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.

HAPPY MARINES COME FROM CONNECTICUT |

January 31, 2013

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

Happy Marines could be found throughout the battle of Fallujah. They would usually start at it early in the morning when their dirty faces could get away with it, a smile and a laugh, usually at some other Marine’s expense. The energy was strong in the morning, and everyone could only be happy before an operation. After that the smiles appeared only in brief short bursts, behind the gunfire and fire, the smoke that choked the young men with their black lungs. I met Paul Stewgots during his first day assigned to our Infantry unit; he had transferred over from security forces and the Marine Corps’ elite fleet anti-terrorism force (Fast Company). I was mopping the floor in the Alpha Company office.

I had been in the infantry a long three weeks and even to “the field”, our slang for the real infantry training I participated in the week before. I had been around the block and I wanted to make sure that Paul was on his game after he arrived. I introduced myself and told him that we would be in the same platoon; he was waiting in our reception room before being introduced to our Captain. Paul noticed that I was as new as his fresh socks but kindly humored my advice anyway. He asked me to program his watch to make up for his time change and once again I found myself frustrated that even the new guy was telling me what to do. I programmed the watch and babbled on all about the things necessary for “the field” which I had become an expert in and we would be leaving again for shortly.

Most transfers from security forces would have spent their previous two years guarding nukes, or the president, and others came from the historic drill team based in Washington D.C., therefore I assumed that Paul had either been standing in front of a missile or marching smartly. Our infantry unit was preparing for a deployment to the Philippines that we would never sail to aboard our Navy ships, which changed direction and headed for the Middle East. The only Marines in our unit that had been to Iraq were the older enlisted Marines, who deployed to Desert Storm thirteen years before. A strange thing had happened while my class was in the school of Infantry in January 2004, our instructors were replaced later in the cycle with instructors who had returned from recent deployments in Iraq. Like in a cheesy war movie, the eighteen-year-old me was pretty sure the war in Iraq would be over with soon, but in hindsight the instructor switch should have rung a loud bell.

Paul sat in his chair, a naturally quiet man. What he did not say was, “Shut your boot mouth kid, I just got back from Iraq.” He would be the only Marine in our platoon who had been to combat in less than a decade. Paul was a weapons expert and a professional Marine. I assured Paul the word that had been handed down to me, not to worry about that Iraq shit. Hawaii Marines go to the Philippines. When we made it to those ships that kept sailing everything changed as we crossed into waters known as the straits of Hormuz, off of the coast of Iran and the gateway into the Middle East.

Our platoon was tasked to provide security along the perimeter of the ship. I stood next to Paul, loaded up with live rounds and curiosity. Small Iranian speed boats constantly flirted with our ship’s standoff distance; their small vessels would speed toward our ship and quickly break away before we started our two warnings and a sunken speedboat policy. They were testing us, and Paul stated that matter of fact when I asked him what the deal was with the speedboats. We stared at the boats and coast of Iran for hours. Any time before I would have been water-skiing off of the back of a speedboa. In air so hot, the water was emerald and would glow at night. Paul was preparing for round two.
   
During the first full-fledged firefight I found myself involved in, a squad of Marines were caught in a gunfight with thirty enemy fighters in the house next door to us. Nathan Douglass recalled from the perspective of our third squad, that Paul Stewgots sent a hail of grenade launcher fire down the street. The launcher requires the operator to load one round at a time and Paul was getting a hand cramp, but Douglass explained it was a sight to behold. Paul Stewgots just knew what to do; he was a real-life war machine. Some of this would have come from his advanced training in the elite FAST Company but most of it came from a warrior finding his place in the world. I was naturally clumsy, very young, and my operating looked a world opposite of Paul’s.

Paul’s squad was blown up inside of a corner house later in the battle. Paul and his best friend Donnie were guarding a stairwell outside of the house when they heard the explosion followed by the moaning of wounded Marines. Today Donnie and Paul live close to each other in Connecticut; I went fishing with them this summer. Paul recalled that as he entered the house he asked his squad leader to help him pull bodies out of the house. His squad leader rasped “I’ve been shot,” and collapsed. Donnie and Pauley began dragging Marines out of the house that was also engulfed in flames. One Marine was lying on a stairwell and was too badly wounded to crawl out. The smoke grew thicker by the moment and when Donnie and Paul found the injured Marine, they had a hard time moving him. Donnie recalled that they looked at each other and Donnie said, “We are going to die in here.” Paul recalled, “But it was like we were all going to leave this house or none of us were.”

Donnie and Paul were always a funny sight for tired eyes. They could make anything fun and the two were the heart of the platoon. They both received medals for valor that should have been higher. I talked to Paul about that last night. He had also been hit by shrapnel but never put in for a purple heart. I remember Paul and Donnie laughing in the desert; it's seared into my brain. Pauley Stewgots said to me last night that he recalled a flag waving on the back of the vehicle we exited to enter the battle, and how he thought that this was not the reason he was fighting, for a piece of cloth. The Marine he pulled out of the burning house is breathing today.

HOW THEY PLAY |

January 28, 2013

Name: The Afghan Battle Fox
Returned from: Afghanistan
Hometown: Clyde, Ohio
Milblog: Afghan Battle Fox's Blog
Email: [email protected]

“Wow! A Playstation!”

“Cool! This is the game I wanted!”

“An XBox!”

These phrases were heard from many American children over this past holiday as they excitedly unwrapped their gifts. Tearing through colorfully printed paper, children’s faces lit up and their eyes grew big at the sight of the high-dollar electronic games and game systems that they had hoped to receive.

None of the children I met in Afghanistan had toys of this extravagance; no PlayStations, XBoxes, Call of Duty games or anything electronic, for that matter. Those Afghan children had toys that were much simpler: a homemade kite, a ball, or a doll. Kites were made of sticks and thin seed bags or plastic and dolls were hand-sewn with no plastic body parts or fancy accessories.

A young Afghan boy plays with his kite near Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan, March 2012.

Many knew how to play dominoes or chess but their game pieces were not made of molded plastic like the ones used by American children. Theirs were made of carved stones and were hand-painted. They didn’t come in pressed cardboard boxes with brand names and trademarks; the Afghans made their own boxes of thin wood, or kept the pieces in felt bags.

Hand-crafted Afghan dominoes.

They had pride in ownership of their toys and were careful to keep track of their belongings, unlike some of their American counterparts. They did not assume that, if they lost or broke their toys, a replacement would come easily nor did they ask for toys based on what the Joneses had.

Temperature was not a factor to these children. Wearing winter coats or sweaters and perhaps head coverings, they played outside in the cold winter with bare fingers, thin pants, and worn shoes. They did not wear snowsuits, gloves, or boots.

Afghan boys playing in a field near Mazar-e-Sharif, March 2012. The temperature was approximately 20 degrees Fahrenheit (-7 degrees Celsius).

In the hot summer months with temperatures above 130° F (55° C) , they played outside in the heat with long pants and shirts on. They did not wear shorts nor were they ever shirtless. There were few trees for shade and there were no city or personally owned pools to cool them off.

The Afghan children did not have the luxury of heating or air conditioning. Unlike many American children, they did not lounge around their houses watching television or playing on game systems for hours on end. They did not stand with the refrigerator door open perusing its contents for a sweet snack or soda.

They were outside for hours. The same groups of children I passed while on convoy were the same groups of children I passed when I returned.

There was hardly ever a girl in the group, and boys of all ages played together. The older boys would sometimes pick at the younger ones, much like American boys do when they play.

