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.

OBSERVATIONS FROM AN NTM-A OFFICER |

November 29, 2012

Name: I.A.O.
Returned from: Afghanistan

I’m an international army officer* who has recently completed an eight-month tour as an instructor and mentor at the Counterinsurgency Training Center -- Afghanistan, which is currently located at Darulaman Garrison, Kabul. CTC-A started off inside Camp Julien, and its administrative office remained there until mid-October 2012. CTC-A will move to the Afghan National Defence University at Qargha when its new facilities are completed.

After arriving in the Spring of 2012, I was tasked as a staff advisor to the ANA, as COIN instructor to both Coalition and ANSF personnel, and as a Validation Officer, which essentially meant travelling with ANA personnel to vet and approve ANA instructors as being qualified to teach. I have returned home without a replacement as the ANA has taken the lead on COIN training in Afghanistan, and I believe they possess the motivation to do so. CTC-A ceased running scheduled COIN training for Coalition Forces in March, and began to draw down its advisory group during the summer. The transition to Afghan control of CTC-A was completed in October of 2012.

I didn’t know I was coming to Afghanistan to do what I wound up doing. That is the nature of the military beast of course, but it still caught me off guard. I volunteered to come to Afghanistan as part of NTM-A’s training efforts for the ANA and this was my first deployment. I’ve been in the army for eleven years, with all of my time as a reservist, but due to a number of factors, I had not managed to get to Afghanistan.

That said, I’m glad I got the chance to come and work at the CTC-A, a job which turned out to be infinitely more interesting than what I expected. I’m going to try to give you some opinions on the limited experiences I have had here in the hope that they will be insightful with respect to advisory capability and US/ISAF accomplishments in Afghanistan and some of the work ISAF advisors have done. I’m going to draw mostly from my own experiences but I will also share some of the “water cooler talk” I’ve had with other organizations.

Were we well trained? I think so to a great extent and I can’t say I have met personnel from any nation I’ve worked who presented evidence of poor or inadequate training. My greatest complaint about the training we received was that with all of the administrative requirements that deploying soldiers must take care of, and doing our actual jobs to get those things done during our pre-deployment training, we often had to miss and then try to catch up on some important training activities. In some cases, people had their jobs change last-minute into advisory roles who had not been particularly worried about advisor-specific training, but they still seem to have adapted well to the roles. I do have to give credit to the operations staff of the battalion I deployed with for doing an impressive job of trying to manage a constantly changing very complex training schedule. In my estimation, the organization has succeeded in accomplishing what was expected of it.

In my role I got the chance to travel around the country a little bit. One thing that struck me was being at Bagram Airfield, the enormous US air logistical hub in Parwan Province north of Kabul. There, I was leaving the DFAC and greeted a local national employee in Dari, and had a rudimentary conversation with him -- about the best I can realistically muster. He was taken aback, and told me “No one here ever speaks to me in Dari.” I can’t say that was representative of the whole place, but everyone deploying should get some language basics, and more importantly, they should put them to use.

It’s an almost universal rule I’ve discovered travelling that people appreciate any attempt to use their language, and that sort of rapport-building is in my opinion a force protection measure above all else. So is the common courtesy of greeting everyone you see rather than treating Afghans as invisible. It doesn’t take long to learn “Salaam alaikum” or “Subh bekhair”, much less “Chetor astee? Fameel knoob ast? Jan-e jure ast?” (How are you, is you family well, are you doing well?) Or “lutfan” and “tashakur.” (Please and thank you). Many coalition partners employ language and cultural advisors who have done simple things like teach a “phrase of the day” during their meetings. These small efforts are extremely valuable to the rapport-building that helps advisors succeed. It does not take long to see the rewards in terms of how you interact with partners.

I’ve seen that there’s an unrealistic expectation that advisors should be fluent in Dari, or that they can reasonably be expected to be. There’s a reason that we employ interpreters, and Afghans understand that. Mastering the language is not important, demonstrating a good faith effort is. Nothing in the world made me laugh more than seeing an “Afghan hand” who had been convinced he spoke excellent Dari, trying to interact with an ANA officer during the Counterinsurgency Leaders Course, only to have the facilitator’s interpreter cut him off with “Can you ask me your question in English so I can translate it, because he cannot understand you.”

Not only that, Afghans are not often direct in the way they speak -- Pashtuns especially often use proverbs, allegories, and so on. The phenomenal video below, called “Lost In Translation,” demonstrates how badly this can turn out. An interpreter completely misunderstands the story he’s being told by a farmer about the presence of Taliban in the area, and relays a completely erroneous translation with his own editorial remarks to a US soldier who is the very model of what we jokingly call “Bad COIN."

 

Rather than get the help that was being subtly offered, the soldier’s response likely gutted any chance of building rapport. This was an Afghan interpreter who blew the translation, and some are going to propose that a year of intense language training is vital? I’m afraid I don’t agree; it’s far better to invest in training on cultural awareness or something that will actually work in this sort of situation. Such training might have given him insight into what was really happening, and the video of him is now used as a training tool to illustrate that.

