corps. I left my home base of Hawaii changed and bound for southern California. I spent a month at home, went to work for my Uncle for a month, and caught a train to Portland Oregon to visit my best friend.

Signs of trouble were seemingly slow to come, I was still drinking like a Marine, which can be compared to twice that of a frat boy, one less than a vagrant, and the nights had been bothering me for some time. There is still a hole in my best friend’s apartment where I threw a hunting knife into his wall.

In November I returned to California to start a business with my friend Antonio after coming into a family inheritance. We purchased film equipment and started to film television commercials and court depositions in California’s Antelope Valley. We were the youngest members of our Chamber of Commerce and I found that clients were receptive to a former Marine; my service would be brought up on the first interview and was absolutely an asset. I had no formal training in running a business, but Antonio and I seemed to be doing alright during the days, and at night I would return to my father’s house, drink like a Marine and watch endless videos of Fallujah on Youtube.

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A-Co. clears Fallujah, Iraq. November, 2004.

 Photo by Garrett Anderson.

I was in the second battle of Fallujah in 2004, and if you knew me in late 2007 you knew I fought there; it was all I ever wanted to talk about. I had felt zero emotional connection to friends and family since I returned home and I wondered if I had ever felt anything in the first place. I was sure however that I had been doing a good job at faking it, and I would think to myself that the connection would probably come naturally soon.

Sleep was so infrequent that all I could remember about it was that I didn’t hold it as a priority at the time and could go for a couple of days on a few hours. I was standing on my porch smoking a cigarette drunk one night when I announced to my father that I was thinking about joining the National Guard unit that I had read in the local paper was getting ready to deploy to Iraq in 2008. My father had this way he would look at me every now and again back then, a sort of deep baffle with a nod of understanding.

In December 2007 I joined the National Guard, I signed a contract to become a tanker -- a soldier who rides in a tank. My father had been the same thing when he was in the Army, and after working with tanks in 2004 I was convinced that this would be the most enjoyable way to return to Iraq.

I signed the contract and swore in over the phone on the same day. After I had sworn in it occurred to me, through the haze of the previous night’s hangover, that I was not clear on an important part of the contract. I asked the recruiter how long the contract I had just signed was for. He looked embarrassed and quickly said, “You wanted the bonus right?” I replied that I did, and he told me, “It’s six years.”

I was stunned, but thought to myself I guess I’ll just keep doing this for the next six years; I had knocked out four in the Marines and I knew once I had sworn in there was not much that could be done to reverse it. When I got to my new unit I was informed that their status had changed from tankers into infantry, because more National Guard tanks weren't needed in Iraq. I had joined to return to Iraq in an armored death chariot. I found myself back out in the open and on my feet. This made me uncomfortable.

I liked the people in my National Guard unit, and was able to make friends with my new platoon as I figured out how the National Guard was different from the Marines. I was surprised and excited by the professionalism of the unit; most of the soldiers had done prior active duty service like myself and joined the Guard after. There were even a handful of Marines in the unit. We would show up to train one weekend a month and the rest of the time we would work at our civilian day jobs.

I prepared for Iraq and went back to cutting commercials and drinking at night, not sleeping and with a new weight on my shoulders: the next deployment. Some nights I would open my father’s bedroom door and babble drunkenly until he was awake and shut his door. One night my father came over to the computer to tell me good night. I suddenly began to cry and I told him that I had been thinking of shooting myself with the shotgun upstairs. He was baffled again, and I was sure I would have to answer for that slip after we got home from work the next day.

The next day came and I did not go to work. I drank and told my friend Antonio that I wanted to go to the open microphone stand-up comedy night at a club in Hollywood. By the time we got there I was tanked and quickly sank into an incoherent mess. I don’t remember my routine, but I am sure it was nonsensical. After it was over we left the club and Antonio and a friend wanted to get something to eat. I told them to leave me in the SUV and they left. I remember some of what happened next, and the other parts Antonio filled in for me later. When they found me I was trying to kick out the back window of my vehicle. Antonio let me out, terribly confused, and then I disappeared.

I left my friends and found myself drunk and walking through alleys and Hollywood streets. The writer’s strike was going on and screenwriters waved signs in front of one of the production studios. I checked myself into a hotel room and visited a liquor store to pick up a forty of fine malt liquor. I pounded the forty and sat in the hotel room. I didn’t want to go home because I didn’t want to face my father, and I didn’t want to return home to an empty house where I might shoot myself. I remember that in the drunkenness I tried to hang myself, but the knot I had tied with the towel came undone on the shower rod and I found myself on my ass wondering why that thing didn’t hold. And then something hit me. I was trying to kill myself. I had been acting strangely and something I had been in denial about was very real. The things I had heard on the news and radio ads were true, and something had happened to me in combat that was killing me back home.

