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.

THE STREETS OF KABUL |

October 29, 2012

Name: Sideways
Stationed in: Afghanistan

The day started out with me watching baseball, which I suppose isn’t terribly odd except that I did it while eating breakfast. Afghanistan is nine and a half hours ahead of the US and that put the end of the Cardinals and Giants game on right as I sat down to scarf some eggs and hash browns. I chased it with a steaming cup of coffee and set out to get my day started.  My bags were already packed. It was moving day. Again.

Framed Ty KABULWe had our final briefings, did a short AAR and reviewed the events of the previous weeks in an effort to make things better for the next group that came behind us. Then we were done and my cohort of 20 peers dispersed like the seeds blown off a dandelion.  Trucks swooped in and the people we were replacing greeted us with large smiles, hearty handshakes and that look that people have when they know the hard part is almost over. We headed off one by one to our new assignments. Some of us would travel 20 minutes, others would start the cycle of dragging bags, riding in trucks and flying on helicopters that we have all grown familiar with.

I had a short drive across Kabul. 

We pulled into traffic and waited with everyone else. Where there is room, Afghans will put as many cars across the road as possible. One lane quickly becomes two, then three, then four cars abreast. A decade ago Kabul had somewhere around 1 million people. Today, without its physically expanding much, there are some 5 million Afghans living here.

Every car is chock full of people and things; women clad in burqas, men smoking, rugs piled in a back seat, boxes strapped to roofs. Kids run in and out of traffic selling cheap trinkets and tapping on windows. Men wander between cars selling slices of coconut or other refreshments. A blind man begs at the merger of a narrow intersection, one hand steady on his cane, the other outstretched, palm towards heaven with cloudy eyes staring into the distance. A woman in a burqa the color of the pale blue sky sits on the side of the road with two small children in her lap — she doesn’t even move to beg. Herds of sheep painted bright colors for Eid move along the side of the road. Everything and everyone is covered in dust.

As we near the city the construction becomes more evident. Half-built apartments and office buildings lurch skyward. Giant, glitzy wedding halls with flashing lights and slick windows look very out of place when viewed next to the hardscrabble life of many Afghans. We round Massoud Circle in slow traffic and then come to a full stop. I look out my window at a kid sitting in the driver’s seat of an anonymous white Toyota Corolla; he’s got a smart phone in his hand and is very clearly on Facebook. I think out loud: “Wonder what he’s updating his status to.” Another man walks through the static cars, head down, texting as he weaves his way across the circle.

As we exit the circle and head towards the Green Zone there are fruit vendors with their carts on the side of the road selling bananas, oranges and the giant pomegranates that Afghanistan was famous for before war devastated this country. We pass grocery stores and pharmacies, shops full of western style wedding dresses, one full of guitars and drums and yet another packed full of nuts and dried fruit. Traffic comes to a jerking halt and we’re passed by a man on a horse-drawn cart stacked high with bags. His transportation consists of a horse, a truck axle with mismatched tires and a wooden cart that has obviously been cobbled together.

As a city, Kabul is not well. It also isn’t as depressed as I thought it might be. It looks, smells and feels like many other places in Central Asia that I have visited. It’s a dust-covered mix of old buildings, jumbled streets and modernity. There is a constant whiff of wood smoke and diesel in the air and some days it just smells like burning trash. It is a bit sad, but at the same time there is an energy in this town and its people that radiates hope and possibility. There are the downtrodden, but there are also people going to work, kids playing cricket in the alleys and men drinking tea in roadside cafes. People in Kabul appear to be getting on with their lives as best as they can. 

CAMP PHOENIX: RSOI AND BEEPING GATORS |

October 24, 2012

Name: Sideways
Deploying to: Afghanistan

I’ve arrived at Camp Phoenix for the last part of my RSOI. It’s taken a week to get here but we’ve made the best of it. For the most part that’s what troopers do; they find bright spots in nearly every situation. The ability to smile or laugh can make all the difference in how your day ends.

