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.

ANOTHER YEAR UP IN SMOKE |

December 31, 2012

Name: Ross Magee
Stationed in: Afghanistan

It’s New Year’s Eve in Kabul and I’m trying to count the number of New Years that I’ve spent away from home, but I’m rapidly losing interest in this endeavor. Christmas is over and now I just want this holiday behind me too.

Kabul is still crusted in snow and frozen mud. Though the days have been warm, it’s dropped well below freezing every night and the colder temperatures mean one thing in Kabul: smoke. Kabul sits in a bowl, surrounded by mountains, and at night when the temperatures drop the smoke is trapped in the city. Those not fortunate enough to have electric heaters or efficient wood stoves burn anything combustible to heat their homes. 

There are entire markets dedicated to the sale of firewood hauled in from distant mountains that many Afghans use for heating and cooking. The less fortunate burn what they can find and it often includes trash. The smell of wood smoke is laced with the acrid and unmistakable odor of burning plastic. It permeates everything, and when you open the door and look down the hundred-yard long hallway of a building the far end of it is often obscured by smoke. And that’s “indoors.”

As the sun sets the smoke rolls in and if you spend more than just a few minutes outside you’ll smell like you’ve been standing around a burn-pit. And that’s because you have. Everyone here is coughing and hacking and it’s generally miserable. I was able to escape the city earlier in the week and enjoyed a full day in the mountain air that can be found beyond the pass. I felt like a tuberculosis patient seeking refuge at some high altitude sanatorium. As we drove back into the city at sunset, I could see exactly why I felt so good in the mountains. A pall of smoke hung over the city.

New Year’s Eve is usually one of my favorite holidays because it often involves friends, cocktails and controlled explosions. Tonight, as midnight approached, I cracked my window open to see if I could hear anything across the city that might indicate there was anyone even awake. A bit of celebratory gunfire would have even been welcomed but I heard nothing — just the steady hum of a generator. 

I wished my roommate a Happy New Year.

His response was flat. “Happy New Year. I wish I was on a beach.”

Maybe next year.

GETTING CHILLY |

December 28, 2012

Name:  1SG James L. Gibson
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Hometown: Forest Grove, Oregon
Milblog: Afghanistan Deployment 2012-2013
Email: James.l.gibson@afghan.swa.army.mil

 

Somewhere a True Believer is training to kill you. He is training with minimal food or water, in austere conditions, training day and night. The only thing clean on him is his weapon. He doesn’t worry about what workout to do -– his ruck weighs what it weighs, his runs end when the enemy stops chasing him. This True Believer is not concerned about ‘how hard it is;’ he knows either he wins or dies. He doesn’t go home at 17:00, he is home. He knows only The Cause.

Still want to quit?
                                                             -- Unknown United States Special Forces Soldier

 

Framed James Gibson GETTING CHILLYOutside the wire has been very quiet, and it has to do with the weather. The Taliban don’t like to fight much in the cold. And I can’t blame them, neither do I -- and I have cold weather gear. It’s hitting low 40’s during the day but turning into a blistering 20-something at night. The heaters in our living areas are put to the test and are just enough to keep them livable. The afternoons are beautiful blue skies, and if it wasn’t for the stark wind, the days would be perfect for working on outside projects.

It’s no secret that we are pulling out of this country within a couple years. My last couple deployments we were in the thick of things, and when you needed any supplies all you did was ask. We got pretty much anything we asked for, and in large quantities. If you received too much of one item, it went into the storage containers. Oftentimes we got supplies we didn’t ask for, and again, those items went into storage containers. Now that we are pulling out of this country, one of our secondary tasks is to organize, account for, and prepare all this excess equipment for eventual return to the US. Holy crap…

Today we shot down to the Ammunition Holding Area to fix all the containers full of Ammo. I can’t blame the outgoing unit for the mess they left us. Hell, I did the same thing when I left Ramadi. When it’s time to go, it’s time to go! Most of today was spent stacking rounds, getting accurate counts, and filling out paperwork. Not my idea of a fun day, but it did get me out of my office and out in the elements.