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With a member of the former Iraqi National Guard, Camp Fallujah, 2004.

Photo by Garrett Anderson.

I called my mother, who came to pick me up from the hotel, and the next day I found myself a twenty-two-year-old combat veteran in a mental hospital. Antonio had spent the night searching for me, along with my step-brother, and I was able to explain things when he came to visit me in the hospital. The initial intake and my first twenty-four hours was spent being evaluated alongside people with severe mental issues, some criminals, and this setting I found to be completely insane and counter-productive to my care.

I spent the rest of March 2008 in the hospital. When I returned, my unit had deployed to Iraq without me and I began going to Guard weekends as a member of the “rear detachment,” comprised of soldiers who had medical conditions that did not allow them to deploy. I had left Antonio and our business behind and went to work for my mother while I attended aftercare in the hospital. The economy was tanking and I wanted to get on my feet a regular way, so I moved into my sister’s apartment and found a job at an aerospace factory. I worked on the factory floor with Vietnamese immigrants, some of whom were Vietnam combat veterans. We would tell war stories, and they would slap me on the back on the Fridays that I had to dress in my Army uniform to go to a Guard weekend.

After the first hospitalization I began to notice that I would become nauseous before reporting to my unit, a nervousness that would cause me to vomit. As the factory became a victim of the economy I decided at the end of 2008 that I wanted to move to Portland Oregon, so I put in my two-week notice with my job and showed up to my last Guard weekend in California. The acting unit commander wished me well and told me that that weekend he wanted me to watch over a soldier who had been experiencing similar issues. I agreed to watch the soldier. I knew him well and he had told me a bit about his issues. I had started to worry about him during the previous Guard weekend; he had been prior active duty Army and had returned from a deployment to Iraq.

I stepped outside with him and we stacked our gear next to each other. I informed the soldier I would be watching him during the weekend and he was alright with that. We lit up cigarettes and I asked him if he thought he would be alright to train over the Guard weekend? He said yes and I believed him. A moment later he was crying and told me, “I don’t know why I am crying. Anderson.”  I understood why he was crying and told him that I thought he needed help. I told him it would be a better idea for him to return home. He told me he started a post-traumatic stress disorder program later in the week and when I told the acting commander that the soldier was having problems, he agreed and sent the soldier home. My friend called me to let me know he made it home and I have not seen or talked to him since.

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Garrett Anderson and Andrew Rothlein pose in front of Alpha Company's first objective during the battle. Fallujah, Iraq, 2004.

Photo by Jose Moracruz.

I drove up to Portland, Oregon and got a job writing parking tickets for a private company. It took me a few months to check into my new Guard unit because there were no tank units near Portland, so in the end I was sent to an infantry unit. I had told the guy placing me that I had been rated non-deployable and asked him not to send me to a deploying unit. My infantry unit had deployed to Afghanistan when I got to it, so I once again found myself in the rear detachment.

I had saved up a little bit and moved from my friend’s loft into an apartment, and found myself truly alone for the first time in my life. At first I thought that being alone is what I had always wanted, but the nights got longer again and the same weight had been with me. I felt less than cured and was not sure if there was a cure for how life felt. In January 2010 I once again found myself in a hospital after strong suicidal ideation.

I got out and this time it did not take long for me to realize that things were still not fixed. I could feel myself running out of patience with myself and one day in April 2010 I was walking in Portland, fearing the next Guard weekend, when I realized that the source for most of the anxiety in my life was being a member of the National Guard. I was not a bad soldier and that was part of the problem; it looked like I was fine, so why would anyone think I wasn’t? Even with two hospitalizations I was seen as fit for duty though I felt completely unfit for duty and the pressure was building. It agitated my symptoms and I felt like someone was going to deploy me even if they were not, and the fear of deployment agitated these things that literally drove me insane. I decided that if I valued my life I would write the National Guard unit a letter of resignation and face the consequences or carry on, because I knew I would not survive much longer under the status quo, certainly not until December 2013.

