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.

SWEAT AND MOUNTAINS |

March 29, 2013

Name: Brandon Lingle
Returned from: Iraq and Afghanistan
Hometown: Lompoc, CA
Milblog: USAF Seven Summits Challenge
Email: usaf7summits@gmail.com

Framed Lingle SWEAT McKinleyAir Force Senior Master Sgt. Rob Disney has climbed countless mountains, both real and metaphorical, and lately when he says he’s preparing to conquer his personal Mt. Everest, he means it.

The 35-year-old pararescueman, who’s survived a gunshot wound to the face, traumatic brain injury and a broken leg from helicopter falls, torn biceps and a broken arm from parachute mishaps, and a helicopter crash, is one of three  wounded or injured Airmen trekking to Mt. Everest Base Camp with the Air Force 7 Summits Challenge Team in April.

Senior Master Sgt. Disney and his teammates will provide support for the 6 Airmen set to make history when they summit Mt. Everest and become the first U.S. military team to scale the mountain and the first military team in the world to successfully climb the seven summits.

More importantly, these Airmen battling trauma and adversity will exemplify resiliency by testing themselves in the wilderness on a 14-day, 75 mile trek, taking them from 9,000 feet to 17,590 feet above sea level. Driven by the deaths of friends in war, and fueled by personal goals, these Airmen are also motivated by the desire to raise awareness and help vets as well as families of the fallen.

“It's crucial to remember and support the many sets and family members affected by our wars,” said Maj. Rob Marshall, Air Force 7 Summits challenge leader and co-founder. “In these days of budget issues and other distractions, it's easy to focus on the negative.  Our mission is to show people that with some innovation and determination, tempered by an appropriate amount of risk management, they can accomplish any number of positive goals that naysayers deem unobtainable.”

“This trip is another example that there are no limits except those which we place on ourselves,” said Senior Master Sgt. Disney, currently assigned to Air Combat Command Headquarters at Langley Air Force Base, Va., “Dreams are the seeds of reality; the bigger we dream, the bigger our reality becomes. With the courage to let go of our inhibitions and assumptions, there is nothing we can’t achieve.”

The current Air Force 7 Summits Challenge members are:

Summit team

- Maj. Rob Marshall, 34, a CV-22 pilot, from Mercer Island, Wash., stationed in Amarillo, Tex.

- Capt. Andrew Ackles, 29, a TH-1N instructor pilot, from Ashland, Ore., stationed at Fort Rucker, Ala.

- Capt. Marshall Klitzke, 30, a KC-135R pilot from Lemmon, S.D., currently an instructor pilot at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo.

– Captain Kyle Martin, 29, a T-38A instructor pilot and mission commander from Manhattan, Kan., currently flying at Langley Air Force Base, Va.

- Capt. Colin Merrin, 28, a GPS satellite operations mission commander from Santee, Calif., stationed at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo.

- Staff Sgt. Nick Gibson, 36, a reserve pararescueman and physician-assistant student from Gulf Breeze, Fla., stationed at Patrick Air Force Base, Fla.

 Wounded or injured Everest Base Camp trekkers

- Capt. Augustin “Gus” Viani, 28, a Combat Rescue Officer, stationed at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz.
- Senior Master Sgt. Robert Disney, 35, a pararescueman, from Bethany, Ill., stationed at Air Combat Command Headquarters at Langley Air Force Base, Va.
- Master Sgt. Gino (last name and details withheld for operational security)

Other base camp trekkers

- Maj. Malcolm Scott Schongalla, 34, Air Guard LC-130 pilot, from Lebanon, N.H., serving at Stratton Air National Guard base, N.Y.

- Capt. Megan Harkins, 27, Multi-Mission Space Operations Center Ground Engineer, from San Ramon, Calif., stationed at Schriever Air Force Base, Colo.
- Capt. Heidi Kent, 31, Reserve Payload Systems Operator, from Conway, Mass., stationed at Schriever AFB, Colo.

- Dr. Edie Marshall, 38, veterinarian and public health expert from Davis, Calif.

Framed Lingle SWEAT Denali“I truly believe in the medicinal value of sweat and mountains," says Maj. Marshall. "These two things have probably saved my life. How cool would it be if doctors prescribed outdoor adventures just like they prescribe anti-depressants and other pills?”