Sometimes kicking the dirt or smacking rocks with a stick seemed to help to them pass the time. They climbed on top of their mud homes or empty buildings just for the fun of it.

An Afghan boy plays with a stick while atop an empty building near his home.

Like patches of flowers in an open field, the children, in their mix-matched outfits, mingled and talked. Occasionally, they chased each other in what I can only imagine was a game of tag.

From the early haze of morning until the last glimpse of daylight in the evening, the Afghan children played in the bare dirt hills near their homes. Their imagination and creativity, not electronics and technology, kept them entertained.

NIGHTMARE |

January 24, 2013

Name:  1SG James L. Gibson
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Hometown: Forest Grove, Oregon
Milblog: Afghanistan Deployment 2012-2013
Email: [email protected]

I used to have a reoccurring dream after I returned home from my last deployment. It always began and ended the same.

I am running down an alley towards my truck. I am at a full-out sprint with bullets skipping the dirt around my heels. I feel as though I cannot run fast enough but finally make it to my vehicle. I jump in, look at the floor board then glance down the alley from which I came. I scream to my driver to move out. No response. I look over to the driver, noticing that my gunner’s legs are not in the gunner’s position, and see that my driver has been replaced with an Insurgent. I pull my 9mm pistol out of my leg holster and point it at his head. He smiles and places the truck in gear to start moving. I pull the trigger of my pistol and put a round in his head. Blood and grey matter cover the inside of the truck, which slowly lurches to a stop against a wall. I get out of the truck, I am surrounded, they open fire, and I wake up.

The reason I wanted to share this is because it helped me. And if it wasn’t for my wife, someone who cared, I would probably still be having this dream. Talking about the dream, the events of my prior deployment, and everything I went through in Ar Ramdi with my family, friends, therapist, and Soldiers helped me cope.

When I was coming up in the Army as a young Private it was looked down upon if you wanted to get help for anything; it was considered a sign of weakness. Times have changed, but we still have this stigma (although not nearly as badly) in the military, primarily in the Senior Noncommissioned Officer Corp, that anyone that wants to get help is weak. I want to help change that. I regularly talk to my Soldiers as if getting help is no big deal, that it is as normal as spraining your ankle. The more they hear about me talking openly about getting help, the better. Soldiers need to know that they can depend on their leadership to support them getting better. It’s our job.

The Department of Defense recently released suicide numbers that were greater than the number we lost due to combat. In the Army we are all brothers, and to lose a brother to suicide is unacceptable. Yes, we receive numerous hours of training learning to identify indicators of suicide and what to do, but somewhere we are failing. Many people have their own perception of what needs to be done and how to combat the issue, but it’s only getting worse. Is it disenfranchised leadership? If so, on what level? Team Leader, Squad Leader, Platoon Sergeant, or is it the First Sergeant’s fault? I believe it’s everyone’s fault 90% of the time.

I think that what it boils down to is leaders need to care. Leaders need to put their Soldiers' needs above their own. Care about what they do. Care about them and their personal lives. Know everything there is to know about that Soldier, so when one little thing is off, leadership can spot it quickly and react. When deployed, we eat, sleep, and go on missions with each other every day. We spend 9 to 15 months serving with that Soldier, but when we return home, that Soldier who had constant supervision is now left out to dry for a majority of the day. From 0630-1700 he is with his platoon, but not as closely as he once was. Many of the Soldiers he deployed with have moved to new duty stations, new Platoons, or have gotten out of the Army. He has lost that support network and brotherhood that he had during deployment.

Soldiers need to know that they can get help, without repercussions, and get it as easily as they can get help for a routine headache. The resources are there, we just need to tighten the screws on the Soldiers' leadership. If they don’t genuinely care about their Soldiers and only are looking out for their own best interests, it may be time to swap them out with someone that does care.

We have been at war for over 10 years. “Suck it up and drive on” no longer works. We can beat this suicide trend. All we need to do is care.

THE DONKEY |

January 21, 2013

Name: Ross Magee
Stationed in: Afghanistan

Framed McGee DONKEYThe donkey is a beast of burden.  In Afghanistan they are a common sight, even in the cities.  In Kabul traffic a donkey pulls a wooden cart, piled high with the debris of a day of scavenging. All things combustible are stacked on it; cardboard, scraps of wood and the other salvageable items culled from the trash bins and street-side heaps of Kabul and its environs.

The cart is itself a scavenged thing, cobbled together from miscellaneous items lashed to a small axle and paired with matching tires off a motorized device that has long since expired. It is small, clearly built to be matched to its animal counterpart. Unlike the trucks, cabs and buses, it has no decorations, no bright paint schemes, no picture of Ahmad Sha Massoud in the window. It is strictly utilitarian.  

The donkey walks, tugging at the cart in Kabul traffic with his head down. He does not look side to side. He wears blinders, but they’re not necessary — he does not fear cars. He is surrounded by motorized transport; buses, armored trucks, cabs, motorcycles, small sedans, and lumbering Lories. He is dust-colored, but it is not readily apparent if it’s his natural color. He is swaddled in a grime-coated blanket which surely hides his bone-bare back and ribs. In Afghanistan, where motors fail the donkey remains viable.

His long ears stand erect and grey with their silver lining catching the last rays of a winter sun. Only his muzzle is white, and as the traffic jerks and starts he walks forward and rests it on the bumper of a white Corolla every time it stops. When he places his muzzle on the bumper of the car it is hard to tell where one begins and the other ends. It is a sad thing to see, an animal taking every bit of rest it can as it works. The donkey is a survivor.

His unshod hooves cover the ground in short, halting steps, landing without sound on the pavement. The long hair falls down from his fetlocks over his hooves in tangled clumps. When the cars move forward and a gap is created he breaks into a weary trot without being urged. He knows the path. He closes the gap to the Corolla and rests his head again, chin on bumper welding the 21st century to all of history for a moment. Plastic and flesh.

The driver sits motionless atop his cart of combustible material. He appears as weary and as dirty as the donkey. He wears a stained coat with blackened hands and his head is wrapped in a dustmal of indeterminate color that shields his view to the sides. He sits erect, but his head droops and there is nothing to rest it on. One hand holds the slack reins, the other clutches his coat across his chest. He is surrounded by the people of Kabul; residents, visitors, soldiers, and foreigners, in cars, on foot, on motorcycles and bikes. He pays them no mind whatsoever. He moves among them, but like the donkey he is from another time.

Winter has come to Kabul and as dusk falls a pall of smoke begins to appear over the city. In a few hours it will be so thick that it can be tasted. The leaves have fallen from the trees unaided by wind that is conspicuously absent from this town. Corolla-colored clouds dot the lapis sky and streetlights stand as naked as the trees along the sides of car-choked road. Among them moves a donkey, his cart and the rider.

NO WORDS NEEDED : INTERNATIONAL WOMEN'S DAY |

January 16, 2013

Name: The Afghan Battle Fox
Returned from: Afghanistan
Hometown: Clyde, Ohio
Milblog: Afghan Battle Fox's Blog
Email: [email protected]

Our green Ford Ranger stopped quickly in the middle of the muddy, half-frozen street and three female American Soldiers in full gear exited the vehicle. I scurried to the back of the truck and reached blindly for my assault pack as I quickly glanced up and down the street and at the tops of the buildings around me. I had never been this deep into the streets of Mazar-e-Sharif (MES) and my training taught me to be cognizant of my surroundings. My heart was beating quickly with anticipation of the day’s events, the thrill of the Ranger ride I had just taken, and my heightened sense of awareness. I could feel that several eyes were on us. Female Soldiers in the heart of MES with Afghan Border Police (ABP) escorts -- this wasn’t something Afghans saw every day.