I had to conduct my first “Cross Troop” ass-ripping last night. My old scouts would relate it to my good friend 1SG Almario back in Ramadi. That guy would constantly come over from his building and nuke my guys. Sometimes it was warranted, but most of the time he would do it for kicks. Last night I got a little heated. Our whole squadron lives in one area and everyone works on different schedules. I get that Soldiers need to let off steam and like to mess with each other, but it was almost midnight and one tent full of Soldiers from another troop was out of control. Someone from another tent yelled at them to shut up, but it didn’t work. In fact, I could hear one of them say “Fuck them, they don’t leave the wire."

I lost it. I threw on my boots and went to the tent and opened the door. Semi-PSTD flashback, spit flying as I yelled, walking down the hall...

Me to everyone: Yup, it sucks, your tent is right next to mine. What makes you think you are more important than anyone else here in the Squadron?

Me to a Sergeant that happened to pop his head out of his room: You go outside the wire?

Sergeant: …

ME: I ASKED, DO YOU GO OUTSIDE THE WIRE?

Sergeant: ... Yes, First Sergeant.

ME: Does that make you special or more important than the guys that don’t?

Sergeant: … Well 1SG, we go on missions, they don’t.

ME: So that makes you elite?

Sergeant: …

ME: How many times have you been blown up since we have been here?

Sergeant: …

ME: How many firefights you been in, stud?

Sergeant: … None.

ME: How many enemy have you killed?

Sergeant: … None.

ME: So what the F@#! DO YOU DO when you go on these missions?

Sergeant: ... Escort people.

ME: What’s the longest mission you have pulled? 24, 36, 72 hours?

Sergeant: … Six hours.

ME: SIX HOURS? Every Day?

Sergeant: … No.

ME: Want to trade places with the TOC guys? You know, since you have had it so rough out in sector, you may need a change, don’t want you to get too stresed out. You know what? Each one of them would give their left nut to be where you are right now. So how about you show some consideration to others and keep it down? And how about you try and stop this attitude problem you and your guys have thinking you are better than everyone else?

Sergeant: …

ME: I asked a question, Sergeant. Requires an answer.

Sergeant: Yes, First Sergeant.

ME: That’s what I thought. Now keep it down.

And as I walked out of their tent, I now knew what had gone through 1SG Gear’s head back in Ramadi. My platoon there was the same way. Didn’t go out in sector? F you! The difference was that more often than not, we were going to be in some sort of contact when we left the gate. I was able to keep most of it squashed because I knew the feeling of not going into sector all the time. During my first deployment to Iraq I was a TOC guy and only left the FOB a few times. I would get hammered by one of the company commanders and reminded quite often that I didn’t know what it was like outside the wire. If he only knew how much I wanted to be with them. I would have given my left nut to be a Tank Commander during that deployment, but the cards had been dealt, I was the Battalion Master Gunner and worked in staff. So during the deployment to Ramadi I did all I could to keep the bravado at a minimum.

They were quiet the rest of the night. Happens again, I may have to take them out back and PT the hell out of them to knock out some of that energy. They will have their opportunity to fight. The winter doesn’t last forever and the Taliban are again going to want to play.


A VERY KABUL CHRISTMAS |

December 25, 2012

Name: Ross Magee
Stationed in: Afghanistan

Christmas is a tough holiday for a lot of folks here. Last night my roommate asked “How are you doing?” and it took me a moment to realize he was asking about Christmas and then the light came on. “I’m fine. Thanksgiving is the tougher one for me. How are you holding up?”

“I’m Ok, this one is tough for me.”

We met back in the room on Christmas Eve and cut up a bunch of summer sausage and cheese, brewed mugs of tea and talked about life outside of this compound. We talked about travel and distant countries and where we’d go if we had nothing to do. We wondered what it’d be like to go back to some places we’ve been and experience them without the weight of a rifle in your hand. We did not talk about Christmas.

I worked a bit longer than normal yesterday to get ahead just enough to justify not working at all today.My roommate’s alarm went off at 04:47 this morning and he was up in the dark and off to the gym. I just practiced my “rollover drill” and went back to sleep. Christmas had come to Kabul. Finally.