In assessing the importance of language and cultural training, I can sum it up with this: make the effort, use the tools, but be realistic about what you can accomplish. Use interpreters to make sure things are clear, but strive to learn and show that you’re learning. Nothing seemed to impress my Afghan counterparts more than when I learned a new phrase and tried it out. Also, let them try out their English and help them build confidence with it. Most of them have learned some, but are hesitant to use it, as we often are with Dari. There’s a related lesson to this: remember that even though Afghans do not speak it, many Afghans do understand basic English -- including obscenities, and when they don’t know the words, body language is often enough. Some “Green-on-Blue” attacks have been documented as coming about this way. I’m notorious for using the f-word as punctuation (call it a regional dialect), and had to make sure that I didn’t while I was in Afghanistan. The nuances of what it means aren’t known there and it can provoke difficulties in relationships.

In an advisory role, it’s often difficult to deal with what was at one point called “Afghan Good” or “Afghan Good Enough” -- more properly described as “Afghan Right.”  The advisor who believes that what works “back home” will work here is a fool. “Afghan Right” isn’t a negative thing –- it’s the logical product of good mentorship. It acknowledges that Afghans will draw from their experience, culture, and knowledge as well as ours to create products, processes, and systems that will work for them.

The key that seems to be missing from a lot of efforts here is sustainability. I’ve seen that commentary on everything from development aid to training efforts for ANSF. What’s built here until 2014 has to be able to endure beyond that. It must fit the context in which Afghans live and work, and that has been the focus of many of the people who have worked at CTC-A over its five-year existence. They developed training products that worked in all environments and made sure that instructors could work with what they had, whether it was a lecture theatre with PowerPoint, or a field demonstration using sand tables and rocks. That is the sustainable path. It is vital to remember that what works in our organizations will not necessarily work here -- but at the same time, showing a broad array of tools to our partners helps them to create their own solutions.

In my view, advisory efforts in Afghanistan have been reasonably well executed when considered in the context of what we knew about Afghanistan early on. As we move closer to a final transition, there are a number of things that have appeared as “in hindsight we should have…”, and it can be frustrating to understand that there is no reasonable prospect of getting a “do over.” Further, there are forces beyond the control of anyone in these roles -- political impacts on manning, for example, have the potential to accelerate transitions beyond what might make sense on the ground. That seemed to be the case, however being able to tell our partners that we were leaving forced them to start finding their own solutions to problems -- or to focus on things they wanted to accomplish, which had a net positive effect.

I have returned home satisfied that I’ve made some impact on the ANSF’s capability. Like most who have deployed here, my mood wavers between scepticism and cautious optimism about the future of Afghanistan, but it tends to be more optimistic that Afghans will be able to take the lead when necessary. I’ve often told my Afghan partners that I hope to return here, not only to see how they progress, but to see how the country has progressed, and to explore more of it. Perhaps someday I’ll do it as tourist and not as a solider.

*NTM-A : Nato Training Mission - Afghanistan

WAR IS HELL, COLLEGE IS HECK |

November 26, 2012

Name: Colby Buzzell
Returned from: Iraq
Hometown: San Francisco, CA
Milblog: My War

When I graduated from high school in 1995, I flirted with the idea of enlisting in the military but decided against it. Why would I want to sign up, receive all that training, and end up sitting on a base somewhere just killing time. Instead, I skipped the training and worked a series of nothing jobs.

student reading

                                                                                                                           Nick Daly / Getty Images

Then 9/11 happened, and I started hearing that the U.S. military was now hiring—and pretty much anyone they could. So I signed up, and after graduating from basic training studied abroad, spending 2003 and 2004 in Iraq, where our battalion commander sent us outside the wire several times a day “to locate, capture, and kill all anti-Iraqi forces.” After that, college seemed like it would be a breeze, especially with the post-9/11 GI Bill meaning Uncle Sam would pick up the check.

There’s a scene in Forrest Gump where the title character enlists in the United States Army during the Vietnam War. While in basic training, Gump, who’s essentially autistic, is heralded as a goddamn genius by his drill instructors because he follows simple instruction. He does what he’s supposed to in the military: exactly what he’s told.

It took me a bit to figure this one out—like a lot of things in life after war—but college is the same thing, really. My teachers back in high school, where I graduated in the bottom 10 percent of my class, may not believe it, but once I applied what I learned while serving to school, it became easy. It doesn’t take a genius to receive an honorable discharge or get a diploma. You just got to suck it up and drive on. You’re handed a syllabus, given textbooks, told what to read, how to read it and when to read it, and tested to see if you’ve comprehended or at least memorized the material that’s assigned. If you have any questions, there are professors there to answer them.

I made the Dean’s List my first semester in community college in California. I applied to a university and was accepted and moved to the East Coast. I got there in the dead of winter, mid-school year, with no warm footwear other than the desert-tan combat boots I wore in Iraq, which I had to dig out from a storage box. My blood type was still inscribed on the side. I laced those on and bloused them the same exact way I did in the Army, and wore them through the snow to my first day of class.