Framed ABF WORDS 1Walking away from the truck bed, I quickly removed my hard, camouflaged helmet and wrapped a long purple scarf up over my hair and around my neck. The light breeze blew little bellows in the draped scarf like the wind in the sails of a boat, thus causing it to slide off the top of my head and rest across my shoulders. The camera I had in hand was passed off to another female Soldier so I could get myself situated. I fidgeted one-handed to re-drape the scarf while attempting to throw my bag up over my shoulder with my other hand all the while hurriedly walking toward the entrance gate with the rest of my female engagement team (FET). I retrieved my camera just as we approached the iron gate.

The slightly rusted iron gate, positioned between a long cement wall to one side and a three-story building at the other, could be opened for vehicles but also had a pedestrian door. My team members and I shuffled through one by one.

Our heads swiveled as we scanned our new environment. The woman-side in us took an effeminate account of the venue: the people in their Afghan outfits, the store fronts with their foreign signs and bars on the windows, a large tented area with rugs and folding chairs, and a bazaar with colorful trinkets and clothing. The Soldier-side in us, simultaneously, looked more deeply: for quick exits, who had weapons, and potential threats. Most female Soldiers I know have developed a peculiar ability to view situations from both perspectives at the same time.

Framed ABF WORDS 2All eyes seemed to shift toward us as we came through the gate. We were greeted by a row of young Afghan girls adorned in beautiful colorful dresses. Their eyes grew large as they looked us up and down. A few of them shyly generated smiles while a couple of them cupped their hands to their mouths to whisper to each other. Our team, impressed to see the little girls, approached the receiving line and shook the hand of each, greeting them with one of the few Dari words I knew at the time: "Salaam!"

Once past the line of girls, our six FET members regrouped to decide where to position ourselves for the upcoming presentations. As the women stepped off in the direction of the chairs, I lagged behind and started searching out potential photo opportunities. My team leader, a former Army photographer herself, showed little concern for my whereabouts when she glanced back over her shoulder to make sure the team was staying with her. My divergence from the group was typical and she knew I would never put myself in danger, so allowing me to roam around the confines of the area was usually fine with her.

To my immediate right was a table area that lead to another area behind a row of stores and into a bazaar. Afghan women, with their heads wrapped in colorful shamaughs, tended to their wares and chatted amongst themselves and with their customers. Not understanding any of what was being said, I stood there, watching in awe, as the women pointed at this item or that. Their gibberish intrigued me as they spoke to each other in what I could only imagine was terms of quality and cost in attempts of purchase and sale. Perhaps their conversation was about who the item would be for, what other colors were available, or what the object was made of. I would never know.

Framed ABF WORDS 3On the table nearest me were little boxes and baskets made of white, blue, and green beads. The display reminded me of the wares at a Christmas bazaar back home, usually made by some senior citizens group or church lady organization. Past those items, further down the table, were stacks of scarves wrapped in clear plastic. Hanging on the front of the awning overhead were jackets and long shirts of all colors and patterns. Each article was unlike any other hanging beside it.

I regained focus on my mission when I heard a deep voice say my name. It was one of the Afghan civilian photographers that I had met a month earlier during my brigade’s Transfer of Authority ceremony. I didn’t remember his name but his face was familiar. He spoke a bit of English so I greeted him with a “hello” and shook his hand. He wasn’t looking to have a conversation with me, just an acknowledgement that we were both there working, and he continued his foreign chat with his group of men as they walked away.

Turning away from the bazaar area, I gazed up at the large umbrella tent that canopied over the majority of the fenced-in space. The brilliant sections of yellow and red were intensified by the luminescent sun overhead. Red, patterned Afghan rugs had been laid side by side to create a decorative floor and rows of folding chairs were dotted with occupants waiting for the start of the ceremonies.

Framed ABG WORDS 4I sauntered over to the tent and began to snap photographs of the scene as it rolled out before me. I felt very in-the-way and obstructive as I stood at the end of the rows of chairs but I wanted to capture pictures of individual women as well as groups of women. I looked for any unique angle I could get in order to possibly get my “Wow!” photo of the event.

As I stood there with my eye up to my camera view finder, I could feel that someone was standing near me and watching me. I lowered my camera and turned my head to my left -- and down. There stood an adorable young Afghan boy with big dark eyes and a streak of sunlight through his dark hair. He couldn’t have been more than three years old. The collar on his winter coat was much like that of an airmen’s jacket and his little gloveless fingertips poked out from the bottom of the sleeves. He looked up at me and stood motionless. I smiled at him but he Framed ABF WORDS 6continued to stand there with an emotionless face. As if I were about to pet a wild animal, I slowly knelt down and raised my camera. His reaction, like a fawn sensing he was being preyed upon, was to quickly glance up at a women standing near me as if he was seeking her approval to have his picture taken. Slowly, the corners of his mouth started to turn upward and he looked right at me and my camera. (The final photo can be seen in this gallery.)

I took a couple of photos and then turned the camera around so that he could see the display screen with his own picture on it. His big saucered eyes grew wider and his little cheeks rounded at the ends of the smile on his face. Not a word was said between that little guy and I but those moments with my camera bridged a language barrier in a way I never knew photography could.

That mesmerizing moment ended when I heard a speaker’s announcement and there was a more directed movement of people flowing past me and under the tent. I stood back up, smiled once more at the little boy, and headed toward the back of the tent.

Framed ABF WORDS 5The group of young girls that first greeted us upon our arrival sat a row in front and to the right of where I stood. Once in a while, I would catch one or two of them looking over their shoulder at me. When I raised my camera to take their picture, though, they would quickly turn around and face to the front of the tent. The young lady on the end closest to me played this little hide-and-go-seek game a couple of times but then settled in to the thought of allowing me to take her picture.

At first, she showed no smile or emotion, much like the little boy earlier had. I smiled, but that didn’t spark her smile. She looked out past me as if she wasn't sure what to do when I raised my camera. I took a couple of shots of her looking very madonna-like with her reddish-orange scarf draped over her shoulders. She would glance at me once she heard my shutter click and then would give me a little shy smile. I advanced my pawn in our little game by peeking out from behind my camera and wrinkling my nose to make a funny face. This caused her to smile and I quickly snapped the shot. (The final photo can be seen in this gallery.)

The rows of chairs in front of me were nearly full. A large sign, written in both Dari and English, hung behind the podium at the front of the tent, blocking the doorway to one of the small shops. Scarves of every color and pattern on the heads of the women danced like bobbers on a fishing line with a nibble. The murmurs of voices slowly began to fade as a speaker settled in behind the podium.

Framed ABF WORDS 9The first speaker was a middle-aged woman who spoke without any nervousness or quiver. I had seen her before at the announcement of Afghanistan’s participation in International Women’s Day just a couple of days prior at a different location. Her voice, both at the announcement and now, was dominant. She did not speak with a giddy, girlish excitement but, instead, with command, passion, and drive. The area was quiet and all eyes were on her as she glanced at her notes only briefly, looked out to her captive audience, and spoke.

None of the ceremony was in English, nor were our programs. In order to take pictures, I did not sit with my team so I did not have an interpreter near me to let me know what was being said. From the inflection of the speaker’s tones, I could tell there were senses of pride, optimism, gratitude, and concern in what was being said.

