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.

MASTERING PTSD |

February 26, 2013

Name: Ginger Star Peterman
Returned from: Iraq
Hometown: Milwaukee, WI
Email: gsgunnip@yahoo.com

Day fades. Darkness prevails and the weeks quickly melt. I lack sleep. I refuse to feel. I avoid that which I cannot change, but is real. I must choose to face it; reestablish control. He took it from me, about 260 weeks ago, and I need it back. I must say it, out loud. Let the world hear my voice.  

His job is to heal wounded soldiers, Doc Lemieux. I should have stayed outside his CHU, in mid-day Kirkuk, with the summer-sun beaming down upon the empty gravel. A CHU, containerized housing unit, is what the more fortunate soldiers live in. Others share 30-man tents with cots, if they are lucky, and have hot showers with toilets. If not, the lowest ranking personnel are put on shit-burning detail involving a 50-gallon metal drum cut short enough to squat over, JP8 diesel fuel, matches, and a stick for stirring. Soldiers go to FOB Warrior for mini-vacations, resupply missions, and healthcare. I’m here for an x-ray. Doc Lemieux is my NCOIC, non-commissioned officer in charge.       

I am a wounded soldier. My ankle throbs with no respite. My wrists are sore, from maneuvering crutches through gravel and balancing on one foot. The rubber pads are warped and scratched from the jagged, hot rocks. Everywhere there were rocks stretching miles wide, and likely deep, into the nothingness below. The rocks sink down into the powdered dirt they called “sand” after soldiers march it forcefully into the forsaken ground. The heated rocks soften our rubber soles.   

It was the first in a series of bad days. I glare up at the harsh sun. No amount of daily sunscreen can protect my Ginger skin from the UV rays on this side of the globe. He insists I go into his CHU. I have no choice. I don’t know where I am or where else I can go. There are three awkward steps leading us up into the aluminum box.  

I complain, “My wrists hurt from these stupid crutches."

Invading my space, he smiles: “Let me take a look at them.”

“Why?  There is nothing to see,” I say, laughing with reservation.

He insists and grabs my aching wrists one at a time, without even looking at them. He glares into my eyes and throws me at his bed. I bounce up, utterly confused.

“Ouch! Why would you do that? I just told you I was in pain. You twisted my bad ankle, too!” 

He doesn’t acknowledge my plea. He throws me back down again, laughing like it’s a game; he is winning. He doesn’t let me bounce back this time. Now I am trapped between him, the bed, and the four walls inside this tiny container in Northern Iraq. The CHU is centered within a matrix of many rows and columns of lifeless CHUs. He is strong and I am weak. The more I fight, the more he gets off.

“You like this,” he demands. “You’re a dirty girl.”

I close my eyes and see his, pervading evil within. The image of his nametape is branded onto my inner eyelids, reinforcing the memory: his intent to violate my pride, to take my life, and to force his body onto me. The neuronal synapses of my subconscious established a direct route through the maze my conscience built to avoid such thoughts. Yet he is steadily there, a constant, revisited daily. The side effects are what doctors call post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD, as a result of military sexual trauma, MST: irritability, hyper-vigilance, anxiety. 

Avoidance is like pouring JP8 on PTSD. I stay at home and cry. PTSD gets off even more when I can’t enjoy sex with my own husband. He leaves me for a woman who actually enjoys sex with my husband.  

My marriage failed. 

Who to trust? How to survive? Is it even possible to get my life back? Suicide is an option.

Right?

No.

Fight!

Many veterans are suffering from PTSD. We are staying “safe" in our homes, drinking, playing video games, watching TV, self-medicating, attempting suicide, avoiding our potentials, and letting PTSD win.  We are not alone in this fight. I know that transformation doesn’t happen overnight, but the possibility of achieving control of PTSD is real. 

He can no longer harness the power I give him. I must get it back. I must achieve my potential to the precise maximum. I am an American soldier. I’ve been to Hell, and I’m not going back. 

PYRAMID OF WOOL |

February 19, 2013

Name: Ross Magee
Stationed in: Afghanistan

The carpets sat like a dense woolen pyramid in the middle of his store. The smallest ones were on top while the giant pieces that took up the entire space were resting at the bottom. He was wearing jeans, a flannel shirt with a woolen waistcoat and a tan pakol cap rested permanently on his head. He sat comfortably atop his pyramid of wool. We drank tea for half an hour. My Dari is not as good as it should be and, like a tolerant elder, the old man gently corrected me as often as he replied to my questions. It was my third or fourth time in his shop. 