I almost shed a tear when I realized that these boots had taken me to a university education, something that I’d never even dreamed about—and I doubt my family or friends had either—before joining the Army. It was the first time I remember feeling that my country was thanking me, taking care of me for my service—which made me thankful for my country. Now I’m here, and I’ve got to remain focused and graduate.

And yet—88 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans currently enrolled in school “will drop out by next summer,” according to David Wood. Student Veterans of America dismissed that number as “unfounded and simply not true”—noting that “no organization, including the federal government, is currently able to accurately track the national graduation rates of student veterans.” Which is itself quite depressing.

Woods’s Huffington Post article also contends that “student veterans are seven times more likely to attempt suicide than their civilian counterparts,” which does ring true. The American Psychological Association reports that “nearly half of college students who are U.S. military veterans reported thinking of suicide and 20 percent said they had planned to kill themselves.”

I often wonder if the college classroom experience for our current veterans is anything like what the members of the Greatest Generation sat through after they came home. Imagine the guys who fought in the Battle of the Bulge then finding themselves stuck in some college classroom surrounded by classmates who had never heard of war bonds, with a professor in a tweed coat going on:

“Japan, perhaps, but we should have never gone to Europe since they didn’t really attack us. And don’t even get me started on the atom bomb—do you know how many innocent civilians that killed? Oh, and Pearl Harbor? Inside job. Totally.”

It felt like that during the Bush years, but not so much anymore. Now I imagine the classrooms feel more like what Korean War veterans experienced when they came home: nearly forgotten, somewhere between out of place and simply invisible.

The students around me were in the fourth grade when President George W. Bush told the nation: “Good evening. Today, our fellow citizens, our way of life, our very freedom came under attack in a series of deliberate and deadly terrorist acts.” I remember where I was when that was said, and the life and career choice I made shortly after.

Many of the students I share a campus with view veterans, both on and off campus, as mostly too dumb to be in college to begin with, or brainwashed to the point where they’re all unable to think for themselves, or ticking time bombs one bad grade away from bringing an assault rifle to class. All of which—it should go without saying, but doesn’t—is usually the furthest thing from the truth.

But there are parts of college life that chafe in ways that are hard for those who haven’t experienced the military to imagine, weird little slights and big bureaucratic frustrations.

It’s not necessarily dodged bullets, IEDs that didn’t explode, or dead bodies that haunt or make me stop feeling the need to go on. No, it’s waiting on the phone for well over an hour just to have the person on the line say that the disability claim filed more than a year ago is still in the system but hasn’t been processed yet, and receiving no answers at all about when it’ll go through. It’s a letter in the mail saying the housing allowance from the GI Bill is being “readjusted” down a couple hundred dollars. Signing up for classes and expecting that housing allowance to be in an account on the day promised but discovering it’s not, and it may be a few weeks before it’s corrected—it’s hard to say when exactly.

It’s walking into the VA hospital in pretty bad shape, waiting for hours in the lobby, and asking for something for insomnia and anxiety attacks, and being told to cut down on coffee.

 

It’s the stranger who says “Thank you for your service,” waits a beat, and adds, mantralike, “I support the troops but not the war.”

The yellow ribbons and no-blood-for-oil bumper stickers while stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the way to fill up on five-dollar-a-gallon gasoline.

Fill-ups aside, money isn’t the issue for most veterans in school since even if we major in philosophy, the GI Bill means we won’t be grinding beans to pay down our debt.

But many of us joined the military after high school because we knew that either college wasn’t going to be a possibility, or even if it was it just wasn’t going to be our thing. That, and the realization that there has to be more to life than asking strangers: “Can I take your order?” Many of the men I served with were the kind of guys that would have been great at manufacturing work—but we know where those jobs have gone.

Not too long ago in Detroit I attended a job fair specifically for veterans. There were about 25,000 jobs nominally available, and far less than 5,000 vets there to fill them—every one of those men and women there hoping to hear: “You’re hired.” 

Instead, the refrain for every position that could possibly put someone into the middle class was “do you have an engineering degree?”

The remaining jobs offered—the ones that required some college, and those that didn’t—paid 10 or maybe 15 bucks an hour, with few or no benefits.

I walked away from that convention center feeling highly depressed, and I’ve found myself at least slightly depressed ever since.

“What am I going to do after I graduate with a history degree,” I started asking myself, and I began seriously thinking about dropping out. Thoughts that I’ve never had before—like what’s the point of it all?—started entering, unbidden, into my everyday thoughts.

I had similar thoughts midway through my tour in Iraq, where I wanted nothing more than to come home. I saw no light at the end of the tunnel, and I recall I just wanted it all to end. But then when I did come home I found myself at times strangely missing the war.

I wonder if college is the same thing. I try to remember: you just got to suck it up and drive on.

 

Colby Buzzell is the author of My War: Killing Time in Iraq and Lost In America: A Dead End Journey. He served as an infantryman in the United States Army during the Iraq War. Assigned to a Stryker Brigade Combat Team in 2003, Buzzell blogged from the front lines of Iraq as a replacement for his habitual journaling back in the states. In 2004 Buzzell was profiled in Esquire’s “Best and Brightest” issue and has since contributed frequently to the magazine. The Washington Post referred to his article “Digging a Hole All the Way to America” as “A Tour de Force Travelogue,” and his article “Down & Out In Fresno and San Francisco” was selected for The Best American Travel Writing 2010. His work has also appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle and on This American Life. He currently lives in West Virginia.