Framed ABF WORDS 10After the first three speakers, four young Afghan children, two boys and two girls, with matching outfits respectively, sang a short song. They did not show much feeling during the song and their quiet voices only carried throughout the tent because of the microphone the one girl held in front of her. It was still a warming feeling to see the future of Afghanistan participate in the momentous event.

For the rest of the ceremony, the agenda was repetitive: three speakers and a children’s singing group. Most of the speakers were passionate and their speeches were fervent. Two speakers, however, monotonously dictated their speeches as if they were reading pre-scripted congratulatory letters after having just lost an election. I don’t know if they didn’t write their own speeches and were being cautious or if they didn’t believe in what they were saying, but their presentations were quite contrasting to those of the other orators.

I wandered from one side of the tent and back as each speaker or children’s group went to the stage. Watching their performances and the reactions of the audience, I continued to photograph the occasion.

I hadn’t lost interest in the ceremony, I just didn’t understand what was being said. Near the end of the event, I noticed that my attention began to shift to the meandering of people outside the tent. Without drawing attention to myself and during the last speaker, I stealthily made my way back to the entrance side of the tent and began taking pictures again of the general population and not those in attendance of the event who had began to wander in from the streets to go to the bazaar.

Framed ABF WORDS 11As I made my way through the crowd of people, I found myself face to face with another beautiful set of eyes. Looking at the grandfather, I pointed to my camera and then to his granddaughter. He nodded and then stood there so I could take the photo, even trying to help get her attention so the little one would look at my camera. The child never smiled but the grandfather did when I showed him the picture that I took of the two of them. He kissed her on the side of the head, nodded at me, then turned and walked away.

For three hours that day, I listened to a language I did not understand. I listened to the tones of people voices, not their words. I studied the curvature of their smiles, not the words coming out of their mouths. A nod, a handshake, a kiss -- each avenue was universally effective in communication. And despite not speaking the local language, I managed to find a way to communicate on my own -- through my photographs.

AN UNWELCOME CHRISTMAS |

January 14, 2013

Name: C.J. Grisham
Returned from: Iraq and Afghanistan 
Milblog: A Soldier's Perspective

Framed GRISHAM Unwelcome ChristmasI recently got an announcement from Fort Hood public affairs about the death of a Soldier. Usually, these announcements are necessitated after a Soldier is killed in a traffic fatality or serious illness. Unfortunately, this one was an announcement that we had lost an NCO to suicide. Officially, the incident is under investigation.

Suicide is the uglier product of going to combat. SGT Jose Joaquin Suarez had just returned from a yearlong deployment to Afghanistan last month with his fellow MPs (Suarez was not an MP) of the 720th Military Police Company, 89th Military Police Brigade. They are scheduled to go through the resiliency program I work with next month. He just couldn’t hold on that long. These are the invisible casualties of an Army at war.

Christmas time is a difficult time for many troops that have served in combat. It’s a confusing and anxiety-inducing time in which we are expected to be be sociable and amiable. However, we often find it difficult to let go of the experiences and pretend that everything is okay the way our civilian counterparts and family members can. For many of us, there still burns within us the demons that have declared war on our minds. It’s even harder when the holidays come so soon after returning home.

When troops return from a deployment, there is a process to helping them integrate back into the norms of society. There is a lot of training, briefings from various agencies, and paperwork that must be done. There is a major focus on resiliency and coping skills that we can hopefully rely upon. I would imagine that SGT Suarez was looking forward to the holidays much like the rest of the unit. These briefings became nothing more than a hurdle to some much-needed time off.

Listen, I understand the desire to hit the ground running after a deployment. No one is immune from it. But we NCOs really need to work hard to set aside our own overwhelming desires to get on with our lives and care for those around us, even other NCOs.

No one knows what happened to SGT Suarez or why he decided his life wasn’t worth continuing. I’m sure he leaves behind many questions in the minds of those with whom he worked. Much like the casualties suffered on the battlefield that result in stirring tribute and somber ceremony, suicide is a casualty for which there is seldom real closure.

I can’t emphasize enough to whomever will listen that the suicide solution is no solution at all. There is always somewhere we can go or someone to whom we can speak. Not only should we be willing to pick up the phone when we’d rather pick up a gun or a bottle of pills, we should be willing to answer it as well. That one phone call may be the one that saves a life. It doesn’t matter who you call, just call someone you can trust. If you don’t feel like you trust anyone, call someone anyway; the first person that pops into your head.

When you decide to make that phone call, don’t make it an “all-or-nothing” endeavor. In other words, don’t treat this phone call as the one thing that will save your life. I learned the hard way that balancing a life or death decision on whether or not a phone is picked up is 1) too much pressure to put on the other person and 2) gambling needlessly with a worthy life. I went one step further and didn’t even pick up the phone. My survival hinged on whether someone was reading their email after 10pm at night. It was a foolish experiment I didn’t recognize at the time.

If you find yourself at the end of your rope and contemplating making a fatal decision, try this instead:

Go to the next room or house and bang on the door. If they don’t answer, keep going until you get someone. Tell them you need help NOW. Let them help you, even if they don’t know you. Be honest and sincere and tell them exactly what you plan to do. Tell them to take you to the hospital or your leader’s house.

Pick up the phone and call Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK. They are always there. I wish there was an easier number to remember, like 1-800-YOU-TALK or something like that. But, 273-TALK isn’t that hard to remember either. Even if you’re the happiest person in the world and will most likely never need to use that number, memorize that number in case you ever need it. You don’t have to have any answers and don’t need to know what to say. Just be there for that person and dial the number for them. You can also visit the Suicide Prevention Lifeline website at http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org. Both places are available 24/7.

Fort Hood is a big base, but these suicides affect everyone -- as they should. We really can’t be lethargic in dealing with this issue or pretending it doesn’t affect us. NCOs have got to check up on their troops often. We must visit their homes, on and off base. We cannot afford to just go about our lives pretending that our duties and responsibilities end at Retreat. Engagement. Attentiveness. Caring. Follow through. These are the components of a successful mission to reduce or end suicides in the force. It takes more than Big Army programs, fancy handouts, and boring briefings. It takes you.

Army leaders can access current health promotion guidance in newly revised Army Regulation 600-63 (Health Promotion) at: http://www.army.mil/usapa/epubs/pdf/r600_63.pdf and Army Pamphlet 600-24 (Health Promotion, Risk Reduction and Suicide Prevention) at http://www.army.mil/usapa/epubs/pdf/p600_24.pdf.

The Army’s comprehensive list of Suicide Prevention Program information is located at http://www.preventsuicide.army.mil.

Suicide prevention training resources for Army families can be accessed at http://www.armyg1.army.mil/hr/suicide/training_sub.asp?sub_cat=20 (requires Army Knowledge Online access to download materials).

Information about Military OneSource is located at http://www.militaryonesource.com or by dialing the toll-free number 1-800-342-9647 for those residing in the continental United States. Overseas personnel should refer to the Military OneSource website for dialing instructions for their specific location.

Information about the Army’s Comprehensive Soldier Fitness Program is located at http://www.army.mil/csf/ .

The Defense Center for Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury (DCoE) Outreach Center can be contacted at 1-866-966-1020, via electronic mail at [email protected] and at http://www.dcoe.health.mil.

The website for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention is http://www.afsp.org/ and the Suicide Prevention Resource Council site is found at http://www.sprc.org/index.asp.