The city stands ringed by snowcapped mountains, but in town, the snow only remains in dirty piles in the darkest corners of alleys. The day broke clear and cold with a bright sun and a promise of warmer temperatures. I was up by late morning drinking coffee in my room and alternating between reading and writing. I ate too much candy, felt guilty, and then determined that the run I had been thinking about would suffice for an atonement.

Framed Magee XMASI covered five miles, slowly winding a giant figure-eight over and over around the compound. It was largely deserted. I saw a few folks out in uniforms with bright red Santa hats and on the corner, close to the gym, there was a brightly wrapped box with candy canes stuck in neat rows across the top. There must have been 50 of them and the sign read “MERRY CHRISTMAS. PLEASE TAKE ONE!” with the word “ONE” rubbed over in neon yellow highlighter. I watched their numbers dwindle with every lap.

On my last time around the compound I encountered an officer who was standing on the corner holding a gift wrapped box and wearing a Santa hat. He was wishing everyone that walked by a Merry Christmas, and passing out small individually wrapped presents. As I went by he said “I know you’re running… but Merry Christmas!” and handed me a gift. I ran the last mile with it in my hand.

As the sun set, I dragged myself out of my room and across the compound to forage for coffee. The pale blue sky was slowly darkening, and the birds were swooping into the pine trees to roost. A nearly full moon rose over the city as the last light of the day faded and the call to prayer went out. I stopped in to check on my roommate who was hammering away at his computer. “Hey man, you going to go to dinner?” 

“No, I’m not really hungry, thanks for asking.” 

I found coffee and wandered back to the room and turned on the Counting Crows album August & Everything After because it was absolutely American and melancholy enough to match the tone of the day. I read for an hour, fell asleep, and when I woke up I realized that it was time to open presents.

I ate the minted walnuts and cinnamon pecans my mom sent and talked with my wife as I opened presents. Then I wandered to the chow hall in my Santa hat.

Christmas has come and tomorrow it will be gone. It’s a major milestone on the road to spending a year in Afghanistan. I don’t wish days away, but I’m glad that this one is over. Next year I’ll be home.

KABUL, OUTBOUND |

December 24, 2012

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

My checkout at KAF went pretty well. I had been told to spend 3-5 days there. Turned out that my official duties consisted of turning in a badge and telling the IT guys to turn off two email accounts.The rest of the time, I was packing up a couple of boxes to send home, deciding which shirts to throw away now and which to keep for a few more days, and meeting with old friends in the office or for lunch or dinner or just to shoot the breeze. Contrary to popular opinion, there are a lot of really cool people out here who are working their asses off, trying to make a difference.  

Last night, for example, I met with Ahmed and Patrick, two guys that went through training with me a year ago. One has extended for a year, the other for six months. One is a doctor with an amazing breadth of experience in bottom-of-the-ladder countries like Libya. The other is an inveterate prankster who is nevertheless a consummate professional. Our discussion started with "whatcha been doin'? and wound up going over the recent activities in Libya, segued into an incredibly well-informed and in-depth discussion of Egypt (well-informed on their part, complete ignorance on mine), compared both countries to what we're seeing in Afghanistan, wandered over the significant differences in cultures between a variety of seemingly-related countries, and wound up with "is there any ice cream left?"  It was great to have the opportunity to work with people like that: smart, witty, dedicated, and with experience that comes from being out in the international community.

This morning was The Day, though. Up early, breakfast, finish packing my bags, and head out to meet up with the transportation to the flight line. There was a big crowd heading to the State Department flight line and then on to various places. I got to see a bunch of other friends out there and say goodbye to them.  My flight was called early and we were off. Our route took us up over the Hindu Kush, which is the name for the steep mountainous region over central Afghanistan. A spectacular area, almost uninhabited except for pockets here and there.

Before long, we were coming in over Kabul and heading for the airport. Kabul is a huge city, mostly jam-packed into a too-small area. Which basically describes most cities such as New York or New Delhi, but here many of the buildings are made of mud brick.