This post originally appeared as part of The Hero Project  on The Daily Beast.

THANKFUL |

November 22, 2012

Name: Sideways
Stationed in: Afghanistan

Framed Ty THANKFUL mountainsI worked today. I had the misfortune of waking to my neighbor’s alarm clock; he gets up an hour before I do. I can hear his alarm through the wall and usually sleep through it, but today it triggered something in my subconscious and it woke me up. Today my neighbor’s alarm sounded like the same alarm that they play over the loudspeakers to announce a base attack. There was no going back to sleep. I donned a suit and tie, complete with my Afghan-American flag lapel pin and shot out some text messages. Somehow I managed to make my way to the office without the benefit of caffeine. 

It’s Thanksgiving, which under normal circumstances is probably my favorite holiday of the year. It’s uncomplicated by gifts and religion, and focuses on family and a time of plenty. The weather is usually good and it offers hope at work for the longer holiday break ahead.

Being deployed puts Thanksgiving on the other end of the spectrum for me. It’s probably my least favorite day of the year. This year Thanksgiving offers another ten months of seven-day work weeks. 

I met with Afghans today, and as I trooped out to meet them I wondered “Who planned this on Thanksgiving?” It was probably scheduled weeks ago, certainly before my arrival and done without looking at a calendar. The meeting ran nearly three hours; it was scheduled for two. We actually got to the items that we had agreed to discuss in the final minutes and basically closed the deal while walking out the door. I was thankful that it was over.  

Framed Ty THANKFUL turkeyThe boss ran us out of the building in the early afternoon. I’m not exactly sure where we were supposed to go, so I stayed. Time off is the one thing everybody craves and it’s the one thing that I don’t always know what to do with. I walked over and got a cup of coffee and climbed the stairs to the top of a building where I could overlook some of the city. I watched the sun set behind TV Hill in Kabul, obscured in a haze of dust and smoke with clouds looming in the distance. The temperature drops quickly here and the weather is indeed fall-like, but unless you can make it to the outskirts of town it’s absent any color except brown. As the sun set, it went from cool to almost cold. I was thankful for a coat and scarf and for not worrying about having a warm spot to sleep.

I rounded my buddy up and headed to chow. Predictably, there were general officers serving dinner. It was actually a decent spread, complete with stuffing, ham, turkey, beef, beans and potatoes. The big surprise for me was finding a tray of smoked salmon and some real cheese. There was also a giant table of fresh fruit, which is not a common sight. I ate my fill and wondered how many guys were going to eat a cold meal tonight. Then I wondered how many Afghans wouldn’t eat tonight at all. It seemed a bit awkward to eat so well, but I was thankful for the effort.  

MOUNTAINS, MASSOUD AND ROSES |

November 20, 2012

Name: Sideways
Stationed in: Afghanistan

Posted Ty RoseThe snow on the mountains in the distance was a warning of what is to come. All the same, the day was warm and sunny as we stepped across the dusty street in Kabul. We walked through the checkpoints greeting the guards in Dari, warm smiles our return. I ducked under the candy-cane-striped drop-arm barrier and when I stood up I was eye to eye with Ahmad Shah Massoud.

The Lion of the Panjshir stared out at me from a poster nailed roughly to the side of a guard shack. Penetrating eyes, thin lips and a gaunt face; his pakol hat sat back on his head and with a wry smile he looked down at me. His image adorns all kinds of things in Kabul; guard shacks, cabs, billboards and it’s also found in nearly every building I’ve gone into. Often times he stares out at me from behind the desk of an Afghan. Sometimes there’s also a picture of President Karzai, but not always.

We knocked on the gate and like an old speak-easy the slot slid open and eyes appeared and then were gone. With a screech the gate opened and we entered the courtyard. A half dozen men with Kalashnikovs stood idly by. I thought one of rifles was stainless steel, but after closer inspection I realized that it had simply been carried so long that all of the bluing had worn off. The barrel shined and the wood furniture was deeply scarred and stained a dark red. We shook hands with all of them and exchanged the same series of greetings.

“Sallam Aleikum.”

“Rozha Khoosh.”

“Zinda Bosheed.”

The pathway was lined with roses. Other than that, the inside of the compound looked just like the outside. Dry. Dusty. Tired. A garden hose gurgled into the rose bed, precious water flooding the roses and spilling into the cracked earth. The interpreter stepped to the edge of the sidewalk and leaned in to smell a rose.

“It has no smell,” he said.

I was still processing that he took the time to literally stop and smell the roses. He kept moving; undeterred. He smelled another, and another, methodically moving down the path until finally he said “this one smells lovely.” I stopped and watched him for a moment. He looked back at me and then pulled the tall rose stem over. I bent and closed my eyes and breathed in deeply, the smell of the rose washing over the dust and smoke and dry air in my throat. For a moment I could have been anywhere.