AWARDS, POWER, POCKETS, AND HAIR |

January 09, 2013

Name:  1SG James L. Gibson
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Hometown: Forest Grove, Oregon
Milblog: Afghanistan Deployment 2012-2013
Email: [email protected]

If you want a hot topic of debate in the “deployed” Army, none is hotter than that of end of tour awards. Even though we just arrived a few months ago, the highest of the tour awards (Bronze Star) is due for review next month. It may seem outrageous to have to turn them in so early, but the approval for the award is the Commanding General. That means it must go through Squadron and Brigade for signatures prior to reaching him. By the time it reaches the General, with the addition of all the other units here, they have gone through a lengthy process. To speed up the approval process, Brigade or higher will give out a percentage of an award that they will approve. We received that percentage yesterday.

The Bronze Star Medal (BSM) is a big deal. Its peace time equivalent is the Meritorious Service Medal (MSM) which is normally given to a Company Commander or First Sergeant (a very demanding job) for their time at that position. No matter what the percentage is, someone is always going to believe that they do or don’t deserve it. Debating on who deserves the award and who doesn’t is like debating gun regulation; no clear answer that everyone agrees on can be found. It is even harder when we are trying to justify the award on only three months of deployment.

Do you standardize the award? All Platoon Sergeants and above get it? My troop is the largest, do I get more allocations? We are deployed; this is what we joined to do, so why give awards? What actions justify the award? Rank requirement? All are questions that don’t have a clear cut answer. When I sat down with the Platoon Sergeants today to talk about who should be put in for the BSM, the platoons were split 50/50 on who should get it and who shouldn’t. Half said that they didn’t want or need it and that it should go to the line troops that are living on the small FOBs and are in the shit all the time (my recommendation as well), while the other half think that PSG and above, no matter what job they hold, are deserving of the award. Whatever we (Troop Commander and I) decide, it’s not going to make everyone happy and that’s part of being in the Army.

Change of subject, please…

The freaking power went out in our tent last night. I woke up around 2:00 a.m. violently shivering, wondering what the hell was going on. One quick glance at my alarm clock confirmed my suspicion that we had lost power as it wasn’t displaying the time. Luckily for me, I had been keeping all three layers to my sleeping bag right next to my bed. What I should have done was be a good tent occupant and find the contractors to fix the generator. What I did was dive deep into my three-layered sleeping system and go right back to sleep. Generator started back up a couple hours later but had not re-heated the tent by the time I needed to wake up. I guess if you want to get something good out of a cold tent it's that it makes you dress quickly and get to work.

The cold weather is still sticking around for the most part. It does warm up to around 50 during the middle of the day but is well below freezing during the night. We have been working hard on shipping all excess equipment back to the US and are making quite a dent. Should be done here within another month or so with what we have at FOB Apache but also have other FOBs that we are worried about.

I find myself becoming shorter and shorter with Soldiers and BS. I think I am starting to spend more and more time digging into officers. Yes, technically they are a higher rank than I am but I am the one that is held accountable for the overall welfare and discipline of this troop. If you are messed up, I am going to tell you and then fix you, regardless of your rank. That’s my job and that is what is expected of me.

One of my buddies told me his rank standard about 5 years ago and I still use it today. Officers, from the lowest to the highest rank, have 10 ranks (O1-O10 or 2nd Lieutenant through 4 Star General) while we Enlisted guys have 9 (E1 – E9 or Private through Command Sergeant Major). Basically, all Officers outrank all Enlisted, no matter how long they have been in or what rank they hold. So a 2nd LT with 1 month in service can order a Command Sergeant Major with 30 years of service to do something; now, if that CSM does it or not is a different beast all together. To make it easier to understand, here is a conversation I have had with numerous Captains over the last year.

Me: Sir, get your hands out of your pockets!

Captain: Uh, Roger 1SG.

Framed Gibson AWARD TIMEMe: Damn sir, you are killing me. Seems like every day I have to tell you to the same thing. You need some gloves? Are your hands cold?

Captain: Well, technically I outrank you 1SG, so I don’t have to do what you say.

Me: Sir, I’m an E8. First Sergeant! I am on the 8th of 9 ranks. Therefore I am 8/9th of a whole. YOU, on the other hand are a Captain, an O3. Therefore you are 3/10th and less than 1/3. I am closer to a whole. You may outrank me, but I have more rank. I win! And, yes you don’t have to listen to me, but what we can do is walk our happy little asses into the Squadron Commanders office, the guy that out ranks you, and have this conversation again if you like. I win again. Keep your hands out of your pockets!

Officers: Making simple shit hard since 1775. Ha! But on the other hand: Noncommissioned Officers: Crying about the simple shit since 1775.

I just got back from getting a haircut. Some of the guys I have deployed with before may be asking “You mean you shaved your head, right”? Nope, I got a haircut from the barber shop. It’s true, on all deployments I have been on it’s much easier to shave my head completely bald. I didn’t have to worry about the lines at the barber and spending money, or in cases like my last deployment, we had no barber at all, so I didn’t have a choice. If it were my choice all the time, I would be bald even back at home station, but I can’t. Back home I try to follow the advice that my Grandfather gave me when I initially joined the Army: “You should get a haircut often enough that nobody noticed you got one."

In order to look good and set the example, I need to get a haircut at least once a week (10 days if I stretch it) and that becomes expensive. So if it were up to me, I would look like Mr. Clean! Only one problem. My wife doesn’t like it. And with the technology we have today allowing the ability to video Skype with her and my girls every morning, I don’t want to shave it. I will do whatever I need to do to keep my girls happy! And if that means sitting in a local national barber shop that is heated to 110 degrees, smells like four-day-old shrimp cocktail, and trusting a local national clean up my neck with a straight razor, that is what I am going to do!

Thing I miss most today: The ability to walk to my bathroom in the middle of the night without getting dressed. It really sucks having to get bundled up, dressed in the proper uniform, just to walk 20 meters outside my tent in the freezing cold to relieve myself.

PARANOIA AND LOGIC |

January 07, 2013

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

What seems to be forgotten in the current debate over reforming our gun laws is the introduction to the  2nd Amendment: “A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state”. When I read these words, which were carefully crafted by our founding fathers, what jumps out is the word “militia." This word symbolizes an organized force, much like the men and women whom I currently serve with in today’s National Guard. Both the historical militia that fought on Bunker Hill, and today’s National Guard which fights natural disasters at home and enemies abroad, have one primary mission: to support and defend the nation and its Constitution.

But the reference to a militia seems to be lost on groups like the National Rifle Association and Gun Owners of America, who, in the name of unfettered gun access, ignore the opening clause of the 2nd Amendment, and focus instead solely on its conclusion, which states “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed." Taken in its totality, the 2nd Amendment is clearly designed for the rapid deployment of an armed militia force in defense of the government and nation. Ironically, today’s gun lobby’s talking points are more about taking up arms and fighting against our government, which does not seem to fit the language nor intent of the 2nd Amendment.

Gun Owners of America spokesman Larry Pratt is regularly on national media outlets advocating for private arsenals as the only means to keep our democratically elected government from morphing into a fantastical tyrannical monster. To people like Mr. Pratt, what makes America a special place isn't the morals or values of its people, nor the character of those we elect to lead us. Instead, the only thing that keeps our nation dedicated to democracy is unregulated, privately held weapons arsenals.

I take personal offense to attitudes like this, because it basically says that people like myself, who serve in uniform in the United States military or in law enforcement, have no conviction to the Constitution, nor to laws of the land, nor to the values of their community. Instead we are only waiting for the chance to enslave an unarmed American nation. When people like Pratt say “guns are necessary to control the government” (Hardball, Dec. 17, 2012), and paint images of black helicopters and jack-booted thugs taking over America, they are talking about me and my fellow brothers and sisters in arms, who in their paranoid fantasy would be those tasked with establishing this tyranny. I can assure Mr. Pratt that we in uniform have taken an oath to uphold the Constitution, and to refuse orders that are illegal or immoral, and would do so if our civilian leaders faltered and attempted to overthrow the Constitution. 