We were met by a vehicle from the Embassy and driven into town. I am forever grateful that I was not stationed here in Kabul and did not have to drive on these streets. Drivers here make Italians look prim and proper. Roundabouts are the worst: you just dive in and cut off anybody who might get in your way. In the short drive from the airport, we came across two fender-benders, both parked in the middle of the road and (in a sign of the typical Kabul road chaos) not slowing traffic down one bit.

I quickly settled into my room at the Embassy and discovered that one of my two roommates was also one of my fellow students during training a year ago. I walked out into the lounge and saw four more. Over at dinner, I ran into somebody I knew in Iraq. It's like old-home week, meeting with my peeps.

The checkout process probably won't be too arduous, but it looks like I'll have to deal with typical bureaucratic stupidity at times. For example, one guy today didn't want to sign my sheet because my record showed that a set of travel orders was still open. Well, since they're for the trip I'm still on, I'm not too surprised about that. The lightbulb finally went on in his head (it was a 25-watt bulb) and he signed off. One item down. 

So the journey continues. Tomorrow will be a big push. I've got plenty of time, but I want to do as much as possible as early as possible so I can take care of any issues (like today's) before they become Problems.

And I'm looking forward to seeing some more old friends.

TOY TERRAIN TEAM |

December 18, 2012

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

Framed Sherpa TOY TERRAIN TEAMBeing a parent and uncle to a couple of grade-schoolers, I make regular patrols through toy stores, monitoring trends and prices, and maintaining a target list of potential birthday and holiday presents. Between Key Leader Engagements (K.L.E.) with Ken and Barbie, I also keep eyes out for new superhero gear and die-cast cars. I'm like a one-man Toy Terrain Team (T.T.T.).

It's not all fun and games. The toys we make and buy for our children are part of our national narrative. When new military tools and technologies show up in miniature on our toy department shelves—Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (U.A.V.), for example, or bomb-proof trucks—it says as much about our society's present-day values as it does our military tactics. To repurpose the old Army truism about training: "We play like we fight, and fight like we play."

Toys are also likely points of entry to conversations with children about war and service. "Your dad used to ride in that kind of truck when he was in the Army," I've heard myself saying, or "Your papa used to fly in a plane like that when he was in the Air Force ..." Afghanistan and Vietnam are big abstractions, but toys can help young heads and hands understand some of the basics. Even if the only lesson they walk away with for now is "Dad was in the Army, Papa was in the Air Force."

Matchbox has recently released a 1:64-scale version of the Oshkosh M-A.T.V. The word is an acronym within an acronym. Unpacked, it means "Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected All-Terrain Vehicle." The real-world vehicle is manufactured by Oshkosh Corp., Oshkosh, Wis.

See also these previous blog-posts: "The Arsenal of Fun and Freedom"
and "The Boys Get More Toys"
The M-ATV is my probably second-favorite Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected ("M-RAP") truck in the U.S. Army inventory. I've spent more time in the MaxxPro, manufactured by Navistar International. That's probably because the M-ATV design seats four, while the MaxxPro seats up to seven. Like some sort of military-grade mini-van, it's easier to throw the kids, embedded journalists, and other strap-hangers in the back of a MaxxPro.

By comparison, the M-ATV is a sedan. It's hard to see out from the back seats, too, which makes it less fun for us rubber-neckers.

The 2012 Matchbox version of the M-ATV comes in dark forest green with a billboard-high graphic "M-ATV" decal on each side: Hip-hop camouflage for hot-rodding through the bomb-ridden swamp. It also appears to be "licensed" design, which means the toy's manufacturers have permission to make the scaled-down version look like the real thing.

It's part of the Matchbox "Jungle" series, which includes a "Jungle Crawler,""Jeep Willys," and "Land Rover Defender 100." If you're traveling through marshy terrain, each of these other vehicles is probably more survivable than the 27.5-ton M-ATV.

The M-ATV is lighter and more maneuverable than other M-RAP variants, after all, but it's not going to float. It's going to sink like a plate-armored rock.