Framed Magee PYRAMIDI had never purchased anything from him, but had also never arrived without a small gift — a box of cough drops, some tea or a bag of coffee — just a small token to acknowledge the value of his time. He looked as if he might have been eighty, but judging from his two sons, who were also in the room, his age was probably closer to fifty — an old man by any measure in Afghanistan. When we were done with tea one of his sons whisked away our cups. 

We knelt on either side of the meter tall stack of carpets and slowly pulled them back, examining each one as we went. His thick hands, toughened by years of steady work guided the carpets with a deft flick of his wrist, which I tried to no avail to imitate.

I asked him the names as we poured through the stack, and he recited them with a gentle smile as each carpet appeared. The names rolled off his tongue and I repeated them, trying to chant them into my memory: Balouch, Tiamani, SarGul, Yamut, Turkmen , Kuchi, Fil Pah, Bokhara, Purdah and on and on. We travelled through the patterns, textures and colors as varied as the people of Afghanistan. Coarse, refined, uneven, delicate, bold; we steadily dove deeper and deeper into this complex country. To understand carpets is to have a window into Central Asia, a glimpse of what was and what remains. In these carpets there is also a hope for the future.

When we reached the Kuchi carpet, I paused and brushed my hand over its soft wool, loosely spun and matted deeply when run with the lay across the top: deep colors of blue and red with natural browns and beiges of un-dyed wool. The design was simple and rough, the pile deep with thick cords for the warp and weft. The carpet had the tactile qualities of a sheep. It was dense and heavy under my hand and, had I touched it with my eyes closed, I believe I could have felt it breathing under my hand. This carpet was very much alive; it was as restless and nomadic as the people who made it. I wondered what plants had been used to dye the wool. How far had it travelled? What things had it heard and seen? How many tents or homes had it been in? What twist of fate or misfortune had brought it here? 

“Do you ever get a massage?” the old man asked me.

I was not sure where this line of questioning would lead, but the response was “Yes.” 

“If you sleep on this carpet, you’ll never need another massage; it will take care of you and your back,” he said smiling and leaning forward from across the stack brushing the thick wool towards me. I suddenly found myself wishing it could talk. I thought for a moment I heard it say that it wanted to travel with me.

A soldier in uniform walked into the shop and the shopkeeper’s son said hello to him. Without greeting or acknowledging anyone in the room he simply asked to no one in particular, “Do you have a ten dollar rug?” 

“Yes,” was the only reply from his eldest son. 

The old man looked at me. “Business is business,” he said quietly in Dari, a knowing smile on his face.

The son flipped through a stack of tiny placemat sized rugs that soldiers often put next to their beds or outside their doors. He pulled one out and said “Ten dollars.” 

“How much for that one?” the soldier asked, pointing to one three times as big and with a basic design on it. 

“Forty dollars."

The soldier repeated the price back with a bit of incredulity in his voice then pointed to the ten dollar rug. “I want that one.” 

“How about two for twenty?” Came the response. 

“No,” he said and passed the son a ten dollar bill. 

The rug was folded and placed in a small bag and handed to the soldier, who turned and walked out without saying thank you or shaking hands. This transactional encounter in a world built on trust and relationships left the shop suddenly cold. The old man motioned for more tea and we returned to the stack of carpets. 

When we reached the bottom, I asked him if anyone had ever walked into his store and asked for a thousand dollar carpet. “No,” he replied with a smile, “no one ever asks for a thousand dollar carpet.”

I spent another ten minutes helping him flip all of the carpets back, smoothing out the wrinkles with our hands as we went. He called all the names out and I repeated them back to him as we passed decades of work, lifetimes and livelihoods back into a neat orderly stack.

We chatted for a moment, exchanged pleasantries and then I left without buying a carpet.

I have been sleeping on a thin foam pad for almost half a year now. I woke this morning and my back hurt. As I sat in bed thinking about my day, I thought I heard a carpet calling me. The restless nomadic carpet is there, deep in the pyramid of wool, waiting for the next leg of its tireless and timeless journey. It is patient, and perhaps when the days grow a bit longer and the green returns to the hills it will begin to move again.