The Air Force 7 Summits challenge is among several programs working to help vets through the outdoors, including Soldiers to Summits, a group “which helps disabled veterans shatter personal barriers and reclaim lives by using mountaineering.” The 2012 documentary High Ground chronicled a Soldiers to Summits expedition on Mt. Lobuche, Nepal.

Recently, the Sierra Club’s Military Families and Veterans Initiative linked up with Veterans Expeditions  to introduce a group of veterans to ice climbing in Montana’s Hyalite Canyon with renowned climber Conrad Anker.

And K2 Adventures is sponsoring a veterans’ climb of Mt. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania in November.

Notably, the Air Force 7 Summits challenge team is set to summit within days of the 50th anniversary of the U.S.’s first Mt. Everest expedition. In 1963, the history-making climbers returned home to “shrugs of indifference” reported the Associated Press in an article about a recent reunion. The leader of the expedition, Norm Dyhrenfurth, 94, said, "Americans, when I first raised it, they said, 'Well, Everest, it's been done. Why do it again?’”

Similar shrugs of indifference likely met the intensifying American involvement in Vietnam in 1963. As Life magazine's history of the war puts it: “Vietnam was on people’s radar, of course, but not as a constant, alarming blip. Military families were learning first-hand (before everyone else, as they always do) that this was no ‘police action.' But for millions of Americans, Vietnam was a mystery, a riddle that no doubt would be resolved and forgotten in time: a little place far away where inscrutable strangers were fighting over... something.’” 

Fifty years on, during the death-throes of America’s longest war, the Afghan odyssey, similar shrugs of indifference often meet veterans, military members, and their families, as the pain and suffering simmers in the background thousands of miles away.

With any luck, the Air Force 7 Summits 2013 Everest expedition will capture people’s imaginations with the potential for achieving greatness. The combat veterans who face this mountain are ready as they finalize their training across the country. Barry C. Bishop, the National Geographic photographer on the 1963 expedition wrote, “Everest is a harsh and hostile immensity. Whoever challenges it declares war. He must mount his assault with the skill and ruthlessness of a military operation. And when the battle ends, the mountain remains unvanquished. There are no true victors, only survivors.” 

With veteran survivors like Senior Master Sgt. Disney on their side, the sky is the limit for the warrior mountaineers of the Air Force 7 Summits team.

 ***

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force, Department of Defense or United States government.

SPLASHES OF COLOR |

March 25, 2013

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

Framed ABF Splashes 1The first picture I took when I returned to the United States was of the plush, green grass in Mississippi. It was comforting to see those long blades of grass under the large shade tree outside of my barracks. I knew I was back on American soil.

The cooling shade of a tree, the feeling of soft grass under my feet, and the sweet smell of flora had long escaped me. The hard ground under my feet for the past six months had been nothing but rocks, gravel, sand, and dry, cracked Earth. There were very few trees on the posts and in the villages I visited. The few trees I did see were small and offered little shade. The Afghanistan air was hot and dry and, after Spring had ended, it hardly ever rained. The arid conditions were not optimal for plant growth, so areas not near rivers or streams were fairly barren. With even the slightest of breezes, sand blew through the air. It coated everything and hid in the tiniest of crevices. The stronger the wind, the hazier the view. Blue skies often turn beige due to the blowing sand.

On occasion, however, I would encounter a minute splash of brilliant color in my mostly washed-out world.

I happened upon a few flowers in my travels, some wild and some groomed by Afghans, blooming in places that I wouldn’t have expected them. Most of them looked oddly placed -- a single shrub in the middle of a compound, a row of five single flowers growing up through the rocks, and a solitary rose bush in the tall grass behind a barn where no other flowers grew. On one multi-national post, an atrium held six grand flower pots full of beautifully-colored roses, and then there were the naturally growing clusters of poppies that grew briefly in the Spring behind my tent. The array of hues were a wonderfully heart-warming contrast to my Army-green, sand-filled, and monochromatic world.

Framed ABF Splashes 2

On the Afghan Border Police post in Haritan.


Framed ABF Splashes 3

In the village of Kwahan, Badakhshan Province.


Framed ABG Splashes 4

In the atrium on Camp Marmal, near Mazar-e-Sharif.