We dragged our bags of the helicopter and found billeting. It’s a tent with plywood rooms and crude doors with hasp locks on them. We claim bunks, breaking into familiar groups and staying with those we’re most comfortable with. Weeks of living in confined spaces can test the nerves of even the most reasonable people. On our way out to chow I stop to put a lock on the door and when I jiggle it to make sure that it’s secure the wall falls down and I find myself staring back into the room where all of our bags are. I prop the plywood wall back up and kick the nails in with my boot. I chuckle a bit and we head to chow.

Later that afternoon I venture out across Camp Phoenix with a buddy and try to find the “WiFi office” so we can sign up and get online. We wander across camp and ask no less than three people for directions before finding a connex that’s been converted into an office and get our accounts set up. As we meander back across camp we cut through the motor pool where squads of soldiers are working on their MRAPs. We pass a pair of reflective-belt-clad troopers on a six-wheeled Gator who are wearing ballistic helmets in the unlikely event that they’re ejected from their low-speed vehicle. They’re oblivious to our presence, and as we walk by the Gator lurches into reverse. The passenger looks over his should to guide the vehicle back and begins to say loudly: “BEEP, BEEP, BEEP, BEEP, BEEP…..” just like a garbage truck.  My buddy and I laugh.  “Soldiers will be soldiers” he says. 

Camp Phoenix is no Bagram and I’m glad for that. It’s much smaller and there is a large international presence which makes for great people watching. Folks here generally seem to be busier, largely because this is not a transient hub like Bagram is. The chow is decent, the water’s hot, and while the mattress I got would most likely be rejected by any respectable homeless man for a piece of cardboard there is little to complain about. 

I haven’t been able to read much but I have been talking to a lot of folks about their time here in Afghanistan and what they think. It’s a mixed bag for the most part. Some are optimistic, others skeptical of a positive outcome and many are just keeping their heads down, doing their jobs and not really thinking about what this place will look like two years from now. That’s certainly understandable.

I’m going to pick up a Stars and Stripes tonight and see what they’re talking about. I hope to get more up on the blog in the days ahead, but until I actually start working at my job I’ll focus more general observations and some of the atmospherics here at the camp. 

OUT AND ABOUT |

October 18, 2012

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

The title of this post pretty much describes what I've been doing over the past few days. We've been busy little government bureaucrats, but at least we're out of the office.

A few days ago, a group of us went on a walk through the bazaar right here in Hutal. We needed to get a good look at some areas where we might do some projects to improve the place. The goal is to make it more of an economic engine for this really, really poor district. So our group of Army Civil Affairs people and DST members, along with a contingent of seriously-armed soldiers, met up with the District Governor in the morning. We wandered up and down the three main thoroughfares, looking at the roads (dirt), parking areas (dirt), ramps off the highway (dirt), and areas where we might put sidewalks and other pedestrian control features (gravel and dirt). We also checked out the grounds of the government-run clinic to check on its wells, power, security, and general condition. Our stroll took about an hour and we returned back to the COP before it got too hot.

Regarding the general condition of the bazaar, I'd say that it makes Tijuana look like Beverly Hills. The shops are tiny, most of them around 8-10 feet wide, maybe 10-15 feet deep, made out of mud bricks with dirt floors. Some of them have electricity provided by either a small solar panel on the roof or else a small portable generator. No a/c, of course, no fans, usually no lights, and no water. I didn't want to ask where their restrooms were -- the last time I saw a restroom (at the school), I almost wished I hadn't. The shops sold the usual stuff: cell phones, drinks, food, clothes, sewing materials, seed and fertilizer, bicycles, and cars and motorcycles. There were service shops as well: tractor repair, welding, a dentist, and so on. I know that there were shops specializing in the cultivation and sale of poppy, but I wasn't able to pick them out.

As for the people, I've seen friendlier faces at an Appalachian family feud. Nobody smiled at us, except for a few kids. Nobody was angry, either. Rather, they just stared, with this cold hard stare that said "Go. Away." There was no indication that they would actually do anything to us, not with all the Afghan police and Army soldiers around, but they certainly did not want us hanging around their bazaar.