A large number of gun owners have served in the military and law enforcement. We don’t fear our government, we love it, which is why we choose careers to serve and protect our nation. Many of us have risked our lives for our democratic way of life, and as a result have extensive experience with the weapons of war. Personally, I am a gun enthusiast and arms collector and own assault-style weapons myself. But I also love my kids, and peaceful streets, and support taking steps to reduce threats to these things we cherish.

Because of this, I fully support efforts being put forth to close gun show purchasing loop holes, and banning the future purchase of assault weapons, as well as other common sense efforts to limit the lethality of firearms in America. I do so because I know that these efforts in no way threaten gun ownership nor deny people the right to bear arms. No one in elected office, from the President on down, is suggesting or proposing legislation that would make gun ownership illegal. Every weapon that is legally owned today should be grandfathered in and legal after the reforms are put in place.

Similar limitations in gun ownership have been enacted in our country’s history with no resulting usurping of the Constitution. In 1934,  the National Firearms Act severely limited Americans' rights to own fully automatic machine guns without special permission from the U.S. Treasury Department. There was no ensuing government tyranny. In 1994, the passage of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban reduced access to and capacity of assault weapons, and again, no government tyranny ensued.    

Let’s move gun reform down this sensible path.The measures being proposed are tempered. They will not solve all gun violence, but they will reduce the ability of the disturbed and disgruntled to sew as much mayhem. That is all we can ask of public policy, to reduce harm and make a safer environment. Many gun rights groups say these gun control efforts are pointless, because if we ban assault weapons, then the crazies will use other types of weapons to kill. I suggest they ask any police officer or infantryman if, given the choice, they would rather face an adversary with an assault rifle or a lesser capacity weapon such as a knife, revolver, or bolt action hunting rifle, and you will see the logic of reforming our current laws.

TOWER GUARD |

January 03, 2013

Name: The Afghan Battle Fox
Returned from: Afghanistan
Hometown: Clyde, Ohio
Milblog: afghanbattlefox.com
Email: [email protected]

On an early morning in late February 2012, I had to pull a security shift known as tower guard. Every Soldier stationed on post, save a select few, had to provide security at either the entry control point (ECP), one of the towers that surrounded the post, or at the gym or dining facility (Guardian Angel Duty) on a rotating schedule as part of base defense operations. Donned in full body armor, helmet, gloves, and eye protection, Soldiers would rally at the BDOC office prior to their shift to get a briefing on the potential threats on the BOLO (Be On the Look Out) list and other pertinent information to their upcoming duties.

Framed Fox TOWER GUARD 3I woke up only 20 minutes before my shift and ran through my abbreviated morning regime. Unlike office or mission mornings, there was no need for making my hair look professional or putting on much of a fresh face, I was going to be sitting in a tower in my gear by myself for six hours. I dressed myself in several layers before even putting on any of my gear. Only in the mid-20s that morning, the cold Afghan air wasn’t going to warm up much without the help of the sun and I still had a couple of hours of darkness ahead of me.

I finished dressing, put on my heavy body armor and protective gear, grabbed my assault pack, and headed out the back flap of my tent. The little jaunt across post wasn’t very long but it was enough time to let my body embrace the outside temperature and begin to settle in to the daunting thought that I was just going to be cold until this shift was over.

Once reaching the BDOC office, I stood in a semi-circle with several other heavily padded Soldiers to receive our briefing. The briefings usually didn’t last more than just a few minutes and the information didn’t change much at that time. It was too early for fighting season in Afghanistan so there wasn’t much activity to be expected. Still, like being spoon fed bad tasting medicine, we were dosed with the day’s intel and ingested it into our constant state of awareness.

The group disbursed in different directions as each Soldier left to go to his or her respective positions around post. A few Soldiers, like myself, made a short pit stop at the DFAC to grab coffee, breakfast, or snack foods. I grabbed a tall Styrofoam cup and filled it nearly full with coffee then secured my morning treasure with a lid. It wasn’t the flavor of the coffee I was excited about by any means -- this DFAC’s coffee was horrible tasting -- it was the warmth I was seeking.

I carried my coffee, with my assault pack strapped to my back, through the dark, slumbering post. The rocks crunched loudly under my boots as I made my way to the tower, passing under one light as it faded into the next. Other than the humming of generators, there was no sound.

I reached Tower 2 and began my ascent up the metal steps, each step echoing in the silence. My footsteps did not go undetected. Two Soldiers finishing their night shift swung the tower’s large metal door open and greeted me when I reached the top of the three tiers of stairs. Eager to be properly relieved of their duties so they could go to bed, we quickly chitchatted through the events that happened to them through the night: radio checks and trying to stay warm. Other than that, all had been quiet.

The Soldiers gathered their belongings and weapons and disappeared down the steps as I closed the bulky door behind them. Like four methodical hoof beats of a horse trotting off into the distance, the two men’s footsteps became quieter and quieter as they exited the tower area. Again, all became silent.

I set my assault pack on the high wooden counter to my left and surveyed my area of operation. Three sides of the tower had sliding windows. Half of each window was covered in a rusty iron cage of sorts. The battered wooden counter in front of me traced the walls under these three windows. A high 2×4 and plywood stool sat in the middle of the cubicle tower. There was very little room to move and everything was within arm’s reach by just turning my upper torso. On the counter were various pieces of Army equipment: night vision goggles, batteries, and a radio. In the middle of the u-shaped counter was a very powerful U.S. weapon loaded with ammunition and at the ready.

I began to look past my silhouetted surroundings inside the tower to focus on the darkness outside. The tower I guarded that morning was in the southwest corner of the American-side of post. To my south, and just over the fence below me, was a camp of Afghan National Army. They slept in the same Alaskan-style tents that the American Solders did and the first row of tents looked like a mirror of the first row of American tents on my side of the wall. Anything past the first row of tents was too dark to see but, occasionally, there was a small dotting of light from a building or two in the distance. To my west, there was nothing visible close by -- simply nothing. In the distance and slightly to the southwest, a kilometer or so out, was a construction site that had some lighting; however, beyond the wall beneath me was an eerie and complete blackness. The remainder of my view from the tower, to my north and east, was the still-slumbering German and American sides of my post.

The stool in the center of the tower was slightly higher than my waist so I had to give myself an extra little push to get up on top of it to sit. I took the radio in my hand and proceeded to radio back and forth with BDOC letting them know I was checking the radio as I was instructed. Like a child with a new toy, I fidgeted around with the night vision equipment first. I raised and lowered it to my eyes several times and in various directions to see my surroundings in a different light, so to speak. After realizing that not much was really happening, I put the device down and fidgeted with papers that were left on the counter from a previous shift.

Everything remained quiet for another hour or so with the exception of radio checks and my occasional mumbling. I just sat there sipping my nasty-tasting coffee and mentally thought out what the rest of my day might entail. Once in a while I would think of a question and speak the answer out loud, as if there was someone there to agree with my answers. The sun began to turn the dark sky a hazy shade of grey-orange behind the mountains. I figured that was my cue to retrieve my camera from my assault pack.