In April of 2010 I wrote something that changed my life, a letter of resignation…

With proper military respect and to whom it may concern,

I joined the United States Marine Corps in August of 2003, shortly
after graduating high school. After completing the Marine Corps School of
Infantry in February of 2004 I was stationed in Kaneohe Bay Hawaii where I
trained for a deployment to the Philippines specializing in jungle warfare.
When training was completed we set sail from Okinawa and continued on to
Kuwait. In a few months my infantry battalion suffered the loss of fifty-one
brothers, many of whom I had crossed paths with during my then short stint.
Afterward I participated in a combat deployment to northeastern Afghanistan
where my battalion suffered four KIA. Since the loss of so many close friends
I have never been able to reconcile my belief in service with my belief in
life.
     I no longer cherish the ability to be combat effective, lost in the
most evil haze of hell that a war can produce. I miss my friends and am often
confused as to why I am alive and they are not, I cannot imagine what it is
like to draw the short straw. This thought consumes me, I find myself unable
to comprehend any sort of meaning in this life, and I miss my friends.
     Since my discharge from the Marine Corps I have spent time in two
different mental hospitals, one for an attempted suicide and the other two
years later after the symptoms of a beast of an affliction returned to kill
me again. Being a dumb grunt I do not know much other than that I am still
alive and that I do not have the ability to hurt another human being.
      I will not lace up my boots again, and I am aware that there are
consequences for this action. I write this letter as a resignation and not a
declaration of insubordination, I beg for mercy and for benefits that I
earned walking between steel raindrops twice. I hope that I can someday make
peace with the violence that has consumed my twenties, I pray that this
affliction does not consume my thirties on into the rest of my life. I hope
the reader of this letter a successful and safe career, I hope the reader of
this letter finds what they are looking for in life, I thank God for the
United States Military, full of brave souls and too full of sacrifice for me,
if this is delayed cowardice than a coward is what I now am. I will not be
returning phone calls or allowing visitors into my home without a warrant,
this is not personal, it is simply my own paranoia of a large world that I
have seen destroy good men.
       Lastly I would like to thank ***** for doing everything
in their power to help a Soldier when he was down.

                                    Fair winds and good luck,

                                       Garrett Phillip Anderson

I expected my cell phone to be assaulted by incoming phone calls that morning, but nothing came. I felt a wave of fear sweep over me; I knew military police would probably be at my apartment, maybe after work. I went home from lunch. I was astonished to find an email from our training sergeant that explained I would not have to put on my uniform again and that the unit wanted to help me through this process of discharge but I had to contact them. I did and the process began.

Since then I have not had to attend a Guard weekend. I have written for therapy, and that has led to this film I am working on. I am getting married soon and live with my fiancé, and have created a more stable support network. Nothing is fixed, but the pressure being taken off of me has allowed me to live a more real and fulfilling life.

 

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Location shoot for documentary And Then They Came Home, Colorado, 2012.

Photo by C.J. Maddox.

I was told that I would go to two review boards for discharge; the first would be a mental health screening and the next, if I was found not fit for duty at the mental health screening, would be my actual discharge board. I went to the first board in Madigan connected to Fort Lewis in Washington State in January of 2011. Madigan would later be found to have been lowering PTSD ratings for soldiers to save money at the time I was seen there. All I can conclude from that is that my story was so fucked up even those dirty shrinks said I was not fit for duty.

I waited for my discharge board and it never came. In July 2011 I was called by my unit and told to report for two weeks of annual training. I explained that I was still waiting for my discharge board and he explained that my not fit for duty status expired after one hundred eighty days. I called my father and we got in contact with a congressional representative who was able to delay my annual training and start the process again.

In November of 2011 I flew to Georgia for another fit for duty board and was again found not. I had a second phone interview after the Madigan story broke and I think that one went well. I am not clear if I will ever be discharged from the National Guard. I wish I knew what it felt like to be truly free again. I also wonder: How many more soldiers like me are out there in this limbo? The unit when informed went out of its way to help while following the rules of the system, so if there is blame to be put on delay it is on whatever is happening above. I recently received a letter from the VA apologizing for the delay in my case review, and assuring me that they will get back to me when the process is finished.

Combat operations in Afghanistan are slated to end in 2014; luckily my contract ends December 2013. In a decade of service my time will not have known peace. The unit knows I am not fit to serve, the shrinks have found me unfit to serve, I know I am not fit to serve, and for two and a half years I have been waiting for the paperwork to be filed.

The only reason I am better today than I used to be is because I found another way. I have pages of paperwork from mental hospitals and a film I am editing to verify how it could have been that combat affected a young life so deeply. I urge those in similar situations to seek help, because they will wait for you to die before offering help if you don’t do anything for yourself. I proudly served my country and fought through two combat deployments. I am not ashamed of having been so affected, but I am ashamed of how the system treats warriors who have put their lives on the line to protect it. This makes me nauseous and I don’t know what to do with any of this information.

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Next to the grave of a relative killed on the last day of World War One.

Photo by C. J. Maddox.

CHOCOLATE! |

September 24, 2012

Name: Skip Rohde
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Hometown: Asheville, NC
Milblog: Ramblings From A Painter
Email: skip@skiprohde 

 

One of our patrols was out in a village the other day. As always, kids came running up to them, calling out "Chocolate! Chocolate!" One was a little girl, maybe eight years old. The soldier didn't have any chocolate, so he tossed her a Clif bar. She looked at it a second, then threw it back at him hard enough to bounce off his helmet, and shouted "Chocolate! Fuck you!"