We walked the rest of the path smelling roses. We had time. It seemed a bit odd but I kept telling myself “In another few weeks the roses will be gone and then the snow will come.”

We sat in the waiting area for a few minutes and then the man we’d come to see was ready for us. We entered his office and stood on a large carpet. He sat drinking a cup of green tea. Introductions were made, we all shook hands and the repetitious greetings were exchanged again. We all took our seats. There was no small talk; it was straight to business.

From behind the desk Ahmad Shah Massoud looked back over his shoulder at us. The rest of the picture was full of men in green jackets and pakols moving towards a Soviet made Mi-8 helicopter. In the background of the photo mountains rose high in the distance. I can’t remember if there was snow on them but in my mind’s eye it seems there was. On the table next to me sat a vase of roses picked from the garden along the path. They were red, white, pale pink and lavender. I could not smell them.

BETWEEN THE PEAK AND THE VALLEY |

November 18, 2012

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

Somewhere between the peak and the valley is the normal; where a human finds themselves most waking hours. I walked down the aisle on October 6, took the plunge, and pledged half of everything I do not yet own to my woman. As I walked along the smiling faces I thought of all of those marriage casualties who had come before me, crawling along the sidelines and tugging at the extra fabric on my tux. Of course two of them were my parents but blessed am I to have grown up with four of the greatest. Many people were married when I was in the service and today most of the couples have dissolved the ties that once bound them.

The rumor had spread to Fallujah Iraq in early 2005 that some of the wives of our unit had been caught running a brothel on our home base in Hawaii. As per many great substance-lacking rumors this one came with the catch that the reason our chain of command had not informed anyone was because they didn’t want Marines in a combat theater going ape-shit with their loaded weapons while contemplating a different warrior's welcome home than originally anticipated. When we finally came home it turned out the story was true, many of those wives had fled and spent the deployment money as well. I specifically remember standing in some line behind a Marine who said, “After all of that (war/battle/survival) I just want my truck, but she won’t give it back...This is fucked up shit!”

These are scary stories colder than the poles but like combat either the fucked Marine carries on, or dies. Most carry on. Even given the crippling statistics a very few have been able to make it work. The reason strange and cruel divorce was such a happenstance in the Marines had to do with very young men marrying usually a high school sweetheart (first kiss), taking her far away from home and planting her in a house in Hawaii, where she finds herself alone for the first time in her life the duration of a year after the new husband deploys. Looking at this raw situation honestly sets a young woman up for a very lonely year of sacrifice, or the best year she has ever had with an endless surplus of tax free deployment money just a pin number away. I don’t judge because I have not been a nineteen year old woman married to a rich nineteen year old Marine. All of our money is expendable when the house and food are paid for by Uncle Sam. The drill instructors warned us about such women.
 
I was married in Long Beach Mississippi. We had a real Southern wedding, and to say it went perfect does not give it justice. My step-brother/brother Michael found it appropriate to mention that never in a million years could he picture my wedding being in the South, making reference to our upbringing in suburban Southern California and how this was a true act of Southern hospitality that left men from our background awe stricken. I find it important as a combat veteran to associate everything with war so that I may appreciate a greater importance and assign meaning to this thing that I find so meaningless and time consuming. The character “Walter” in the 1997 film The Big Lebowski had a knack for doing the same thing. I think that civilians focus on such caricatures because, like many stereotypes, this one has merit. Akin to the one of a grandfather barking at his kids, “You think this is bad? Let me tell you a little story called the battle of …”

I am surprised to have found such a great match and to be so happy but being surprised at this surprised me so greatly that I felt like analyzing why. I am a child of divorce, which has a negative connotation I do not accept as mentioned above. Where I come from, it was strange not to have divorced parents. My parents remarried two beautiful people and I cannot imagine a happier childhood without them or the siblings I was raised with but I can imagine an unhappier childhood had they decided to continue fighting it out (risk/reward).
 
My love Katharine married me and I had one of those tunnel vision moments where I felt time stop and the computer in my head registering something for a long “save as” (happiest moment) to replace the previous “save as” (surviving Iraq). Earlier in the morning I had my sunrise cigarette and found myself overwhelmed with emotion as I understood that this beautiful day would never be known by the young men who died single in Iraq 2004-05 (Walter Sobchak) Semper Fidelis, something known only to a warrior. It is this understanding and respect for death that I have found the most meaningful lesson learned from war in life. Death will eventually take us all as it has everyone before but we as living human beings, despite origin in culture and religion, always seem to find it important to celebrate certain living things universally. I could feel connected to early man walking down the aisle the way I could feel a certain transcendence walking into battle. We were lucky to have our loved ones, I am sure other weddings full of unstable in-laws could understandably go quite another way; in grace our new Anderson family is blessed.