DEPLOYED SOLDIER: MY MIND WAS MY ENEMY |

February 16, 2013

Name: The Afghan Battle Fox
Returned from: Afghanistan
Hometown: Clyde, Ohio
Milblog: Afghan Battle Fox's Blog
Email: lambmommy@gmail.com

From day one, I was trained to defend myself and to kill if necessary. With underlying tones of staying physically fit and making the proper choices, I learned the Army values and the basic skills I needed to be an American Soldier. During my second week of Basic Training, I wandered around in thick woods and brush with three other Soldiers counting paces and looking at a compass in order to learn land navigation. During grenade training, I hid in bunkers, popping my head up like a groundhog long enough to assess my objective then quickly ducked back down. I chucked the spoon, pulled the pin and with an all-in-one standing and throwing motion, launched my grenade toward my target then quickly ducked back down.

My combatives partner and I were the same height and weight, only I had twenty years on her. My first sergeant felt this would make for an interesting match so I took and dished out as many blows as I could. Spent, I awaited the match-ending whistle expectantly. During rifle marksmanship, all the practice of sighting and breathing techniques from the weeks before came into play. Laying prone on a cement bunker, with two eyes open and my dominant eye looking through my iron sights, I waited patiently and watched my lane for pop-up green silhouette targets to appear. I steadied my hand, slowed my breathing, and gently pulled the trigger sending my 5.56mm round down range in attempts to hit my target center mass.

As a Soldier preparing to become a non-commissioned officer, I attended the Warrior Leader Course (WLC). I learned concepts such as composite risk assessment and leadership skills needed in garrison and tactical situations.

As a Soldier getting ready to deploy to Afghanistan, I endured hours of slide-show classes on Afghanistan -- everything from cultural sensitivity to terrain. I practiced again with grenades and re-qualified with my rifle, even qualifying additionally on a 9mm hand gun. I practiced detainee operations, scouring over inches of my battle buddy’s body looking for pre-placed weapons. I practiced roll-over drills in up-armored vehicles and had my reactions to simulated Improvised Explosive Devices tested.

I role-played with actors during exercises at the National Training Center. My mock-Afghanistan came equipped with the desert features of hot days, cold nights, and sand storms. The actors, some of who were actually Afghan-born, ran me through near-real scenarios that I could potentially encounter in country.

I was encouraged to read books on Afghanistan and the war on terror. While still in the United States, I emailed my public affairs counterpart in the ‘Stan to talk to him about life on deployment and his surroundings there. I searched the internet. I Googled images.   I read news stories. I watched videos. I talked with Soldiers who had deployed there before. I did everything I could to be immersed in “the war in Afghanistan” in preparation for my upcoming deployment.

All of this learning, training, and interaction had now, so I thought, prepared me to go on my first deployment. I was headed to northern Afghanistan on a mission to help the Afghans help themselves before American troops would have to withdraw from their country. I was anxious to get there and to put all of my training to work.

I recall having an immediate and high sense of awareness when I finally got to Afghanistan in January 2012. On the first night I arrived on my post, I gave myself a headache as my mind slowly gripped the reality of where I was and the possibilities of things that could go wrong. It was like I had hit my head on a brick wall and I grew a level of nervousness that didn’t leave, despite what efforts I attempted to make it subside.

My new-found baseline of nervousness was proven on my first walk to the outer Entry Control Point (ECP). It was not a casual stroll to the gate. I shook like a wet, cold cat emerging from an accidental fall in an icy lake. My eyes darted from point to point trying to take in absolutely every bit of detail. The Afghan soldiers near me, standing in their dark green uniforms and holding their rifles, unknowingly and unintentionally injected a unique anxiety into me. I had no personal reason to distrust or fear them but I kept flashing back to the vivid images of ECP bombings I had burned in my mind from the hours of photos and videos I had watched during training. The figures that I had seen in those pictures and videos were now real, not photographed, and stood just a mere few feet away from me. The Army had filled me with conflicting thoughts of these soldiers -- these men. I had grown an apprehension of them. Yet we were there to work with them, to train them, to better their country.

On my early missions, I literally had to stop myself from thinking in order to focus on the tasks I had before me. I would scare myself sick just with the thought of a possible suicide vest under a woman’s burqa or that any random Afghan could just start firing at my convoy at any moment. It was a possibility and there was no way to truly measure the likelihood of an event either.