Don't mess with a little girl who knows what she wants...

MY ENEMY HAS A NAME: CHECKLIST |

September 21, 2012

Name: Tyrell Mayfield
Deploying to: Afghanistan
Milblog: The Kabul Cable
Email: click here

My Enemy has a name: “Checklist.”

It’s five or six pages, double-sided and written in 10 font. Much of it is cryptic, vague and misleading. It seems simple but rest assured that when it comes to deploying, nothing is ever easy.

I was notified via SMS text message by an Afghan-American about my Oral Proficiency Interview (OPI) test results well before the government could get word to me. In retrospect, it isn’t surprising and I didn’t find it unusual at all when the message came across. I mean, why would the Test Control Officer know first? It actually gave me a little chuckle and a glimpse into the networked life of Afghans. Word travels fast in a high-context, relationship-oriented society; any government that tries to outpace the speed of the SMS text is in for a world of heartache.

LANGUAGE: I scored 1+/1+ in Dari which isn’t too bad for just 14 weeks of instruction. My Arabic was never better than 1/1+ even after six straight months of instruction. Overall, the third language was easier than the second. I’ve got a whole post sketched out on second language acquisition and the DLI vs DLS debate, but it’s going to have to wait for a few weeks. Here are some initial observations on what factors contributed to my ability to score well.

Dari is an easier language than Arabic.
 

Already knowing how to read and pronounce the language gave me a huge advantage
 

Smaller class size and amazing teacher to student ratios really helped (1:1.5 or 1:2 but never more than 1:3)

I spent some time thinking about the mistakes I made during my Arabic instruction and focused hard on not repeating them in Dari.

 

WEAPONS QUALS: One of the big checklist items was getting my weapons qualifications re-accomplished. I hadn’t been on the range in a long time but didn’t have any troubles getting through my M-4 carbine shoot, and tomorrow I’ll be out to qualify on the pistol. I did have the unfortunate experience of shooting with the general base population and while it wasn’t as terrifying as I thought it might be it was certainly underwhelming. America may have it’s share of gun fanatics, but they’re not present in high numbers in the Air Force; that much is for sure.

CBTS: I endured another five or six hours of computer based training (CBTs) today which I utterly abhor. They are horrible and I fail to understand just exactly what it is the AF is trying to accomplish by making me do these things every year. If you want to make sure that I have the knowledge then let me open the CBT and take the test. If I pass, then I know the material and that should be it. If I fail, make me go through the slide deck and retest. Forcing everyone to go through the slides before you’re able to test is a colossal waste of time. Which means it’s a waste of money. This is something that we should care about. At the end of the day it’s about productivity and me sitting in front of a computer clicking through slides as fast as possible so that I can take and pass the test at the end is not productive.

SHOTS: I got my seventh Anthrax shot today. I am fairly certain at this point that I actually have anthrax and that if I bit someone they would become infected. I also got my Typhoid vaccination and I don’t know which one hurts the most but they both suck. Does anyone actually use anthrax anymore? I mean really? (I’m looking at you Carlton Purvis)

ANAM: I spent about half an hour today in front of a computer clicking on a mouse and it wasn’t to complete CBTs. I was taking my Automated Neuropsychological Metrics Assessment (ANAM) which is a program used to establish a baseline of your cognitive functioning prior to a deployment so that in the event you are injured the effects on your brain can be measured an hopefully help guide doctors and other medical professionals to an earlier diagnosis and better treatment. It’s not all roses though and the program does have its critics (NPR). Regardless, I’ve taken the test before and was happy to have the opportunity to take it again before this deployment.

Tomorrow and the week ahead are much of the same; lots of phone calls, appointments, shots, dental exams, medical exams and CBTs. Somewhere along the line I’ll defeat this checklist and then move on to the next one. When I do, you’ll read about it here first….

HOW I GOT TO BE HERE |

September 19, 2012

Name: Jen Neuhauser
Deploying to: Afghanistan
Hometown: Raleigh, NC
Milblog: Expeditionary Lawyer


Kabul University in the 60s. (Foreign Policy Magazine)

Being an AfPak Hand is an unusual job for a US Army JAG officer, so I wanted to take some time to explain my reasons for joining the program.

Last summer I was stationed in Germany, in a dream location with wonderful people. I had four day weekends once a month. I went to Paris...twice. And yet I felt like I wasn't accomplishing much. The people I worked with were so bright and so efficient that there wasn't much left for me to do at the end of the day. I felt pretty useless most of the time. 