There still wasn’t any activity happening anywhere in the area yet so I thought I would shoot the sunrise coming up over the mountain. I unbolted the large door and let it swing open then leaned myself in the doorway for stability. Capturing a sunrise or sunset can be a heart-warming and uplifting thrill some days. They are usually over within a few minutes so the enthusiasm peaks but then slightly diminishes leaving behind a fuzzy feeling and, hopefully, great photos. On other days, if the sky is one large sheet of cloud or there are no clouds at all, there isn’t much change in the sky other than the color turns from the hazy grey-orange to a brighter shade of hazy grey-orange so there’s little excitement to get all gushy about.

I stood in that doorway for nearly twenty minutes snapping a photo from time to time and feeling slightly disappointed that all I was seeing was the Earth getting brighter with no spectacular Hallelujah-filled, angel-singing array of colors. I would occasionally turn to look out the other windows to make sure I was still covering my guard duties but, once I realized I wasn’t going to get my majestic “photo of the day," I returned my camera to my bag and my butt back to the stool.

Another radio check, another hour done. By now, Soldiers were starting to roam around. Most stepped outside their tents, realized how cold it was, turned around and went back in their tents. Others came out fully dressed and on the move to wherever they needed to be. My coffee was gone and my fingers and toes were feeling the cold, I decided to stand up for a bit in an attempt that movement might warm me up. I bent back slightly to counteract the forward arching that I had been slumping myself into while sitting on that stool. I readjusted my body armor and fidgeted with the papers some more.

The post’s silence was ending as the voices of Soldiers, vehicle engines, and machinery started to filter in over the constant hum of the generators I had been hearing since I had woke up a few hours earlier. It was then that I heard a very different sound that didn’t seem to be natural on a military post -- cowbells.

I turned my attention to the western area below me that was not long ago an abyss of darkness. The sunlight now revealed the area’s secret. At the bottom of the tower on the outside of the tall concrete wall with a concertina wire fringe was a large grassy area with dozens of shallow rounded dirt mounds. Some of the sandy shell-shaped hills had holes in them while others were fully intact. Remembering back to my Afghanistan culture classes from pre-mobilization training, I realized these were graves. I was over watching a graveyard. There were no headstones or grave markers like in our American cemeteries, nor were there any wreaths or flowers honoring the dead.

Moseying over and around the rows of uneven graves were fifteen or twenty sheep and a dozen or so cows. The sheeps' wool was extremely matted, ragged, and dirty and the cows didn’t look much better. In shades of black, brown, and dingy white, these mangy-looking creatures walked wherever they pleased looking for some patch of grass to chew on. About a half of dozen of the cows had bells tied around their necks which signaled to me that they belonged to someone.

Saundering slowly behind the gathering of sheep and cows were four young Afghan boys. Two had thin wooden sticks that were taller than they were, and they used the sticks to knock against the stray sheep that weren’t going where they wanted them. As the boys walked toward my tower, I noticed each was wearing the traditional Afghan clothing that I had only seen in pictures before. They wore loose-legged pants and a long shirt. One in royal purple, one in aqua, one in navy blue, and one in tan. Each of the boys also wore a winter coat and all but the smallest boy had a hat on. The boys didn’t seem to be bothered by the cold as they wandered around with their coats unzipped and no gloves on their hands.

The sheep and cows continued to graze as the boys wandered around the burial site with no sense of purpose and with no regard for the ground they were walking on. They walked up and over some of the graves and, eventually, plopped themselves down on one near the wall below me. I had not seen any Afghan children yet since I arrived in country and, in actuality, I hadn’t seen any children in nearly six weeks since I left home, so I was captivated. I gazed at them while they threw small pebbles at the ground and drew lines in the sand with the sticks they were carrying. I watched them carry on an inaudible conversation and laugh silently to each other.

Seeing them laugh made me snicker which, in turn, took me out of my trance. Like a knee-jerk reaction, I grabbed my bag and reached for my camera. I didn’t have a very good angle from where I was in the tower because the wide counter was in my way and I was not about to dangle my camera or myself out a window. Instead, I pushed open the door of the tower and walked out on the platform at the top of the steps. The squeaking noise from the door drew the children’s attention up to me.

As soon as the boys looked up at me, I raised my camera to see through the viewer. Without any hesitation, one of the boys curled up his knees and pulled his brown tweed coat up over his shoulders tucked his head in like a turtle. The other three boys looked curiously at each other instead of me and then stood up quickly. I managed to shoot a couple of pictures before they got out of their little grouping. The photo at the top of this post shows the moment right after the boy spotted me and tucked his head away to avoid getting his picture taken.

The three boys walked closer to the base of my tower and, as I noticed this through my camera, I stopped taking pictures. One of the boys yelled something back to the turtle, which prompted the young man to peek his head up and get up to join the rest of his group. It was hard to tell how tall they were but one of the boys was much younger and smaller than the rest. He lagged a bit behind the others until he caught up with them just a few feet away from the wall.

“Ma’am! Ma’am!” one of the boys cried up to me as I looked back down at his little tan face and dark eyes.

“Water! Water!” he continued as he fashioned his small bare hand to the shape of a cup and tapped his lower lip like he was drinking.

My heart sank as I stood there motionless. I didn’t know what to do. My first encounter with someone from this foreign country and it’s a child begging me for water? My mind raced as I battled with what to do. I had been instructed not to throw anything over the fence and not to give anything to the children. It sounds cruel but there really are reasons I have been told and that’s another topic in itself to explain at another time. Anyways, I simply could not throw bottles of water down to them over the fence and I couldn’t tell them that. It was at this moment that I kicked myself for not taking the Dari language courses more seriously during pre-mobilization training. Albeit, it was a very brief online course that maybe could have given me only fifty words and ten phrases or so, but it would have been something.

I felt so bad as they stood there looking up at me. The little guy continued to call out “Ma’am!” and “Water!” and there was nothing I could do. The boy in the tweed jacket, who had just minutes before hid his face from my camera, half-heartedly smacked the boy on the arm while saying something to him. The pursuer dropped his little hand and was quiet. All four boys looked at each other, turned around and walked back past where they had been sitting and continued until they disappeared around another corner of the post. The animals trailed behind them, vanishing one by one behind the wall. Their bells now faintly being heard as they moved way. Deflated, I stepped back inside the tower and bolted the door shut.

I don’t recall the rest of that tower guard shift now. I know I went through the motions of watching my surroundings and calling up radio checks as required but the exact details of those last couple of hours are moot. The feelings of helplessness and guilt had made me more numb than the cold had. I had exactly what these young boys were asking for yet I could not give it to them. I had four bottles of water right there at my feet! I felt so selfish. Moreover, I was frustrated and felt ashamed that I could not even communicate with them. I was in their country, for Chrissake!

Later that night when I was back in my area, I managed to grab enough bandwidth to download a Dari application on my iPod. In time and with the help of that app, a good friend of mine who knew some of the language because of his previous deployments, and a few interpreters, I learned enough Dari to carry on a small conversation. Learning one word at a time and not always pronouncing the words correctly, I spoke to the Afghans in their language as often and as much as I could.

As for the water issue, the feelings of guilt never went away. I did, however, figure out that if you toss a water bottle from inside a tower out an open window instead of from the back steps overlooking the post, you are less likely to be seen.

HAPPY NEW YEAR FROM AFGHANISTAN |

January 01, 2013

Name:  1SG James L. Gibson
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Hometown: Forest Grove, Oregon
Milblog: Afghanistan Deployment 2012-2013
Email: [email protected]

Framed Gibson NEW YEARSAfter eight days of a five day trip, I have finally made it back to FOB Apache. The only thing that sucked about staying the extra days is that I was flying space available and had to be ready at a moment’s notice to get on a flight. May not sound like a big deal, but when you only pack for a five day trip, I was starting to get a little funky. The laundry service up at COP Bullard was a 48 hour turn-around, and with being on a short leash for flights, I couldn’t risk not getting my laundry back in time.