People were no longer people to me. They were threats and potential targets if the circumstances materialized.

Legitimately, there is certain threat level to being an American Soldier in a country torn as to whether our presence there is a hindrance or an impetus. That threat level is exactly why the Army trained me the way they did. With every piece of training, a drill sergeant, team leader or someone with experience was telling me why I had to learn that particular bit of information or skill. I was told I had to learn it in case I ”ever deployed," in case I “had to defend” myself, or in case I “had to kill someone."

I had been told those reasons repeatedly throughout my training yet, now that I was away from my home and miles across the sea, it was really settling in and I was scaring myself. My mind, out of fear, had conjured up the thought that these people were all like those I had seen in the photos and videos. In my mind, they were all capable of pulling the trigger or pushing the button -- and were just waiting their turn.

Ignorantly, I viewed these innocent, hard-working Afghan people as vicious predators. And without real cause. I had created an uneasiness in myself against an entire culture of people who I really didn’t know.

Who had I become? Where was this bitterness coming from? Had the Army made me into this? How dare I judge these people and mistakenly categorized them into something they weren’t?!

Fear had distorted the logic of my psyche as to whom the actual enemy was. And, at that moment, ironically, my fear was admittedly the most dangerous enemy I truly had.

FIRE AND FORGET |

February 11, 2013

Name: Roy Scranton
Returned from: Iraq
Hometown: Salem, Oregon
Milblog: Fire and Forget

Framed Scranton FILE AND FORGET coverMy friend Jake came back from Afghanistan a few months ago. When he first got back, we got drinks to talk about a project we were working on together, Fire and Forget, and I asked him how his tour was. “The end of war is a funny time,” he growled, then brushed the question off the bar with a deft flick. Then he turned, hunched over his Dewar’s, and went into some seriously deep thoughts about literary immortality — not in history but in the words, like, the transcendental arrangement of verbs and nouns in a sentence. From there, he led into Nabokov, and we danced around some philosophy before striking deep into “the modern condition,” modern meaning contemporary, twenty-first century America. Our buddy Phil showed up and pulled us back from the brink, and we left the problem on the bar, soaking in spilled scotch, and found ourselves a table in the back where we could really get talking.

I still haven’t heard any details about Jake’s tour. He hasn’t told me, and I haven’t asked. It’s an unwritten rule among vets that you don’t pry into another guy’s time. If you meet somebody who was in the same country as you, you can ask where they were, or who they were with, maybe their MOS*, but that’s the limit. You don’t ask what they did, or how much they saw. You don’t ask if they had any close calls. You sure as hell don’t ask if they killed anybody. Maybe you ask how the chow was. Even with Jake, who I consider a close friend, any probing would have felt like a violation. Partly because I know he’ll tell me what he needs to, whenever he feels ready. Partly because I don’t trust my own curiosity.

I spent thirteen months downrange myself, 2003 to 2004, driving a Humvee around Baghdad. I know what it’s like to come back and have people avid at your elbow, thirsty for a little blood. They want to know what it’s like, they say, what it’s really like, they want to know all kinds of things.

But really what they want is a good story. They want some excitement, a bit of thrill, a little suffering and redemption, something human and real. It’s not a new impulse, and — despite how shamefully, queasily pleasing it felt, at first, to be subject to that avidity — it’s not a bad impulse. Humans love stories. We love stories about other humans. We love real stories, made-up stories, stories about outer space, the distant past, and impossible futures, stories about rich and poor, stories about foreigners, stories about our neighbors, stories about people who turn into animals, and stories about people who fall in love. We even love stories about war. Narrative gives us a way to learn about the world, to think about the world, and even to change it. After all, if you tell a good enough story well, enough times, people will come to believe in it. Whether it’s factual or not won’t even matter.

Every vet knows what it’s like to be asked for their best stories by total strangers. But we’re less apt to admit to the fact that we know as well what it’s like to want to ask. Thankfully for me, I won’t have to ask Jake, because he’s a writer. He won’t have to ask me, either, because I am too. We actually met in a writing group for veterans, put together by New York University, which is where we both met Phil Klay, who was a Marine PAO* in Iraq, Perry O’Brien, who was an airborne medic in Afghanistan, and Matt Gallagher, who was a cavalry lieutenant in Iraq.