According to the packaging, rather than protecting occupants from Improved Explosive Devices (I.E.D.), the toy version is more likely intended to keep the crocodiles at bay:
You've got to be extra tough to survive the Jungle! These off-road and 4WD vehicles are built to handle the most hostile terrain imaginable. Rugged safety vehicles scramble through the dense foliage protecting passengers from the fierce wildlife and extreme conditions!
At least the exterior paint job is arguably military in nature. In 2011, the first Matchbox versions of a Matchbox "SWAT Truck," apparently inspired by the MaxxPro silhouette, were first available in either black-and-white or powder-blue law-enforcement livery. No camouflage in sight. The MaxxPro-like design also appeared later in fire-engine red, as part of an Matchbox "MBX Airport" series.

I still say: If you need an M-RAP truck to carry your baggage, you're flying out of the wrong airports.

Some of the doubt and debate about U.S. military acquisitions strategy involves whether or not M-RAP trucks were good investments. Some people argue that M-RAP trucks may or may not have saved lives. Or that they pushed troops into a hunkered-and-bunkered mindset that was contrary to counterinsurgency ("COIN") and advise-and-assist practices. In terms of sharing risks and hardships, or developing face-to-face relationships, after all, it's hard to get Afghan civilians and soldiers to take you seriously if you're sitting in a bomb-proof truck.

Still, no other U.S. weapon design better exemplifies my era's ground conflict in Afghanistan than the M-ATV. I may not be able to put an M-RAP in my garage, but I can sock one away in my war-toy chest.

In fact, I bought three. Because it's never too early to teach your kids about good convoy operations. It's a jungle out there.

WINNING THE ROOMMATE LOTTERY |

December 10, 2012

Name: Sideways
Stationed in: Afghanistan

The major event this week outside of work was finally moving out of my transient billeting and into the room that I’ll call “home” for the next year. I’ve basically been living in a converted connex with two other guys for the last two weeks.  We were three men in a can. I didn’t unpack my clothes or equipment beyond the minimum requirements. Living small has its advantages, but there were a few comfort items I wanted to get to.

Framed Ty ROOMATE There are troops from over forty different countries here and getting a room assignment is a bit like playing the lottery; you don’t know what you’re going to get until the numbers are drawn. Some folks get dealt a tough hand and believe it or not, I was hesitant to move out of transient billeting for just that reason. When you’re in transient billeting if you get an obnoxious roommate he’ll be gone in a few days. The downside to the transient billets were some fairly sketchy showers and living out of a bag.

If you draw a short stick on the roommate gamble and end up with a guy who snores like a chainsaw or somebody that has, well, let’s just say “an alternative view of personal hygiene” you could be stuck for a year. I finally got the last stamp I needed on my inprocessing form and climbed the stairs to the billeting office. The Spanish NCO ran the numbers, signed my form and walked to the billeting board hanging on the wall. My number was drawn and I got a key.

I opened the door to my new room and the first thing I noticed was a stack of books on a small shelf. My eyes ran over the titles and I saw books that I had read myself: Hopkirks’ The Great Game, Ewans’ Afghanistan: A Short History of its People and Politics and Rashid’s Descent Into Chaos. The next thing I noticed was a pair of shower shoes with British flags on them and it was at that moment that I knew I’d won the roommate lottery.

I dragged my bags across the compound for what I hope will be the last time this year and finally unpacked. The room is a small and sparsely furnished. There are two of everything: beds, wall lockers, cabinets, shelves, internet cables. My side of the room came pre-decorated with a map of the world and a monster truck poster. One stayed, the other went in the hallway. It’s been lived in by dozens of men over the years and it shows. There are stickers from various countries and military units on the door along with a large round “Starbucks” sticker and the obtuse green ISAF patch.  A random arrangement of candy cane stickers adorns the wall by my bed, long since peeled off some Christmas present no doubt.  I spent about two hours unpacking, sorting, repacking the stuff I know I won’t use for the next year and getting my wall locker organized. Every time I move something I find two things: a gigantic dust bunny and an air freshener.  My roommate must be out on mid-tour leave or maybe he’s travelling here in theater someplace because I haven’t seen him for three days.