This moment was an opportunity for reflection. There was a girl I would write letters to when I was in Iraq back when I really didn’t know shit. Now I know some shit and the shit that I do know is deep. If I had not done everything I did the way that I did, I never would have met my Mississippi bride in Portland Oregon. She helps heal me and I now know what it means to be happy to be alive. Things get better and sometimes they go backward, but to me it is all worth the dime I paid to ride this ride. I have had the experience and there is so much more to come, and when I reflect again somewhere in time’s never certain future I will know more than I do today, just like they knew yesterday until there is no more day. My dead brothers will walk with me and all of the others who remember them. That is part of our service, in this our joy is shared and the important sting of their loss is a reminder to remember how different this gathering of family could be and how each one was a loss that eternally disrupts history. When I awoke the day after Corporal Michael Cohen was killed I had an epiphany that life would forever be this way. I knew he would be attached to me for every happy moment of my life, but he tells me it’s only because he wants to see too, so I let him.

11 NOVEMBER: REMEMBRANCE DAY |

November 14, 2012

Name: Sideways
Stationed in: Afghanistan

Framed Ty 11 NOVEMBERI’d not given much thought to the 11th of November. I know in America that it is Veterans Day and intuitively also knew that it marked the end of the First World War. But having never lived in Europe or found myself working alongside a NATO led coalition on this day I was unaware of its larger significance. I first noticed my ignorance about a week ago when small red poppies began to appear on the lapels of our British counterparts. They’re not unlike the small poppies that the American Legion can be found selling all across America. How these arrived in Afghanistan I don’t know, but their very presence indicates that it was meaningful enough for someone to plan. Nothing arrives here by accident.

I took note of the propagating poppies. They spread across the coalition, though they remained most dense among our British, Australian and New Zealand compatriots. I tried to correct a Brit in my office by letting him know he had something green stuck in the flash of his beret. I thought perhaps a piece of paper, or maybe a leaf had gotten stuck in it and torn off.  If I had given this more thought I could have saved myself the embarrassment of making such an observation as I have yet to see much of anything the color green since arriving in Afghanistan. He corrected me gently and with a smile told me that it was supposed to be there. It was a poppy leaf. 

So today we gathered in front of the ISAF HQ for a memorial event. The official party arrived, complete with bagpipes and bugles. It was a somber and respectful event. As the bugle played early on my eye and ear were drawn to a large black and brown bird with a bright yellow beak that was squawking loudly. Another bird answered his every call and it was almost as if they were competing with the bugle for dominance over the tiny patch of lawn that we had all gathered around. 

I watched as ambassadors and soldiers from the coalition all laid wreaths together at the base of the ISAF and NATO flags. Soldiers and diplomats, side by side marking the loss of men they never knew. I was actually a bit taken aback by the final speaker, a French Lt. General. We all have our cultural biases and preconceived notions about others, to say we don’t would be nothing short of a lie.  But I was humbled by his honesty and the sincerity he displayed when he thanked the members of the coalition that came to France’s aid during her time of need. He spoke first in French and then in English and even the birds seemed to cede the space to him. Saying “thank you” is often one of the hardest things we do and sometimes it comes across as perfunctory or mechanical, but today, even though I don’t speak French, I got the message loud and clear. You are welcome, sir.

It’s worth taking a moment here to consider the coalition of which I am part of today. Not quite a hundred years ago many of the nations represented here at ISAF were busy doing their very best to completely destroy one another. This day marks the end of that war and the short peace that followed. Let us not forget that war came again to Europe; diplomacy failed and the peace that was so hard to achieve did not last. 

Europe had known war and conflict for hundreds of years. It was really a continent at war with outbreaks of peace as states fought and struggled to stand up and claim their sovereignty, carving their very identity out of the checkerboard of kingdoms that once covered the continent. That war returned to Europe is really no surprise. That it has not returned again is nothing short of an unmatched achievement in history.

Sixty-odd years ago most of the members of this coalition were at war with each other yet again. Today I watched as the members of NATO—among them Germans, Americans, Brits, French, Italians and others—stood side by side and mourned their own dead.  More importantly, they stood side by side and resolved to fight not against each other but rather to fight together for a common goal; one that I believe is as just and as bringing peace to Europe was. 

As the final notes of the last hymn were finished the squawking bird’s calls had mellowed into a steady and pleasant song.  It was almost as if he had decided to join the coalition himself. The bagpipes came slowly alive and the small circular lawn in front of ISAF HQ emptied in a steady column of coalition uniforms. When the ceremony finally came to an end the silence was profound. I could actually hear the 39 flags of the coalition gently tossing in the breeze. At the center point of the assembly of flags flies the banner of Afghanistan, bracketed by the ISAF flag and the NATO flag. I hadn’t noticed it before today. 

I wonder if sixty years from now an Afghan General who has not yet been born will take the stage someplace and thank the members of a coalition for his freedom.

 

In Flanders Fields

By: Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, MD (1872-1918)
Canadian Army

In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

WORDS ABOUT WAR |

November 12, 2012

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

Trained as a member of a U.S. Army rocket-artillery crew, Jason Poudrier once helped rearrange large swathes of terrain with high-explosives blasts. Now, he quietly crafts words and memories with a sharpshooter's precision. The 29-year-old veteran and Purple Heart recipient is now a high-school teacher of advanced-placement English in Lawton, Okla., a coach of cross-country and track teams, and a published poet who regularly explores and engages with military themes.