We don’t just tell stories, which is itself a time-honored military pastime, we write them. We’ve been writing them for a few years now. Not just memoirs, not just reportage, but the kind of story that pierces through to a human truth deeper than just events. We wanted to see more fiction, the kinds of things we wrote, not just because we loved good fiction ourselves, but because we all believed that there’s something a novel or short story can do that nothing else really can. What that is, exactly, is hard to put your finger on, but it has something to do with possibility: On the one hand, being limited to universal human possibility, to what would happen. On the other, being able to imagine wholly new human possibilities — being free to create what could happen. Somewhere in there, between would and could, between the universal and the individual, we make fiction to tell the truth.

In 2010, we decided there weren’t enough of the kinds of stories we wanted to read, and that other people told us they wanted to read, so we got together over some beers at the White Horse Tavern and decided to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. Now, three years later, after a lot of heated discussion and not a few moments of despair, Fire and Forget is on shelves. It features stories from Jake Siegel, Phil Klay, Perry O’Brien, Matt Gallagher, and myself, and also Colby Buzzell, David Abrams, Brian Turner, Mariette Kalinowski, Gavin Ford Kovite, Brian Van Reet, Roman Skaskiw, Andrew Slater, and Ted Janis, all veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. We’re lucky enough to have the home front represented as well, by crack storyteller Siobhan Fallon, whose collection You Know When the Men Are Gone describes life on an Army post with a fine, discerning eye.

Fire and Forget may not solve the problem of the “modern condition,” it may not tell you everything you want to know about what happened to your buddy downrange, and I make no claims to literary immortality. But I know Jake was right when he said “the end of war is a funny time,” and I know he nailed a deep truth when he wrote “Smile, There Are IEDs Everywhere," which tells the story of one vet’s efforts to connect the strange world downrange with the strange world back in the USA. Jake wrote the story after his first tour, in Iraq, and while it doesn’t tell you everything about what happened to him there, it gets at something a hundred hours over scotch couldn’t. And I’m proud to have Jake’s story taking point in the collection.

Fire and Forget brings together fifteen voices as sharp and distinct as Jake’s, all of them telling stories about people who fought and struggled in Iraq, Afghanistan, and back home: fifteen short stories about the long war, fifteen fictions that go deep for truth.    

*
MOS : Military Occupational Specialty

PAO : Public Affairs Officer

 

DON'T EXPECT WHAT YOU DON'T INSPECT! |

February 08, 2013

Name:  1SG James L. Gibson
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Hometown: Forest Grove, Oregon
Milblog: The Life of Top
Email: James.l.gibson@afghan.swa.army.mil

Don’t expect what you don’t inspect. That sentence came back to bite us in the ass a few weeks ago. I was able to hop onto the Squadron Commanders convoy up to the FOB that one of my platoons is operating out of. After a failed attempt at flying, this was going to be the easiest way to get up and see my troops. Along with the command groups Strykers, we were taking a cargo truck with us full of my platoon’s “C” bags and some mail that we had piling up in the mail room.

Framed Gibson EXPECTAt 0900 sharp the mission brief started. The Squadron Commander’s Personal Security Detachment (PSD) has the pre-mission brief down to a science. Platoon leader briefs updates on the mission, air support, Platoon Sergeant talks about recovery if a truck goes down, Medic covers Casualty Evacuation (CASEVAC), one of the drivers covers roll-over drills, and another driver covers fire drills. Once that was complete we loaded the Strykers and headed out the gate. I didn’t want to sit inside for the whole ride so I volunteered to be the rear security on the Command Sergeant Major's truck.

After spending 27 months in Iraq and conducting hundreds of patrols, I thought I knew what “poor” was. I was shocked to see the conditions the Afghan people live in around here. The one thing that stands out to me is the utter lack of color. Everything is brown. Every once in a while you spot a young kid along the road wearing an old pink coat that catches your eye due to the extreme contrast of colors.

Everyone is dirty and void of smiles, which is understandable for a country that has been at war for decades. The compounds and houses in Iraq had windows and were somewhat taken care of. They would have belongings, tables and such, scattered in front of their house, which gave you a sense that people lived there. Inside they were decorated with carpet, pictures, and some even had TVs and radios. Here in Afghanistan, the compounds the Afghans live in are made of mud, not like the brick buildings in Iraq.