Framed ABF Splashes 5

Behind my tent near Mazar-e-Sharif.

 

Framed ABF Splashes 6

In the 5th Zone Afghan Border Police compound.


THE BATTLE OF DONKEY ISLAND |

March 18, 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

The night was June 30, 2007. The funny thing is that I don’t remember anything that happened earlier in the day. The first thing I remember is where this story will begin. It’s hard to write about. As I type these words I get a flood of emotions through my body. Anger, sadness, adrenaline, and excitement are bombarding me at this very moment. I have wanted to write about this night for a long time. I have been afraid to write about it, wanting to get it right. Too much happened for me to accurately capture everything, but this is my story. My take. What I remember.

It had been a while since our last scuffle with al Qaeda. Jimm Spannagel had recently talked with our whole platoon telling us that we were going to conduct “Steady State Operations,” as the sector was quiet and we had the place on lock-down. I was sitting outside playing some Texas Hold ’em with some of the guys. I was wearing my ACU pants, boots, and had taken off the top as it was still pushing mid 90s well after the sun had set. Spirits were high, talking trash as guys won hands with the Sneaky Sadiki, Impalla (6-4), The Hund (K-9), Dirty Trucker (10-4), Dinner for Two (6-9) and many more that I wish I remembered. Little did we know that the events later that night would change the lives of thousands of people; both good and bad.

“Tracer fire to the east,” came from the rooftop observation post. Nothing out of the ordinary, I thought.

“Lots of tracers to the east,” came a few seconds later.

Still nothing out of the ordinary. I continued to play cards. Celebratory fire was common.

“Saber 7, Red 7 is on the net, they are in contact” yelled my Command Post RTO as he ran towards the card table.

I immediately threw down my cards and ran to the Command Post. I snatched the radio. “Red 7, Saber 7, over,” I called.

“Saber 7, Red 7, we are in contact with 75-100 insurgents." I remember looking over at Jimm, who had rushed into the CP, or maybe he had been standing there the whole time, with a quizzical look on my face as if to say, “He can’t be serious!”

“Red 7, Saber 7, say again over?” was my next radio transmission, hoping he would respond with something else.

“THIS IS RED 7, WE ARE IN CONTACT WITH 75-100 INSURGENTS. WE ARE RUNNING BLACK ON AMMO, WE NEED IMMEDIATE RE-SUPPLY!” His reply left no room for interpretation as the steady sound of an M2 Heavy Barreled .50 Cal machine gun was rocking in the background, coupled with the reports of tracer fire from my OP, they were in the shit. Jimm looked at me and asked “What do you think?”

“Let’s roll."

By the time the decision was made to roll out, half our platoon was standing in the CP awaiting instructions. Jimm made the call to leave the JSS minimally manned with only a couple guys on the radio and the somewhat trusting Iraqi Police to pull security. Jimm pulled in the Squad leaders, Iraqi Police Chief, and began to come up with a hasty plan. Each truck was already loaded for bear, but each stopped by our Ammunition holding area to load up additional rounds for Red Platoon. They were four trucks with less than 20 Soldiers.

We needed to hurry. I loved my platoon for their ability to react quickly, but more for the fact that they were always hungry for a fight. The tracer fire to the east was visible as we conducted last minute radio checks, mounted gear, and threw on our night vision devices. We were headed east towards the river; nasty, rough terrain that was full of irrigation ditches that made navigation in a straight line impossible. This terrain also made “choke points” that were perfect places for the enemy to emplace IEDs.

The city had been quiet for a while. US forces had taken back control of Ramadi, the capitol of Al Anbar province -- a province that had been declared un-winnable by a Marine General. What we didn’t know that night was that al Qaeda was making one last desperate attempt to create havoc. Two 40-foot trailers loaded with IEDs and munitions were surrounded by 75-100 al Qaeda insurgents, most of whom were wearing suicide vests. Red Platoon from Charlie Company 1-77 Armor was conducting area reconnaissance in an area along the Euphrates River near Donkey Island, named for the donkeys that live on it. They surprised the insurgents, and may have surprised themselves running into such a large element. The fight was on.