So after an hour of this, we had all the information that we needed, and walked back to our base. We're starting the process to get these projects planned and built. Will it affect their opinion of us? No, and I don't care, frankly. The goal is to improve their facilities a little bit so they can all become a little more prosperous and less interested in blowing things up.


I went on another trip sometime later. This one was to an important village where we needed to talk about security issues. It was some distance away, so we went in a couple of groups of MRAPs and Strykers. This was my first time out in the boonies, and let me tell you, these guys have some serious boonies. Imagine driving across the Mojave Desert, only it's dirt, with fewer tumbleweeds, and with farm fields carved out of it for no obvious reason, and you've got a good idea. I rode in an MRAP. These things look like monster-sized Hot Wheels, but as big as they are, they have less room for a passenger than a Mazda Miata does. Every other cubic inch is taken up by radios, ammo boxes, electronic equipment, cables, and who-knows-what.


We got to the village and settled in for some serious haggling. We had brought along several Afghan district officials, and they were the ones who did most of the talking with the elders. It went on for quite some time, with a lot of give and take, and some raised voices, before things began approaching some sort of decision.

Most people (ourselves included, unfortunately) think of Afghan villagers as illiterate and ignorant Taliban sympathizers. None of that was true here. These people were intelligent, articulate, polite, forceful, educated, well-organized, and uninterested in any government-Taliban war. They reminded me of a group of pacifist Quakers who were familiar with the outside world and didn't want anything to do with it. And they were far different from the people we saw in the bazaar.


Once we reached a decision point, hospitality demanded that food be served. So out came the tablecloth, the bread, the bowls of yogurt drink, and the plates of ... well, stuff. I had plenty of the bread (it's really good), but passed on the yogurt drink as well as whatever the cooked stuff was. In my old age, if I can't identify it, I don't want to eat it.


Then it was time to go. We shook hands with everybody, headed back to our vehicles, loaded up, and headed out across the Mojave again. Our day's work was done. Well, no, it wasn't: I had to spend several hours on the computer writing up reports on everything that happened.

But I tell you what: it beats the hell out of working on the staff!

FIVE OBSERVATIONS FROM BAF |

October 15, 2012

Name: Sideways
Deployed to: Afghanistan

Framed Ty FIVEI hit the ground here in Afghanistan this week and I am still taking it all in. I’m getting oriented and moving around a lot, but I wanted to get a blog post up. So, with a tip of the hat to El Snarkistani, I am going to share with you “Five Observations From Bagram.”

1.  Bagram* is unrecognizable to me. I should probably note that the last time I was here was in the summer of 2002, but I am still astonished at the transformation. When I passed though Bagram in ’02 we did laundry in steel bins with washboards. There was not a hardened facility to be found; everyone and everything lived in tents. The mine flailer ran 24 hours a day and the sound of it clearing UXOs* was a part of life that it felt a little weird getting used to. There were virtually no paved roads, the entire installation (such as it was) remained blacked out at night. I clearly recall the stars at night being breathtaking, yet last night it was all I could do to make out the moon from the glut of environmental lighting and the predominant feature in the night sky was an awkward aerostat that swam silently like some tethered white Koi fish in a dark blue-black pool.

2.  A quick glance across the chow hall this morning gave me pause. I couldn’t help but notice the sea of contractors who — by a quick and unscientific count — outnumbered uniformed personnel by 2:1. I have no fundamental objection to civilians working in a combat zone — zero. But I’ve got to wonder if in the end all of these contractors are really a good idea. It has been my experience that nobody takes care of people in uniform like people in uniform do. Furthermore, in a service-based system it’s often very difficult for service members to get satisfaction out of intractable civilians who are unwilling or simply cognitively unable to step outside of their lane to solve problems. Bagram is swarming with contractors, and while the DoD* is certainly not a model organization for efficiency, I’ve got to wonder if contracting, subcontracting and then subcontracting again is really in our best interest. If reducing the military footprint is quietly done by contracting all the support functions I am not certain it’s cost effective.