I started scanning the JAG webpage for deployment opportunities. I saw something about learning a new language, deploying to Afghanistan. Actually working with the people you are supposed to be helping. To steal a phrase from the Navy, to actually be part of a "Global Force for Good." I talked with my husband and emailed branch. Four months later I learned I had been selected for the program.

I am hoping that my time downrange will allow me to help make the world a better place. I know that sounds saccharine and cheesy, but 18 years into my military career* I've learned that some cliches have staying power because they are often true. God and country. Mom and apple pie. Being part of something that is bigger than oneself. Making history. 

Much like what happened in Afghanistan in the 90s, what we do or fail to do today can have an impact for generations. Though many, if not most taxpayers would like to declare victory and go home we can't do that...not yet.  To borrow a line from "Charlie Wilson's War": These things happened. They were glorious and they changed the world... and then we fucked up the endgame.**

Like many people, I am deeply troubled by some of the stories coming out of Afghanistan, particularly the treatment of women and children. And though I don't believe we can change a people's culture or beliefs, I do believe we can change the narrative by showing them that there can be a better way, and by giving them the safety and stability to make those positive, life affirming choices. I want to be part of that.

I stumbled across the picture above in this article on Foreign Policy's website. If you haven't read "Once Upon a Time in Afghanistan," I highly encourage you to do so. Though the tone of the article is somewhat depressing ("Remembering Afghanistan's hopeful past only makes its present misery seem more tragic"), the author notes "it is important to know that disorder, terrorism, and violence against schools that educate girls are not inevitable." I believe that if it was once that way then it can be again. There are reasons for hope. 

*18 years counts my time in the National Guard. I came in in 1993 as a Finance Soldier.
** If you haven't seen it, it's about how we funneled money to the Mujahadeen when they were fighting the Soviets, and then called it a day when the Soviets withdrew, which then left a vacuum for the Taliban to assume power.

CHICKEN TRAINING |

September 14, 2012

Name: Skip Rohde
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Hometown: Asheville, NC
Milblog: Ramblings From A Painter
Email: skip@skiprohde

We had a big event over at the District Center recently -- a class teaching local widows how to raise chickens, so they can feed their families and earn a little cash. As their graduation present, they each received a bunch of chickens to take home and keep in the chicken coops they had built during the class.

As is typical of Afghan activities, it was chaos. Things that were supposed to happen, didn't. The start time came and went long before things actually started. Things that weren't scheduled, happened. This is Afghanistan, and if you're wedded to a schedule, you won't make it here!


But finally, each woman came up and received her chickens. The fun part was putting the chickens into cardboard boxes to take home. The chickens were not at all interested in being stuffed in any cardboard box. So every couple of minutes, one of them would escape and go running around, chased by wildly screaming kids, until it was captured and brought back. A few minutes later, another one would make a run for it. Eventually, though, all the chickens were loaded up and taken off to their new homes. Twenty women now have a way to help themselves, and their kids, survive.


Kids were everywhere today. This is a small part of the batch. One of our soldiers wanted to take a picture of a couple of kids, and one of the women saw that, so she started rounding up every stray youngster in the area. She was definitely in command: these kids did as they were told! They just didn't necessarily look at the camera, though.


I've said before that soldiers are kid-magnets. Female soldiers are girl-magnets. Here's one of our young soldiers playing patty-cake with local girl.


As the soldiers left, this young girl hung onto their hands all the way out the gate.


These three young princesses came late to the ceremony, but were definitely the belles of the ball.

 

UPDATE: The above post triggered a note from a reader. Here's an edited-down version, which I'm answering publicly because it raises issues others may be interested in: 

"Although I think you are doing a good job there and making people happy and safe, when I read your latest post I couldn't keep from laughing loudly, to the point where I fell out of my chair. Are you serious that you had to teach Afghans how to raise chickens? You don’t need to bother teaching what humans have known for centuries  -- how to eat and drink and get their food. I just get sick and tired of this Whiteman stupidity..."

Yes, we arranged for an NGO to teach 20 local women how to raise chickens.  Some may think that all Afghans know how to do this, particularly way out here, far away from the big city of Kandahar. Unfortunately, they don't. There are too many women around here who do not have a man to take care of them. Maybe they're widows, or have been abandoned, or whatever. In this society, men are responsible for women. If a woman is not lucky enough to have a man to care for her, then her economic options are severely limited. Here in Maiwand, such women have not been able to benefit from the US-sponsored seed distributions for some very dumb (in my mind) reasons. They are generally shuffled off to the outside of society. I've seen them begging at the District Center. Many have children, and these kids suffer when the mother suffers.