Poudrier's work is full of darkness, heart, and humor. Reviewers often comment on his occasional references, for example, to Bugs Bunny cartoons. In one poem, he observes "I flipped a switch: / The rocket launched / and landed with an / Acme cartoon cloud." In other, a character muses that he should've taken that left turn in Albuquerque. He's not necessarily making light of his experiences as a soldier, but he is making light with them.

"I realized that not all war poetry has to be involved these stark-death-dark images. I wouldn't want to read a book that was all that," he says. "There is inspiration in the military, too. Not to mention moments of great joy, more pure than anything else you'll ever experience. I want to do something with those moments, too."

While some aspire to be poets, others have poetry thrust upon them. Having graduated from an Oregon high school in 2001, Poudrier joined the U.S. Army for the bonus and to see the world. He first trained and then was stationed in Oklahoma. From there, he deployed to Iraq in time to race toward Baghdad with Charlie Battery, 3rd Battalion, 13th Artillery Regiment.

"As weird as it sounds, I feel lucky to have been there when I was," Poudrier says. "There was a clear enemy. We knew who were shooting at, and they were shooting at us." Artillery units that deployed later to Iraq, he notes, were often assigned non-artillery missions. He got to fire rockets.

The Multiple Launch Rocket System (M.L.R.S.) on which Poudrier was a crew member is a long-armed weapon. In some cases, he says, they even had to drive away from Baghdad and back toward Kuwait, to get the minimum 7-mile distance their weapons system needed to breathe. The system can reach targets out to 190 miles.

During Operation Iraqi Freedom, the crew jumped nearly every day in the desert, and slept on their trucks and tracks.

Then, they got blown up.

Poudrier lost both friends and flesh in the attack. Adding insult to injury months later, he would learn the attack was the result of friendly fire. A U.S. Air Force pilot had allegedly thought their missile launcher was an enemy anti-aircraft system.

Poudrier had come back injured and angry, although unwilling or unable to realize the extent of his hurt. He had begun to think of they Army as a potential 20-year career, but found that his self-referral to mental health services had blocked a second deployment with this unit. A mentor helped get him lined up for a "Green to Gold" program, which would have resulted in a 4-year degree and an officer's commission, but that fell through, too. Poudrier decided that, if we wasn't able to go shoot rockets with this buddies, or continue his education while in the Army, he needed to fight for a medical discharge.

"It's not what I wanted, but it was probably the best thing for me," he says. "There was a higher power looking over me. Because, the way I look at it, if I try to make something happen and it doesn't, then it was supposed to be something else. I was doing everything I could to stay in, and it wasn't happening."

First enrolled as a business major, Poudrier found himself gravitating toward creative-writing classes in the English department. He struggled and sweated with military themes in longer-form prose, but found a useful and efficient tool in poetry. "Take a brief moment. Get as precise as you can on the details-the actions, the emotions, the smells," he says. "Suddenly, instead of this huge timeframe in narrative that I'd have with fiction or non-fiction, I just have this brief moment. I can work on it, and play with it, and stop working on it, and go back to it. It worked for me."

Earlier this year, Poudrier published a collection of poems titled "Red Fields: Poems from Iraq." He also presented seminars at the inaugural "Military Experience and the Arts Symposium" at Eastern Kentucky University, Kent. On Nov. 11 in Indianapolis, he read as part of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library's "Veterans Reclaim Armistice Day: Healing through the Humanities."

His work also appears in these recently published anthologies:
A sampler of three of Poudrier's poems — "Red Fields," "Bagdhad International," and "Fort Sill's New Housing Division" — also appear on the "Sugar Mule" literary magazine here.

While everyone is different, Poudrier has found the writing of poetry useful in reconciling and resolving painful memories.

"Part of PTSD is intrusive memories. You don't have control of them," he says. "You have a flashback, and all of a sudden it's coming in. You were driving down the road, now you're somewhere else and you have no idea how you got there."

"To me, it was almost as if the memory were saying 'I do not want to be forgotten. I am something important that happened in your life.' The way I look at it is, if a poem is supposed this precise image -- that's exactly what this intrusive memory is. I'm going to write that out — as is, not trying to put any poetic devices on it. I'm going to capture that image," he says.

"I'm going to cognitively pull up that image that is being intrusive. Now, it's on a piece of paper. And I can choose to look at it when I chose. I'm not going to forget that memory. It has been recorded. But, now, instead of an intrusive memory, I have control of it."

In Poudrier's opinion, there can be as much benefit in sharing and publishing a poem as in writing it. "One of the most healing moments is when ["Red Fields"] was selected to be published. What I think a lot of military writers don't get, particularly when they're writing but they're not seeing the therapeutic side of it, is writing itself is just half the process. The other half of the process is that it needs to be read by somebody. It needs to be communicated."

*****

Note: This Red Bull Rising content regarding military writing is underwritten by Victor Ian LLC, a military media and gaming business. The business publishes Lanterloon, an eclectic lifestyle, technology, and military blog; has a physical retail storefront called "Dragons and Dragoons" located in Colorado Springs, Colo.; and hosts military-writing workshops and other events under the "Sangria Summit" brand name.