We flew out the gate of the JSS and headed towards Red Platoon. Our platoon had already been hit by three IEDs and we were moving into territory that we didn’t spend much time in. We didn’t want to rush to failure. The threat of possible IEDs was high. We moved slow and deliberate. The amount of tracers that filled the air was surreal. I kept thinking “This looks like the laser light show at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry.” Red platoon kept calling on the radio asking for our position. We couldn’t move fast enough. Saber 1 was in the lead. The shitty terrain, lack of knowledge of the terrain, and threat of IEDs limited our speed.

By the time we arrived at Red Platoon's position, the fighting was at a lull. The enemy had hunkered down due to the superior night-fighting capabilities our weapons and equipment provided. We cross-leveled ammunition from our trucks to resupply Red platoon while Red 7 gave us the run-down of what had happened. Red platoon had put a smackdown on the enemy. After he was finished giving us the update I thought, “Well, Red kicked their ass, we won’t get much action.”

How wrong I was.

I have been asked more than a few times if I ever thought while serving in combat that I was going to die or thought death was imminent. The answer is “No.” However, on numerous occasions I had thought to myself, “If I am ever going to be killed, this would be a situation in which I might.” I was confident in my abilities. I was confident in the abilities of my platoon. If al Qaeda was going to get the jump on me, they were going to have to be the best, because my platoon was great, if not the best, and I believed in their abilities to wreak havoc. And it wasn’t because they were Cavalry Scouts. We had Commo guys and Medics that were part of the team. Your job in the military doesn’t matter; it’s what you do to benefit the team that counts. And they all kicked ass the night of June 30, 2007.

I mounted back up into my truck after cross-leveling ammunition to Red Platoon, and gave my crew a quick run-down. Jimm was on the radio giving orders to sections of trucks. Alpha Section would move south and orient their trucks to interdict movement south of the engagement area while another section was to move with the Company Commander that just so happened to be leaving to conduct a patrol himself. We effectively set a half moon cordon of vehicles around the engagement area with the Euphrates River to the backs of the enemy. Smack in the center were the two large semi-trucks.

With everyone set, Jimm made the call to assault through the objective towards the river to clear any remaining enemy. As our trucks crept toward the vehicles we received small arms fire from its vicinity and witnessed four enemy Soldiers bounding back to cover. Jimm ordered his gunner to engage the cab of the truck to destroy it, and the .50 Caliber Armor Piercing Incendiary rounds did just that and then some. The truck quickly caught fire. Munitions in the back of the trailer began to cook off. Mortar rounds, IEDs, and small arms began to explode and the fire, becoming increasingly larger, began to wash out our night vision. With the rounds cooking off and our inability to see, the call was made to move back a few hundred meters and wait for the fire to burn out. We backed up our trucks and waited.

By this time, two Apache gunships had arrived on station and conducted check-in. Jimm along with Red 7 were giving him situation reports on what was going on. One of the Apache Crews was conducting their last patrol; giving the new unit a tour of the area. They were soon headed back home to Texas after a long deployment. Chief Warrant Officer Kevin Purtee was one of the pilots with Chief Warrant Officer Allen Crist as the gunner, or what they call the “Front Seat-er.”

As we were sitting and watching the fire grow, I received the second worst radio transmission a leader can receive. “Saber 7, my gunner lost his rifle.” I wanted to flip out, but we had bigger fish to fry. I called back to the JSS and let them know what happened. They left one guy on the radio and took our two satellite operators and left the JSS on a dismounted patrol to find it. Luckily for the crew, the weapon was found at the first turn out of the JSS. The gunner had set it on top of the truck and in the hurry to leave the JSS, failed to secure it inside his truck as they left.

The fire began to intensify and the Apaches began to engage a few targets of opportunity. One of those “opportunities” happened to be about 50 meters from my truck. The 40mm High-Explosive rounds going off so close, without warning, startled the hell out of me and my gunner. The Apaches were reporting numerous hot-spots through their thermal vision but with the sheep, donkeys, exploding shrapnel from the trucks, and the enemy laying still, it was tough to determine what was what. And then the largest explosion I have ever witnessed happened. The two trucks went up in a ball of flame, so large and intense that it knocked the UAV’s thermal vision out of commission. With the fire now subsided by the explosion we assaulted east, and all hell broke loose.