3. This place is wired. From my tent in the Warrior Compound of Bagram I have exactly 54 WiFi Signals to choose from. There is a WiFi booth where you can sign up and basically log on from anywhere. The USO facility at the Warrior Camp is an impressive space, full of video games, phones, computers, two book rooms, a popcorn machine and lots of common areas. Free WiFi is a big draw and it’s good to see servicemen being taken care of in a deployed environment. All of the amenities of home seem to have normalized deployed life for so many of the younger troopers. If you’ve joined the service since 2003 or so, deployments have been drastically different (for the vast majority of troops) than they were in the early days of OEF/OIF. I wonder what the long-term effects of that will be on the expectations of younger troops next time we go to war.

4.  The Chow is actually pretty good. There are a number of DFACs across BAF and I was impressed by the selection. My last deployment was to Haiti following the earthquake (it doesn’t get much more expeditionary than that) and we ate MREs for over 40 days. I wasn’t expecting the variety and quality of food available. It’s chow hall food and will certainly get monotonous after a while, but overall it exceeds my expectations. Caveat: I am well aware that there are lots of troopers living under much more austere conditions with few if any amenities, but if you run the numbers of troops in country and troops at main bases, the quality of life for the vast majority is fairly good.

5.  I found the AAFES* presence is not in line with what I had anticipated after seeing all the other vendors and services available. All things considered, the AAFES presence here is the least developed. The Warrior camp has a trailer just like we had within a month or so of arriving in Haiti. The main base AAFES is decent and has a fair selection of goodies and a decent Military Clothing and Sales section, but I was honestly expecting the presence to be a bit more robust. This is not a complaint, just an observation. Perhaps the AAFES presence is not as high a priority because of the access troops have to all sorts of other services and if that is the logic behind it then I am okay with that.

That wraps up my first post from Bagram which will hopefully be my last. While life here is fairly comfortable it does not feel like Afghanistan. The main road on base is closed every morning for PT, there is a lot of saluting going on and there are tons of people milling about. It feels more like I am on Ft. Stewart or Ft. Bragg with the exception of the occasional IDF event. I’ll be hopping forward to another site in the coming days and hope to get another post up soon.

*
BAF : Bagram Airfield
UXO : Unexploded Ordnance

DOD : Department of Defense
AAFES : Army and Air Force Exchange Service

HIGH ANGLE HELL |

October 12, 2012

Name: 1SGT (retired) Troy Steward 
Returned from: Afghanistan
Milblog: Keeping An Eye on Afghanistan

"High angle hell" is a tagline for the Infantry Mortarman, which I spent almost my entire 22 years in the Army as. So needless to say, this video strikes close to home. I love watching young “mortar maggots” in action. This offers just a glimpse of the type of jobs our brave warfighters are doing downrange.

PICTURES |

October 09, 2012

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

Okay, I'm back in my normal state of having lots of stuff to write about and no time to do it. So I'll post a few pictures instead.


Soldiers are a magnet for kids. Anytime we head over to the District Center, all the kids come running. This day, several of us were standing around waiting for something to finish up, and we were surrounded by kids the whole time.


Carpool, Afghanistan-style.


This is my normal view from my little hooch. Scenery here on the FOB is mostly T-walls (essentially, great big Jersey barriers), huts made from 2x4's and plywood, desert-tan tents, and varying numbers of MRAPs and Strykers. And crushed gravel. Lots of crushed gravel.


On Friday I did some house-cleaning. My rug was filthy, so I took it outside and beat it to death, then washed the corpse down with water and soap. Surprise! It's still useable. And very red. I'd thought it was brown.


Moonrise over Maiwand. Full moons always give everything an air of mystery, don't they?


Rest easy, America. Soldiers and their Strykers are watching out for you.

THE PRE-DEPLOYMENT CRAZY TRAIN |

October 05, 2012

Name: Sideways
Deploying to: Afghanistan

It has been a hectic week of medical appointments, out-processing, computer based training (CBTs) and a constant quest to collect signatures for my checklist. Deploying out of the Pentagon is not for the faint of heart or for the uninitiated.