EID AL-ADHA IN KABUL |

November 07, 2012

Name: Tyrell Mayfield
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Milblog: The Kabul Cable
Email: click here

I woke early to the sound of the duck and cover alarm going off. It was silenced almost as soon as it began and was followed by an unsatisfying “All Clear.”  It was Eid, one of the holy days in Islam that marks the end of the Hajj and celebrates Abraham’s obedience and willingness to sacrifice for God. The town was quiet and so was the camp. I had a short errand to run and since it was a holiday the roads would be empty. My buddy and I made a quick stop at the chow hall for a cup of coffee and then headed towards the vehicle yard.

We cut through the Macedonian motor pool where lumbering armored vehicles sat in neat rows. As we walked past the mosque I caught a glimpse of something that took me a minute to process. Gathered outside the camp mosque, about two dozen Afghans stood barefoot on small carpets lined up for prayer. They stood shoulder to shoulder, equals in the eyes of their God, most with hands folded across their stomachs but a few with hands relaxed and at their sides. It was this small difference in their posture that caught my eye. 

In the gravel parking lot outside of the small mosque, Sunnis and Shias stood side by side for prayer and I thought for a moment, “That’s what Afghanistan could look like.” This snapshot confirmed what I already knew; there are many Afghans who display tolerance and respect for those of different ethnic and religious backgrounds. There are those willing to settle for peace.     

We checked out our truck and headed across town. The streets were empty and you couldn’t help but notice that it felt like a holiday. We saw groups of men in fresh white shalwar kameez walking along the side of the road. Often new clothes are bought and given as gifts on special days, and people dress up for prayer in their new outfits. The cars that we did pass were packed with generations of men, women and children; entire families heading to prayer or to the houses of relatives for the holiday.

Driving across Kabul was like looking at a flip book. Each block, every turn, revealing a new scene in the unfolding play. Boys swinging long sticks herded goats and cows down the roads. On another block, sheep stood rummaging through mounds of debris on the side of the road. I saw a goat tethered to the front door of a shop, standing idly on the sidewalk. I caught a glimpse of something bright; a young boy maybe 10 or 12 stood awkwardly amongst a group of older men with a long butcher knife in his hand. And then we turned the corner.

On the sidewalk adjacent to a main road in Kabul a group of men knelt in a circle around the body of a small cow. Its blood ran bright red into the dust and then turned dark and grey as it dropped off the curb and into the street. Nearby, freshly skinned sheep hung under the eaves of a butcher shop. 

A kid started across the road in front of us and then stepped back. His hand held a bright and shiny toy pistol and his eyes watched our trucks pass. He sprinted across the road behind us to join his friends on the other side of the street who all held their new Eid gifts as well — small scale replicas of the weapons that have torn this country apart. I thought back to when I was a kid and the countless afternoons I spent playing “army” and running around my yard with a plastic gun in my hand. That seemed innocent enough in my mind and I wondered if it had to be any different here. 

The day passed quiet and uneventful in Kabul, but it was not so everywhere in Afghanistan. In Faryab a suicide bomber ripped through a mosque killing over 40 Afghans, many of which were policemen and soldiers gathered with civilians for Eid prayers. 

That evening I sat in an enclosed garden in Kabul with a group of friends and co-workers. We ate a fantastic meal and then sat around a fire stoked with hardwood from the mountains. We drank scalding cups of green tea and smoked hookah pipes while we talked about our thoughts on the future of this country. Sunnis and Shias praying together. Suicide bombers at mosques. Midwife training programs. Corruption. Elections. Misapplied foreign aid. Changing goals. The ending of the ISAF mission. Beyond 2014.

It was a clear night and as the fire burned down the stars competed with a nearly full moon for space in the sky. A large plane rumbled overhead and all of our eyes turned skyward. Then, as if on cue, an enormous shooting star arced across the sky. It was white, then green, then blue, and then it was gone. Someone said “make a wish.” I made a wish for Kabul.

We all sat quiet for a moment and then returned to our conversation buoyed by the simple joy of a holiday, friends and a shooting star.

DUST STORMS |

November 01, 2012

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

We just had an unbelievable weather pattern today.  It started out clear, with a few high clouds. Around noon it clouded up. Then at about 1:00 pm, a wall of dust rolled in. "Rolled" is a good word for it: it advanced pretty fast, absolutely silent, no wind, just a wall of dust coming across the desert towards us. It even had a dust devil in front that passed directly over me. I can't show most of those pictures because they show some key features of our base, but here's one that looks out over the town of Hutal.


When the dust hit, the wind kicked up and then the rain exploded. It didn't last long, but it was intense. Then it was gone, the skies cleared up completely, and it turned into a beautiful afternoon. The rain made the place smell like a fishing pier, though -- don't know how that happened.

And then at 6:00 pm, here came a second wall of dust. This was another fast-moving, silent, ominous storm that was sweeping across the desert. Because of the late-afternoon light, it was bright orange. This storm didn't bring any rain, just choking dust, and most of us covered our faces with scarves, handkerchiefs, or whatever was available.

The dust is still here and the wind is blowing. I'm staying put, right here in my room.


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