I’ve been singing Tom Petty songs off the album “Wildflowers” lately. I don’t know why, but that album has been running through my head for two weeks. I woke up one morning singing “It’s time to move on” and the whole album has been on repeat in my mind ever since. Maybe it’s the doxy. Last night I actually turned on my iTunes and cued up the tracks that I’ve been singing for days. It’s the first time I’ve listened to music in over a month. It was at once great to hear music and at the same time a painful reminder of just how far from home I really am.

It’s tough to find a quiet spot to stop and think sometimes. The empty room is nice; a good distraction from the congested work space and constant presence of other people. Solitude is the one of the things I miss the most when I’m deployed.

MEXICAN MARINE |

December 05, 2012

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

Through heavily accented Spanglish the first thing he ever said to me was, “I am your Corporal and I do not like the dick sucking.” I would come to later find that he had a robot black heart tattooed over his real heart. I was eighteen years old and standing at the position of attention. I replied, “I do like the dick sucking but to each his own, Corporal.”  My roommate was also new to the unit and had Mexican heritage, he bit his lip in fear, but I was confident that the Corporal would not comprehend my translation.

The Corporal was a light-skinned Mexican, he was built of lean muscle, he ran Iron Man competitions for fun, and he was my first real squad leader. I was at home. Somewhere in the not-too-distant future both of the men standing with me in that room would be shot full of bullets in their legs, the squad leader’s leg almost blown in half and my roommate’s calves would look like a shark took a snack as he stumbled into our overpowered house with his finger laying down full automatic survival.
 
Later the squad leader was moved to point-man, after the rest of the unit returned from advanced training. He loved the job and was good at it because he moved like a panther and was born lethal. I asked our point man “Bandito” how he came to America and he told me about walking through the border after several attempts as a teenager. His brother had taught him how to knife fight and he would teach me. He spoke of bandits in the streets of Mexico as a youth and how these bandits knew not to fuck with his knife-fighting brother. During a training operation our unit participated in Okinawa the Bandito’s team was wiped out as he fought through the bottom story of a mock hotel with paint bullets. He called over the radio to inform us that he was carrying on. By himself the Bandito killed every member of the opposing force in the hotel working from the bottom floor to the rooftop. I was glad his service was in the US Marines.

I was his student. In Kuwait in late 2004 he introduced me to a Sergeant Peralta in 1st platoon. The Bandito explained to me and the Sergeant his outlook on the impending Battle of Fallujah. He said, “I am here for the glory, nothing else. A million bullets can rain down and if Mary wants to take me it will be my time, if not it won’t.” I objected to this non-scientific approach and Sergeant Peralta laughed at my interpretation. Sergeant Peralta would later be nominated for a still-pending Medal of Honor when, after being terribly wounded, he pulled an enemy hand grenade under his life-filled body, absorbing the lethal impact, thus saving the lives of the Marines in the room with him. Regular guys who come from Mexico, the Mexican Marine Corps, and an untold story of sacrifice by Mexican immigrants lives to this day in our military, which has always been filled with immigrants, who yesteryear were white, giving generations of Americans a good excuse to avoid service.
 
This machinery is necessary to the American framework, it is not cruel, and tomorrow the Latino immigrants who served become politicians and can serve their non-serving white counterparts with a record that can’t be challenged.  This is the real America, and a new wave of demographic will be our integrated future, like it or not. The truth is, domesticated suburbanite teenagers like I was can’t be killing effective without the hard hand of the immigrant Corporal, who is hard through experience and a representative of every immigrant Corporal from every country to come to America, pick up a gun and fight in a foreign land.
 
After the wounded had been extracted, I picked up the Bandito’s helmet. I looked to a full moon and wondered if there was any significance in this. My hero had been killed and my teacher was off to the hospital. I reached into his helmet and picked out a Spanish prayer card he had tucked into the webbing. I stuck it into the webbing of my helmet and left the war an untouched atheist. I will visit the Bandito in Mexico next month for the first time since we were Marines, where he is fighting for his country in the drug war. He is my last interview for the film.


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