We started receiving heavy small arms, RPG, and grenade fire from various distances. My gunner, “Boots” began to open up with his M240 machine gun. The irrigation ditches and terrain didn’t allow us to remain on line and forced us to follow each other “ducks in a row” to move east. “OVER THERE, OVER THERE, I SEE KNUCKLES!” yelled my medic that sits behind the driver.

“WHERE IS THERE?” came from my gunner.

An explosion rocked near the back of Jimm’s truck; an RPG had just missed him. Tracer fire everywhere as we continued our push. Boots was smoking the hell out of the enemy as we finally reached the bank of the river. I look back at Doc and ask him “What the hell is Knuckles?”

“You know, when a guy is running and pumping his fists as he runs --' I saw his knuckles.'” I placed this brief conversation into the memory bank to remember to re-train target designation.

We hit the bank of the river and moved south to clear buildings and tents. Our hope was to catch those that had possibly been injured or were seeking safe haven from some of the locals. As we began to clear the second building my element providing security outside came under heavy automatic fire. One of the basic rules when on patrol is if you hear the gun firing, you are not the target. However, if you hear the crack of the round as it breaks the sound barrier passing you, and THEN you hear the gun, take cover. I don’t remember hearing the machine gun, but I do remember us getting pelted with bullets and the hundreds of small sonic “Cracks” as the bullets flew past us. Everyone dove back into their trucks and we moved back towards the engagement area with everyone’s gunners, and the Apache Gunships, lighting up Donkey Island.

Pain 6, our Company Commander, along with Saber 9 and his section began their assault south to clear along the river bank from the northern side of the engagement area. The river level had dropped about eight feet from its levels during the winter. This created a perfect six-foot cliff along the road for the enemy to use as cover while the trucks moved south. Pain 6 and his dismounts would clear along the river bank as the mounted element moved in conjunction to provide mounted machine gun fire.

As Pain 6’s element cleared the river bank they became pinned down by the overwhelming enemy fire. The net was heavy with traffic as Red 7 and the Apaches were talking about targets. Through a break in the chaos on the net, I overheard Pain 6 say that he was pinned down and unable to move. I don’t think anyone but myself had heard it as conversations continued about what the Apache needed to be doing. “BREAK BREAK BREAK, this is Saber 7, we have a commander pinned down and unable to move. THAT needs to be our priority right now!” I yelled over the net. And what was said next, depending on who you ask, is up for debate, but I know what I heard.

“This is Saber 9, my gunner has been shot in the face, he’s done.” Everyone in my truck stopped and we all looked at each other.

“Did he just say Jamal is dead?” asked my driver.

“No, he’s shot, but not dead,” was my reply, but now that my driver had asked, I began to wonder. I wanted to feel bad, but had no time for it. I had to keep my guys focused. “He’s going to be fine, let’s move out.” My job as a Platoon Sergeant now changed from killing bad guys to Casualty Evacuation. I immediately grabbed Saber 1’s section and we maneuvered towards Pain 6’s location.

Pain 6’s element had taken some casualties and we were going to need more than my truck to evacuate the wounded. I got on the Task Force net and immediately requested a MEDIVAC helicopter to pick up Jamal. I was denied. The firefight was too intense, MEDIVAC wouldn’t risk a helicopter. I was livid. I think part of the reason I respect those that work in the Tactical Operations Center is that they have to put up with guys like me on the radio. I didn’t care who was on the other end -- I wasn’t afraid to tell them how pissed I was that a bird wasn’t coming.

Specialist Jamal was the gunner on a truck moving south along the river bank. As he was scanning he spotted an Insurgent engaging his truck from below, along the river bank. With the M240 in its mount, he was unable to depress the weapon far enough to fire back. He stood up, pulled the machine gun from its mount and fired while exposing himself from behind his ballistic shield. He killed the insurgent, but took a round in the face. The force of the bullet knocked him back inside his truck.

Near the same time that Jamal had been shot, the dismounted element began to take heavy casualties as well. Specialist T, Corporal A, Sergeant Nick, and Pain 6 had become casualties. SGT Nick took a round to the head but helped SPC T move to a little bit of cover. He then low-crawled back to the nearest truck which happened to be SSG N’s. “Get to the medic, I’ll get SPC T,” SSG N ordered.

SPC T had been shot multiple times and was pinned down on the river bank, unable to move under his own power. SSG N, under intense machine gun fire, low-crawled to SPC T and asked “Can you walk?”