So we arranged to have an NGO come in to do this class. Raising chickens, you may think, is a no-brainer. Not so. It's not rocket science, but there are things that need to be done to ensure that the chickens remain healthy and produce eggs. This class taught them how to make chicken coops that were reasonably cool in the summer (important here), had adequate ventilation, were easy to clean out, and provided security. They were taught how to care for their adult chickens as well as the chicks, including feeding, water, what sort of health conditions to watch for, and more. After the women built adequate coops and showed that they knew how to properly care for their chickens, they each received about 40 of the birds. So now these women have a source of food for themselves and their families that they can sustain over the long term.  

This course did more than just teach them how to raise chickens. It provided them with a shared experience and a sense of both community and empowerment. (I can't speak from first-hand experience here, I'm relying on what our female soldiers reported). Most of these women had virtually nothing, but now they have something that will help them survive.
 
I have seen many programs in Afghanistan that I thought were really stupid, that wasted time, money, and effort. Afghan men figured out how to game the system long ago so they could make maximum benefit from these programs. I see lots of focus by district leaders on these large, expensive programs, that too often result in little benefit to the district, but in which they make large sums of cash. This chicken program was a low-cost effort that directly benefited a small number of people who needed help very much. So, while it may seem ridiculous to teach an Afghan how to raise chickens, I make no apologies for it.

 

9/11: TEN COUNTRIES AND THREE CONTINENTS |

September 11, 2012

Name: Sideways
Deploying to: Afghanistan

I tried to write this post last night because I wanted it to go up first thing this morning. I just couldn’t put it all together. I wanted to wait and see what the day would bring. It seemed wrong to write about the day before it had the opportunity to unfold for me. I am certainly no soothsayer and when I started typing I thought I knew how I would feel today, but turns out I couldn’t put my finger on it. The day is over now, and I am still not sure how I feel. Disconnected comes to mind, but I’m not sure that’s it.

My first real recollection of September 11, 2001 started with my Operations Officer calling me at my desk.

Are you watching the TV?”

He was calling me from off base.  I thought it was some kind of trick question.

No sir, I’m working.”

Turn on the TV. Some idiot just flew a plane into the World Trade Center.”

Eleven years ago today I stood in the squadron conference room and watched the twin towers of the World Trade Center come down. I watched the smoke billow up from the gash in the Pentagon and the scorched pit in a random field in Pennsylvania. It was confusing. Unreal. Scary. I knew by the end of the day that things had changed.

I had no idea how right I would turn out to be.

Less than a week later I deployed for the first time in my life. I never stopped to wonder how many more would follow. I still don’t know the answer to that question.

The rotation was already scheduled but it took on a new urgency and a sense of foreboding. People really seemed to take notice that we were going. If we had deployed a week earlier it would have been a non-event in the local community. The conflict we were scheduled to deploy in support of had long been normalized. We’d been guarding Saddam for a decade at that point. The deployment turned out to be a big deal.

From Kuwait I watched the air campaign over Afghanistan unfold. Everything kept changing. By that time we were already supporting two conflicts, the continued enforcement of the Southern No Fly Zone and the new war in Afghanistan. We looked north to Iraq and saw nothing. The third country nationals who worked in our chow hall watched CNN as it played on the TVs while we ate dinner. I wonder now what they thought.

In the decade that has followed I have carried a rifle and kicked dirt in ten different countries on three continents. As I write this I am preparing to deploy again. This time I’m going back to where it all began — Afghanistan.

I have buried friends. I have buried peers. I buried one Airman who worked for me and didn’t go to the funeral of a second Airman because I wasn’t welcome there. I buried an Iraqi pilot who died with my friend. I watched his family. They grieved just like we did.

I am uncertain of the outcome of this war. It wasn’t always that way for me; there was a time when I thought I knew what this was all about and I was confident in how it would end. I’m trying to figure out what changed. Was it the war and its objectives or was it me?  Can either be changed back? I’m not sure I even remember what it was like to be certain about the outcome of the war, but I know that I was at one time. It seems so long ago.

My uncertainty about the outcome of this war should not be confused with my belief that something must be done to try to secure our way of life and our country.  Whatever that is, I am willing to do it.  I am, after all, a volunteer.  I’d just like to understand it.  I’d like for it to make sense to me.

I should note that volunteering doesn’t make going any easier. One might think that after a decade of deployments a person would become somewhat desensitized to leaving your family, the comfort of your home and this fantastic country. This is simply not the case. It has not gotten any easier. Rather, every iteration of this war I have completed has been more and more difficult both personally and professionally.

The more I study this problem, the more I think about it, the more I participate in it, the more nebulous it seems to get.