Over a period of three days I saw three doctors in three different clinics, in two different states. I was issued a jug of anti-malaria medication that could easily be used to prop open a large door. I gave blood, then fasted and gave more. I explained how much I drink, sleep, exercise and described my stress level on a computer, on multiple written forms and to every doctor, nurse, PA and Med Tech that I sat in front of. I explained my allergies, my injuries, my previous deployments, my medications and my family history over and over and over again.

I finally got the signatures I needed — checklist complete.

One of the few remaining tasks was to take my PT test so I had a current score when I went downrange. I rolled into the south parking lot of the Pentagon across from Macy’s Thursday morning with “Crazy Train” blaring on the radio. It was a fitting song to wrap my week up on. It has been a crazy one. I stepped out of the truck with a single task on my list before I could start a bit of leave — PT Test. It was over in under an hour and there were no real surprises. I remain a middle-aged shark in a tank of generally plump goldfish.

Next week I still need to pick up a box of chemical warfare injectors (I know, comforting right?), print off a few random documents and collect another dose of goodies from the pharmacy and then I’ll be administratively prepared to go.

I haven’t touched the mountain of equipment growing in my basement. There are bags and bags of stuff and I’ve got several Pelican cases of equipment and kit that I’ve field tested and gone downrange with before to sort through. There is something nice about having a brand new set of kit; there is also something very comforting about suiting up in stuff you have already broken in, adjusted, worn and functions checked.

That’s the task for next week — figure out what to take with me to the Air Advisor Course and use that month of training to sort out exactly what will go downrange and what will stay in my basement for a year.

Right now, the only thing I am worried about is a week of leave.

A BUSY WEEK |

October 02, 2012

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

It's been a busy week here in the wilds of southern Afghanistan. My little team has been wrapped up in some very contentious issues with local officials. What it boils down to is a matter of trust, or rather, the lack of it. We have tried to move some projects along, but local officials don't trust the contractors, and the contractors don't trust the local officials. Meanwhile, the local residents don't trust the district governor (who is not from here), nor do they trust the police, the provincial government, the national government, my little team, or ISAF. How do you get past that? Well, you just tell the truth, don't over-promise, and do what you say you're going to do. Same as anywhere in the US, except here we're starting from way behind the 8-ball.

One of the things that has hampered us this week has been the organization charged with carrying out some of our projects. See, the way we work is that the US civilian government does not do these projects on its own. We use non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to carry out our programs, simply because we don't have the people to do it all ourselves. NGOs are the organizations who provide managers, hire the contractors, buy the stuff that needs to be bought, hire local labor, coordinate with local officials, and do all the actual grunt work of carrying out a program. For the past week, one of the NGOs has been a real headache for us. Essentially, they over-promised and under-delivered on too many things. This really irked the locals (as well as us). Partially as a result, they do not have a good relationship with people here. So some of our programs are stalled while people yell at other people. Some of the meetings got really ugly this week.

But other meetings went surprisingly well. There is one area in which there has been some tension between different sides, but they all made an extra effort this week and really moved things along. I was impressed. Unfortunately, it wasn't my area, so I can't take any credit nor enjoy the fruits of improved coordination. Rats. But I'll keep banging my head against the brick wall of local officials and NGO's this next week, and sooner or later I might make a dent. Or not.

One thing I was able to do earlier this week was more pastel work. Here's one of them:

Village Elder
Pastel on toned paper, 12"x10"

 

I think it turned out pretty well. I'm still working at doing more. Sometimes they go on my studio Facebook page and sometimes they go in the trash can.

During the shura earlier this week, I did some more ink drawing as well, and here's one:

Bazaar Merchant
Ballpoint on paper, 9"x6"

Today was our "weekend."  So I took some "me" time.  I got up a bit late, cleaned up my little hooch, dusted (coff coff coff), aired the place out, and basically just fluffed my nest. This afternoon, I had to write a couple of reports, so it wasn't all play. Now that I'm caught up here, I think it's time to get the pastels out again ...


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