I hate packing, ask my wife. I waited until the night before I was to fly out to pack up what I was going to need for the five-day trip. Knowing how military flights work, I packed for six and then dropped off my laundry at the Apache facility so I would have some clean uniforms for when I returned. My XO gave me a ride down to the flight line and dropped me off about an hour prior to my flight. The flight showed up on time and I was on my way. My Chemical Biological Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) platoon that I was headed up to visit is paired up with a Romanian battalion and live on a remote outpost. It takes a few hours to drive, but since flights often head up to drop off Soldiers and supplies, I was able to fly. I have said it before, and I will say it again many times; I love to fly!

I was again flying on a Mi-8 helicopter and after about an hour (we had to stop at a few other COPs) I landed at COP Bullard. The CBRN platoon was out on the LZ waiting for me. A couple Soldiers carried the boxes to the CP and the others took me to my living quarters. They had set aside a room for occasions such as these. It was understood that the Commander and I would be making monthly trips up to live with them for a few days. The room was nice, heated, and they had put aside some sundry items just in case we had forgotten anything. I dropped off my bags, took off my kit, and headed to the Soldiers living quarters.

It was Christmas Eve and they were not planning on any missions for that day or the next. This allowed me to spend some quality time with the Soldiers and get to know them a little better. As the HHT First Sergeant it has been tough to get on a personal level with each Soldier in my troop. Not having to go on a mission for a few days was going to allow me to shoot the breeze, play some games, and hang out with all of the Soldiers. The CBRN platoon didn’t disappoint and we were quickly involved in a serious game of dominoes!

When deployed, Soldiers bond and build friendships that last a lifetime. The bonds that this platoon has built remind me of my Scouts. The CBRN platoon is doing something that no other platoon in the squadron is doing, and living so far away from anyone else has strengthened that bond. I was afraid it would be a little awkward being the 1SG and hanging with the Soldiers trying to get them to speak freely, but they opened up right away and treated me as just another Soldier in their platoon. I may have facilitated the ease with the amount of shit-talking I started when I walked into the room. It wasn’t long before the bones were being slapped on the table, Madden games on the X-Box were being played, and Spades were being dealt. One way you can tell the level of morale in a platoon is the amount of shit-talking. I am positive that some of the insults being thrown around today are nothing more than repeats of insults that were thrown back in the days of the Roman Empire. And judging by the amount of smack that was being talked in the CBRN platoon, morale is sky high.

The CBRN platoon has really built up their living areas. SSG Filmon, the resident loud guy and Squad Leader has built a recreation room for his platoon. It’s got a card table, X-Box, TV with movies, and a computer. He’s also a dang SEC and Florida Gator fan, so everything in that place is tagged with the Florida Gator symbol and he has even named the building “The Swamp” which is prominently displayed on the front entrance.

Around 9 pm that night we started to hear a growing sound that resembled banging on pots and pans. It grew louder and louder until there was a knock at the door. We all looked at each other wondering what the hell it could be. One of the Soldiers opened the door and about 10 Romanian Soldiers promptly entered The Swamp dressed up in Christmas hats and decorations; they had decided to come sing the American Soldiers some traditional Romanian Christmas carols! It only took them a couple of seconds before all of us were standing up and clapping along. It was really cool and much appreciated by all. They left after a couple songs and I was then informed that on Christmas day they were planning on having a Madden Football tournament. I was in, as well as a couple of civilian police advisors that live on the COP. The guys had nick-named them “Duck Dynasty” due to the outrageous beards they sport and the southern drawl they speak with.

I decided to do something a little special for the tournament. The guys had already taken a PT belt and stapled some cards to it and called it the championship belt, so I decided to make a Madden 2013 belt. I grabbed some cardboard, tape, cut it out, and then covered it in tin foil and some things that were lying around, and wah-la!

Around noon we all took a break from the games that were being played and headed to the Romanian-run chow hall and ate lunch. Normally the guys had been complaining about the chow situation, but for Christmas Day the Romanians put on a large spread. It was really nice spending the time standing around the tables, Christmas carols being played over the radio, and chatting with our Romanian brothers. I had trained some of them while I was an Observer Controller in Hohenfels, Germany. It was fun trading horror stories of the training events during the German winters and talking about the old Timberwolf O/C Team. The rest of the day was spent chilling out. I made it to the finals of the Madden tournament but lost. Oh well, the belt needed to stay at the COP anyway. I don’t have anywhere in my office to hang it.

It wasn’t all fun and games while I was there. I did get to go on a few missions. I have been waiting for the opportunity to show up in kit to one of their mission briefs and give a Soldier a day off. I was going out as just another Soldier, not as the First Sergeant. I did this for two reasons. The first was to actually give one of the Soldiers a day off and show them that 1SG was still up to chewing on some dirt. The other reason was to witness the platoon’s mission planning and briefs. I could stand back and do it from the outside looking in, but wouldn’t be able to see the mission execution. Of course I found things that they needed to work on, but overall it was good. Mind you, I compare every platoon to that of my former Scout platoon (which if you haven’t figured out by now, walked on water) so no matter how good they were, I was going to find something they can improve on.

Although I can’t go through all the details of the mission, what I can tell you is that it was COLD! It had been snowing for the last couple of days and the temperature was peaking at around 10 degrees with a steady 10 mph wind. We were out in sector for only a few hours, but damn it was miserable. But I knew no matter how bad the weather was, we would be fine. I remember having a conversation back at a training area in Germany with an old Command Sergeant Major and friend of mine, Randy Sumner.

It was during a unit’s preparation for a deployment to Afghanistan and I was telling him that I didn’t believe we needed to put Soldiers up in the guard towers. My thought was that they would gather better training out in “The Box” than staying static for hours in a guard tower in sub-freezing temps. We knew when the enemy was going to attack and if they were not, they shouldn’t be pulling guard. He disagreed with me saying that he personally thought that it made him a better Soldier when he was deployed and in the suck. He would look back at the times he was pulling guard in training for hours, freezing his sack off, and know that if he could do it then, he could do it during war. After my mission with the CBRN platoon I saw his point. I now agree with the wise old man!

The next couple of days were filled with missions and figuring out how I could help with improving their quality of life. On the day I was supposed to leave it was nothing but blue skies as far as you could see. That doesn’t mean crap in Afghanistan. What you don’t see is the other side of the mountains and the cloud cover and fog that it has trapped. My stay was extended for a few days due to weather. I did eventually make it back to FOB Apache and back to reality. My mini-vacation was over. I had over 150 emails waiting for me.

Oh yeah, I almost forgot! One thing that I did do before I left was cut out an Oregon Duck stencil and tag a bunch of stuff around the Swamp. I even tagged SSG Filmon’s room in two places: One is in an obvious spot on his door, the other is hidden behind a bag that he will eventually find. Gotta represent!

During my first deployment I also did some writing for family and friends. One thing that I did, and will do now, is let you know something that I miss or crave the most. I will leave out the obvious (my beautiful wife, kids, family, and friends) but include other things like Dirty Dave’s Pizza, driving my car, etc.

The thing that I miss most today: Windows! When deployed, enemy mortar attacks are a threat. Everywhere you work and live all the windows are filled with sandbags and plywood. I would imagine it’s like being in jail. I miss the ability to look outside from my desk or living area.


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