My grandfather has talked to me about always wanting to meet his Russian counterpart; an Infantry colonel in the Russian Army. I want to do the same thing some day. I want to go back to Ramadi when I am 70 (if and when it’s safe) and talk to Abu Allah (one of the High Value Targets we went after) and have some tea. Pick his brain, you know? Ask him if he knew how close we were to killing/capturing him. Did he know my name or that of my Platoon Leader Jim? What was it like being on the run and how did he control his network with us so close to his tail? How did he train his guys? What were his orders to his network of insurgents? Were they to kill/capture us specifically, or was it just to disrupt our operations.

I haven’t been here in Afghanistan long enough to want this with a Taliban counterpart. I would rather get to know my civilian counterpart. The question that kept repeating in my head during our movement yesterday was “What do these people live for?” Looking at their faces, the lack of personal belongings, the women that were stuffed in the back of the trucks to ride with the sheep, I couldn’t come up with any answer other than: “Survival." Mind you, I haven’t been beating the ground every day conducting foot patrols to get a good vibe of the people. This opinion is only coming from a trip in a Stryker hatch that lasted a little over five hours.

Around an hour into the drive I started to smell burning rubber, and after a minute the cargo truck in front of us confirmed it by blowing out its front tire. We immediately pulled off the right side of the road and pulled security. I dismounted and took a look at the situation. Yup, it was unable to move until we changed it. I told the vehicle commander, "Get the tools, we will change it right here and then continue our move." Too easy. At least that’s what I thought!

The vehicle commander does a loop around the truck, opening compartment after compartment, and comes back to tell me, “We don’t have any tools on the truck." Now, this wouldn’t be much of a problem had we another truck in the convoy that was the same, but we didn’t. The tool set on the Stryker didn’t have a socket large enough to fit the lug nuts on the truck. Uh-oh. To make matters worse, the Brigade Commander and Brigade Command Sergeant Major were riding with us.

A Scout Weapons Team of a couple OH-58D helicopters showed up on station to provide us with a little bit more security while we tried to figure out what we were going to do. We were well over an hour away from the FOB and QRF was spinning up to bring us some recovery assets. A Romanian patrol stopped and offered some support but didn’t have any sockets large enough either.

We were still screwed and sitting ducks on the side of the road. Just my luck! The one patrol I go on and we get stuck on the side of the road. With both the Squadron and Brigade commanders and CSMs on the ground, it quickly became a scene of “too many bosses, not enough workers” and I worked my way back to the Stryker to run the mounted security. I was talking with the other Strykers and giving the helicopters some areas to look at while we sat and waited for the QRF (which seemed like forever, as the leadership was going to be late for a meeting and kept asking how long it was going to be for QRF to arrive).

The plan was for QRF to maintain security of the truck, fix it, and take it back while we continued our move to our destination. Time was dragging by when the pilots came over the net and asked us how much longer we were going to be. The PSD Platoon Sergeant explained that we didn’t have a socket big enough to fit the wheel and we were going to be here for a while waiting for QRF. And that’s when the question of all questions was asked. The Platoon Sergeant asked the pilot if he would fly back to our FOB and pick one up.

The net went silent. I am sure the pilots were on their own frequency talking smack. Probably went something like:

Pilot 1: Did he just ask what I think he asked?

Pilot 2: No F’n Way!

Pilot 1: I went through years of flight training, I have a helicopter loaded with rockets and .50 Cal machine guns, flying in enemy territory, and this dude wants me to turn this into a parts truck?

Pilot 2: Didn’t they say that the Brigade Commander was down there?

Pilot 1: Shit! That’s right!

Pilot 1 to PSD Platoon Sergeant: Not a problem, brother! We are on our way!

The pilots ripped back to the FOB and picked up the socket and then conducted a quick landing in the middle of the road after we blocked traffic. Within 10 minutes we had the tire changed and we were on our way. We continued to move and made it to our destination just in time for the meeting. But hey, when you are the Brigade Commander, you are never really late to a meeting. Everyone else was just early!

It was nice getting to see the boys up at the FOB. My platoon knew I was headed up to visit them and as I stepped off the Stryker the Platoon Sergeant was waiting for me. I immediately broke from the group and got a tour from SSG Cereceres. The FOB is small, about 400 meters by 400 meters. They are colocated with some Romanian Soldiers and US Special Forces. The platoon is doing great things up there and have been continuing to improve the living and sleeping conditions.