I went to Ground Zero for the first time this year. It was awkward. There is a weird energy there for me, like something is happening but I couldn’t see it. Two new towers are twisting into the sky while water falls with a white noise into two enormous holes in the ground. I stood for a moment and tried to see the bottom of the memorial. I wanted to see where the water ended up but I couldn’t. It’s just a constant stream of water pouring into the memorial and then disappearing into a hole in the bottom. It’s endless and in a way unsatisfying. The symbolism is not lost on me.

The memorial has an eternal feel to it.

So does the war in Afghanistan at this point.

IT WAS A TUESDAY |

Name: RN Clara Hart
Stationed in: a civilian military hospital in the U.S.
Email: [email protected]

Eleven years ago today my life and many others changed in ways we did not want and will never be able to forget. Last night sleep came fitfully, filled with nightmares of death and destruction, and I was up early this morning. I made it out of the house, to the gym then off for a long, hard run, all in an attempt to block the memories.

I thought it didn’t hurt as much this year; I went to the memorial last night, sat on my friend’s bench and felt empty. No tears, no sorrow, simply empty. I thought I was better, remembering the first time I walked into the Pentagon Memorial with friends Troy and Christine by my side. I wouldn’t have made that visit had they not been with me. That day pain brutal and savage attacked me, wrenching sobs from deep inside. Yesterday’s visit was bleak and cold.

I’ve devoted the past eight years to taking care of our war wounded troops and their families because of this day. It’s been my attempt to give back to those who serve our country. Now my heart is scarred with memories, of lives lost and forever changed by war. A mind damaged, slow to heal, I’m on hiatus from being a wounded warrior caretaker, a job that was once my solace. 

A friend from FDNY checked in this morning. A military co-worker emailed. A former patient’s family member called. Suddenly I am no longer empty, the tears now welling in my eyes, the pain, once sharp and destructive, is now an ache I cannot get rid of.

It was a Tuesday, a bright, cloudless clear-blue-sky day. A day exactly like today.

11 YEARS LATER |

Name: Jen Neuhauser
Deploying to: Afghanistan
Hometown: Raleigh, NC
Milblog: Expeditionary Lawyer

Eleven years ago I was lugging duffel bags across the parking lot of the 71st Corps Support Battalion in Bamberg, Germany. That morning my battalion was set to depart for a training exercise in Poland called "Victory Strike," part of an ongoing effort to partner with former Warsaw Pact countries. The main thing I remember is after retrieving my bags and dragging them through the lobby is seeing images on the television in the Staff Duty NCO's office of a plane hitting the Twin Towers.

"What's going on?" I asked the SDNCO. "An accident?"

'They're not sure yet," he responded. And then the next one hit.

By midafternoon it was clear we weren't going to Poland, at least not that day. The conference room was transformed into a command center. They sent us home to get the rest of our battle rattle. By evening they had replaced the normal security guards at the installation entry with Soldiers in full kit, although I do remember their weapons not being loaded. We were still trying to figure out how to actually be at war again.

Other than the haunting images of people holding up photographs of their loved ones, begging for information, the other thing that sticks out in my mind about that day was the kindness of the German people. After going back to the apartment for a couple of hours of sleep, I saw that there was an accumulation of flowers and candles by the gate of the installation. I had Germans come up to me and say, "I am so sorry. Are you okay?"

When I heard about the rescue dogs getting depressed because they were unable to find any more live people under the rubble, I wept.


And now here I am, 11 years later, packing these same duffel bags in order to go to Afghanistan. The awful man who arranged those attacks is dead. If you ask the average American why we are still in Afghanistan, he or she might shrug their shoulders or mumble something about Al Qaeda. If they are a little more educated, they might say something about Colin Powell's Pottery Barn Doctrine: You Break It, You Buy It. But the average American is more concerned about whether the economy will recover and whether he will be able to provide for his family.

Why are we still there? If you want in-depth analysis or deep political insight I suggest you go and read any one of the several thousand blogs on the subject. I have the luxury of having a mission, direction, motivation, leadership. I am going there to help the people of Afghanistan achieve a stable, peaceful government and rule of law. I intend to put forth my best effort at accomplishing it.

Otherwise, my best guess is that we are trying to avoid the mistakes of the past. As they say at the end of Charlie Wilson's War: "These things happened. They were glorious and they changed the world...and then we f----d up the end game." We are trying mightily not to f--k up the end game. It's hard.

DARI AND CAMOUFLAGE: A TALE OF OPI AND OCP |

September 10, 2012

Name: Tyrell Mayfield
Deploying to: Afghanistan
Milblog: The Kabul Cable
Email: click here

I wrapped up three full months of Dari language training recently with a 35 minute telephone Oral Proficiency Interview (OPI). It was draining. The whole purpose of the OPI is to take you to failure so that the tester can get a feel for just how well you know the language. Over the course of 35 minutes I was given the opportunity to fail over and over again — and I did not pass it up.