“Does it look like I can walk?” was his reply. SPC T was full of bullet holes. SSG N then dragged SPC T back to safety, putting his own life at risk for that of another Soldier.

We arrived at the designated Casualty Collection Point (CCP) and began to load the wounded. I don’t remember if we were under fire or not, but I remember the amazing work of our Medics and my Senior Scout as they were cool, calm, and tending to the wounded.

SGT Nick conducted self aid and wrapped his head wound up. He was going to drive one of the trucks back to Camp Ramadi with one of the wounded. I loaded up CPL A into the back of my truck while Saber 1 loaded up SPC Jamal. We had numerous wounded and we needed to get them back to the Level 2 Aid Station as soon as possible, especially SPC Jamal. He was covered in blood, and barely able to walk, but alive. Each of the trucks we were using for evacuation had problems. Flat tires, power steering pumps inoperative due to bullet holes, or windows that could barely be seen out of due to spiderwebs that were created by bullets. That wasn’t all...

We again had problems with the terrain. We were in an area that we had only been in a few times, and then it had been during daylight. This time it was pitch black out. It seemed every turn we took led us into a square 100-meter field with no exit. It was like a giant maze that we were trying to find the exit to, only this time lives were at stake. We turned into a field and slammed into an embankment that sent my gunner flying into his weapon. The force was so hard that his feet came up off the ground and hit the windshield. Groans from CPL A in the back were constant. He was holding up, but the rough terrain and bumpy ride were killing the bullet wounds that had broken his ankle.

The net had been silent for a while. Not normal...

One look at my radios and I noticed that they had overheated. Great! Another thing to shit the bed. First the weapon, next was wounded Soldiers, no MEDIVAC bird, now my radios go out? What else could go wrong? I will tell you: my transmission takes a shit. It was like the truck wouldn’t go fully into gear, like a clutch was slipping. We had no power to move over any rough terrain. Any small hill needed a running start.

The frustration could be heard in my driver’s voice as I would yell commands at him. I had to calm down; yelling wasn’t helping anything. I was starting to get light headed. We had been going hard for a few hours and I needed some water but our truck didn’t have any; we had thrown out the cooler full of water to make room for the casualties. Time was running out for SPC Jamal. Something needed to be done. I was starting to feel a little overwhelmed. That’s when two bad ass National Guardsmen took a chance.

The aviation unit was from Texas and was conducting their final flight over the city of Ramadi.  They had no idea what was in store for them that night.

After receiving updates from Red 7 and Jimm, they started rocket and gun runs along Donkey Island.  They were monitoring our Task Force net and could hear my anger-filled pleas for a MEDIVAC helicopter. Having heard stories about Soldiers dying due to the lack of a MEDIVAC bird, they weren’t going to let it happen this time. That’s when they decided to do something that had never been done in combat (and done only twice since). Fully understanding the risk, they landed their Apache helicopter after Saber 1 established a Hasty Landing Zone. Chief Warrant Officer Crist got out of the front seat to allow room for a critically wounded Soldier. SPC Jamal was loaded into the Apache’s front seat. They had two choices.  The first was for CW2 Crist to stay on the ground while CW4 Purtee flew back to camp Ramadi. The second, and the one they chose, was for CW2 Crist to strap himself to the outside of the Apache and sit on the small wing for the ride back. The bird took off and made its way back to safety.  

We still weren’t out of the maze of irrigation ditches yet. Frustration was at an all time high. I kept talking to CPL A, trying to keep him calm, but in all honesty I think it helped me stay calm as well. Pain 6, who was suffering from heat exhaustion and a bullet wound, was in one of the vehicles headed back to Camp Ramadi. Somewhere along the route he gained consciousness and ordered his driver to turn around and take him back to the fight. He refused to leave his troops on the battlefield.  

After what seemed like an eternity, we finally made it out of the maze and were on familiar terrain. My radios were working again and Task Force HQ was getting minute by minute updates as we made our way back. I wanted them to ensure that the Entry Control Point would be open and let us through without having to stop. I think this was about the third or fourth time I was entering the FOB with wounded, and it never failed; the ECP wasn’t expecting us. The Armored Personnel Carrier was blocking the road and nobody was around to move it. I flipped out, screaming at the poor kid pulling guard; so hard in fact that I about passed out. I was maxed out on adrenaline, dehydrated, and frustrated.