After the tour was over I got to do what I came up for. I sat down with all the Soldiers and just shot the breeze with them. They told me about the missions they were conducting, what they do on their off time, and all the specific things they have done to improve the FOB. I asked them all the same question: If you were 1SG, what is the one thing that you would fix here where you are living?

The answer was unanimous: chow! These poor guys are being fed by the Romanians, and from personal experience I can say that they don’t put quite the same emphasis on food for Soldiers that we do. I was already tracking this and have voiced the concern to the powers that be. I explained to them that it was now out of my hands that that the head dude from our Division was going to pay them a visit the next day to fix it. Other than chow, the guys loved the mission, were happy with living conditions, and were content with living on this little FOB for the next eight months. I was really impressed with them and what they have done.

The ride back was uneventful and in the dark. I got back and we immediately conducted an After Actions Review (AAR) of the mission to identify what procedures we are going to impliment to make sure we are not again going to run into the issue of having a truck without the proper tools go on patrol. By the time I had dinner and checked emails, it was time to call the girls and hit the rack. I was tired and ready for a good night’s sleep.

THE BIRDS |

February 04, 2013

Name: Ross Magee
Stationed in: Afghanistan

We walk up the street past men maneuvering to soak up the last rays of the fading winter sun. It is clear and cold. As the shadows grow long the guards become more hesitant to come out of their shacks. We duck under drop-arms and “Salaam” as we pass them. We knock on the gate and instead of the metal window sliding open, the personnel door cracks and an older Afghan man in a weary uniform, with a three-day shadow and three-decade-old Kalashnikov appears. He recognizes us and his face stretches into a wide grin. We exchange greetings; rapidly passing through a series of questions with neither of us waiting for the other to answer as we shake hands. 

“Dastetan beseyar garm ast!” (Your hands are very warm!) His broad smile stretches even wider and as I step through the door he points at the shack where two other guards sit huddled over an electric heater with steaming cups of tea in their hands. “Bokhari darem!” (We have a heater!)

“Kujo tota-e-tan ast?” (Where are your parrots?) 

He laughs heartily: “Tota raftee! Ama anha char baja pas amadan.” (The parrots have gone but they return at four o’clock.) 

He looks to the tall leafless trees standing in the compound, just to make sure they are not there, and we stand exchanging small talk for a few more minutes before moving on to conduct our meeting.

When we return it is dark and the guard tells me that I have missed the returning parrots; that they circled and squawked before roosting near the trunk of the tree on a high, strong branch. I have heard this convergence of images before. Later, I recall that it is Rumi who planted it in my ear, in his poem Say I Am You:

I am a tree with a trained parrot in its branches.
Silence, thought and voice.

These birds are not trained but they are certainly part of Kabul’s voice.

Kabul is a city of birds. It is not obvious at first, but they are here. Along the side streets of Kabul, old men can be seen selling small parakeets in wooden cages. There is rumored to be a market in Old Town that encompasses an entire alley of shops selling nothing but birds. I have not seen it, but I believe it exists. Perhaps it is a place I cannot go, and if so that may be best.

For the most part, birds are absent from the scenery across town; so are trees. Nearly everything in this town that can be burned has been. Now that winter has come, there are flocks of tiny sparrows that swoop into the tall pine trees that stand protected in a nearby courtyard just before dusk. There is also a falcon that arrives at the same time every afternoon to watch. As the tiny birds search out a safe place to roost for the night, the falcon is searching for his dinner. 

In Kabul, everyone and everything is searching for something.

In the old city and the sprawling developments that climb the mountains on the edge of town, old men keep coops of pigeons. If your timing is good, you can see a large whip flashing across a rooftop as pigeons whirl in dense flocks overhead. When the whip stops moving, the pigeons turn and land on the rooftop to collect their reward before being sent skyward again with the tossing of the whip. 

I ask my Afghan friend “Why do they keep pigeons? Are they pets?” 

“No,” he says. “They keep pigeons because they bring them joy.”

If you are in Kabul and in search of joy, it can be found in birds. Downtown, along the river, there is a large white mosque with a blue top. Pigeons and people both congregate here. Some people come and search for something at the mosque, while others simply come to see and feed the birds. It’s not difficult to imagine that they are both searching for the same thing — a moment of peace.

At midday, in the parks, you can find large magpies with sharp eyes, curved beaks, white bodies and long black tails. I wonder what it is that they are searching for. 

 


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