That being said, my test probably went much better than it appeared from my end. Being asked difficult questions is good and the test went fairly long which I think is another positive indicator as well. I hope to have my test results back in the next week, until then it’s on to the next set of tasks at hand.

I spent most of today going over a stack of checklists and getting equipment issued. I hauled three brand new bags of kit out to my truck today and couldn’t help but notice that I was issued equipment in three camouflaged patterns, four if you counted the ABUs I was wearing. I had an entire new set of load bearing equipment, rucksack and multiple bags in the new OCP* (multicam) pattern. Instead of developing any tactical equipment in their own ABU pattern (Airman Battle Uniform tiger striped Pattern) the Air Force simply piled on the Army ACU (Army Combat Uniform) purchases so I ended up with a few odd pieces in that pattern as well, most importantly a poncho liner. Then I went over to LRS* and signed out an IOTV* body armor set to take to my predeployment training. When the civilian at the warehouse opened the door it was all I could do to keep from scoffing. There, in all their faded glory, lay stacks of body armor in DCU pattern (desert camouflage uniform). I couldn’t believe it.

To be fair, I’ll get issued brand new IOTV in the OCP pattern for use while I am deployed, and by the time I hit the ground in Afghanistan I’ll have a full set of matching kit and uniforms, which is what really matters. But I am still a bit taken aback that we’re having people run around and conduct training in DCU pattern uniform items. I won’t be — I fixed that today. I simply refuse to run around looking like some Rwandan Rebel in multiple, mis-matched camouflaged patterns. It makes me want to fire my weapon overhead in an indiscriminate manner while wearing flip-flops. I don’t care if it’s just for training or not; it looks stupid.

This whole uniform thing seems like such a distraction to me. I am not exactly sure where it went wrong, but I think it’s gotten totally out of hand. Case in point: Following the USMC and Army development of their own distinctive pattern of uniforms the Air Force decided to jump onboard the bandwagon and create their own; which they did. They promptly realized after fielding it that a uniform with a high polyester content is not a good choice for Airmen who are getting hit with IEDs (plastic tends to melt when heat is applied). So they designed and fielded the ABSG (Airman Battle System - Ground) which was flame retardant and generally well received. The ABSG was short-lived and has all but been replaced by the OCP pattern which is growing in its prevalence downrange.

In just over a decade of war the Air Force has fielded five completely different uniform sets in this conflict: DCUs, ABUs, ABSGs and now OCPs. I’m not sure what the solution is, but one would think that with a war going on somebody might have paid more attention to this and put a little bit of thought into the process.

Ahead are more outprocessing tasks, a couple of days on the range, and hours in front of a computer re-accomplishing all of my annual CBTs (Computer Based Training) for the second time this year so that it will be current for most of my deployment.

 

*
OCP: Operation Enduring Freedom Camouflage Pattern
LRS: Logistics Readiness Squadron
IOTV: Improved Outer Tactical Vest

THE PENTAGON WANTS YOU, ARTISTS! |

September 06, 2012

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

Framed Sherpa PENTAGON ARTThe Veteran Artist Program ("VAP"), a national non-profit organization based in Baltimore, Md., is facilitating a juried exhibit of artworks by military veterans and service members.

The work will be presented in a gallery setting located in the Pentagon throughout 2013. Partners for the project include the Pentagon Art Curator and the Pentagon Patriotic Art Series.

This will be the first-ever veteran-specific art exhibit presented in the massive Department of Defense headquarters building, which is located in Arlington, Va. Approximately 30,000 military and civilian personnel work in the building.

“The concept of an all-veteran art exhibit is important and timely given the vast amount of inspiring pieces we’re seeing from across the generations, including the post 9/11 generation of veterans,” says VAP founder and Army veteran B.R. McDonald.

Artworks need not be on a military theme, but artists are advised to avoid blatant adult themes given the exhibition's public setting. Only two-dimensional work is eligible; all mediums are encouraged. Applicants may submit up to two works.

Proof of military or veteran status is required. Photocopies/scans of military ID cards and/or forms DD214 are acceptable.

Deadline for submissions is Oct. 30, 2012. For an online submission form, click here.

Artists will be notified of their acceptance on or before Nov. 20, 2012. If accepted, a curator will follow up regarding shipping arrangements, framing, and other details.

VAP is a multidisclipinary arts organization that seeks to propel veterans into the mainstream creative-arts community, through projects such as movie and theatrical productions, curation of gallery events, and more.

Visit the organization's Facebook page here.


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