After the vehicle was moved out of the way we flew to the Aid station to unload the wounded. The medical team was waiting for us by the entrance to unload the wounded. The medics had it down to a science in Ramadi; they had seen their fair share of casualties. The Level 2 facility, or “Charlie Med” as they called it, was located across from the chow hall. For the first few months that we lived there, you couldn’t eat a meal without a medic running in and calling out a blood type. “O Positive!” they would yell, and anyone with that blood type would get up and rush over to Charlie Med to give blood to a wounded Soldier in need. 

Rule one when dropping off casualties was to stay out of the way; the medics were in charge. Standing behind the large concrete barriers was my Battalion Operations Officer, 1SG, and Brigade Command Sergeant Major Stanley. Word had spread quickly on the intense firefight and everyone and their brother was standing by to get a firsthand account of what was going on.    

“You all right, Sergeant G? What’s going on out there?” asked my Operations Officer Major J. 

I looked at him square in the eyes “It’s a fucking laser light show, sir. They were everywhere. I need water.”  My 1SG, or a Medic, I can’t remember, brought be a 1-liter bottle of water and I downed it.  I began to explain what was going on, and I must have been speaking a thousand miles an hour. CSM Stanley grabbed me by the flack-vest and yanked me really close so our noses were about two inches apart.

CSM Stanley was a big dude that stood well over 6 feet, weighed easily 240, but was always really cool with me.  But you could tell that he could get into some ass if needed. He would frequently stop down at our JSS to drop off some care packages and shoot the breeze. We would walk out on the front entrance of the JSS, fire up a couple of Newports, and just talk. He didn’t come down to bust our balls, or get in our ass about anything; he came down to show us he cared. He knew our living conditions were terrible, and our mission wasn’t the easiest.  

With a half cocked smile he said, “Gib, I can see it in your eyes, you got a lot of adrenaline pumping through you right now. You need to take a few deep breaths and c-a-l-m  d-o-w-n.”  I took a deep breath, another, then yanked myself away from him and threw up all over the concrete barrier. Serious adrenaline dump…

By this time, all of the wounded had been taken inside and a medic was standing beside me wanting to take me in as well. “You're dehydrated, you need an IV, get inside,” he instructed. 

I wasn’t having it though. I needed to get back out to Donkey Island to get back with my Soldiers. “Not going to happen Doc,” I replied. 

CSM Stanley piped in: “Doc, it’s a lost cause, he aint going inside.” He looked at me and finished his sentence: “He wants and needs to get back with his boys.”

I walked inside Charlie Med and received a roll-up of all the wounded and proceeded to the Company Command Post to radio back to our boys in the fight. I knew that hearing that everyone had made it back safely would ease their minds. I began to rattle off the names and the wounds they received and even managed to throw in some humor when I described SGT Nick’s. “And SGT Nick, Gunshot wound to the head, through and through, walking wounded.”  It is still one of the most bizarre wounds I have ever seen. He was shot in the head, just above his ear. The bullet pierced his skin, but not the skull. The bullet wrapped around his head, exited the skin at the back of his head, and then blew a hole through his Kevlar helmet. God was looking out for him that night.

I left the CP and headed over to our maintenance area and the mechanics were going a hundred miles an hour fixing our trucks. The warm hue of the fluorescent lights lit up the motor stables. Our vehicles were jacked up, full of bullet holes, and needed some serious work. The Motor Sergeant was barking orders, mechanics swapping parts, and not a single complaint could be heard. It was the first time that I was completely satisfied with our mechanics. It seemed like any other time we needed something done it was done slow, with complaints, and grudgingly. I remember wondering why they couldn’t work like this all the time... I guess it takes some of our Soldiers being shot for them to show some urgency.

After a few hours at maintenance, around eight hours after the initial firefight, Saber 1’s section and I were headed back out. It still wasn’t over. The intensity of the firefight had subsided, but the worst of the event was yet to come. 

The sun had started to rise over the Iraqi desert. I had been monitoring the radio while the mechanics worked feverishly on our trucks, and I was tracking on what was going on out in sector. With our trucks fixed, we headed out the gate to link back up with the platoon and the rest of the element that had showed up.

I met Staff Sergeant Michael L. Ruoff Jr. after I returned from the Master Gunner Academy back in 2000. He and his wife Tracey had just PCS’d to Germany. He was high speed, and a “Gear-do." Everything about him was Army. He quickly gained the nick-name “Ranger Ruoff” and fit right in with C Company, House of Pain. While most of us Tankers liked to keep our distance from the Infantry side of the house, Ranger Ruoff gladly cammo’ed up and played Grunt.

One of my favorite stories involving Ranger Ruoff was when we were shooting Tank Table 8, our annual Tank qualification. The Battalion Commander wouldn’t let anyone sit in the Battle Positions while another crew went down range to qualify. This didn’t allow any crews the ability to “G2” the range prior to the qualification run. This didn’t stop Ranger Ruoff. Armed with some cammo, a radio, binoculars, and a range sector card, he and a fellow crew member snuck through the woods behind the range tower and did some “Recon” of their own. They fired up the radio to listen to the tower prompts and watched as tanks went down range and qualified. After a few runs, he had the order of the targets, target locations, and anything you needed to know for each of the lanes.

SFC Raymond R. Buchan was a burley Infantry Noncommissioned officer in the Infantry company that was attached to our Battalion. During the first few months of the deployment, myself and my Scouts were itching to get into the City of Ramdi and fight. We were afforded the opportunity on a few occasions to work with SFC Buchan’s platoon. He loved to talk shit about me being a tanker and being on the ground kicking in doors. With a big ear to ear grin he would look down from the turret of his Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle and yell “You able to keep up, old man?”

Both of these fine Soldiers were taken from us the morning of 1 July, 2007. As vehicles continued to clear the objective of Donkey Island, many bodies on the ground were discovered to be wearing Suicide Vests. The decision was made to establish a hasty defensive position and wait for EOD to clear the vests. By the time I had arrived back to my Scouts, a Platoon of Infantry and the Battalion Commander with his Personal Security Detachment had showed up. One of the Brads had engaged some enemy running into a tent; SFC Buchan and SSG Ruoff were conducting Battle Damage Assessment inside the tent. They walked outside and were gunned down by an insurgent that was behind some bushes.

That’s the crazy thing about combat. In one fraction of a moment, everything can come crashing down. Immediately the Navy SEALS that had arrived conducted first aid and sped them back to Camp Ramadi, but were unable to save their lives.

At some point later that morning, we Scouts were ordered back to the JSS to bolster security and continue operations. I headed back, upset about the loss of a friend. I then received a radio call that the Iraqi Police that were tasked with getting rid of the dead insurgents were acting like fools on the Objective. Each of the insurgents had a back-pack that was full of ammo, ID card, a $100 bill, and a cell phone. The Iraqi Police were all fighting over the back-packs instead of clearing the dead bodies. I lost my mind. After the most stress-filled night of my life, losing two of my buddies, and then the IP’s acting like idiots, I couldn’t take it anymore.

I got word that one of the IP trucks was entering the JSS. I flew outside and flipped out on the IP Commander. I kicked the door of the IP truck and pushed back all the IPs as they attempted to grab a back-pack. “Burn them all” was my order. My poor Soldiers having to deal with me -- I lost my mind. I really believe that they could have admitted me into the loony-bin that morning. I took all the bags, threw them in a pile, covered them in gas, and was about to light them on fire when one of my Soldiers stopped me. The bags had some machine gun rounds in them. Good catch...

And that’s the last thing I remember about the event.

I haven’t wanted to write about this night because there is so much that I didn’t cover or missed. The events that Saber 9 and his section took part in, the Company Commander and his actions, and the actions of my Platoon Leader Jimm are so numerous that I plan to interview each of them prior to writing my book about our deployment to Ramadi. The JSS and limited amount of security they had and their actions. So much happened that night that still needs to come out, and will at a later time. Many awards were given out that night for Valorous actions:

Two Distinguished Flying Crosses.
Two Silver Stars.
Bronze Stars with V for Valor (two that I know for sure, but think it could be four).
Army Commendation Medals with V for Valor (four that I know of but could be more).
Purple Hearts (too many).

Thirty-five confirmed enemy killed (that is just the bodies that were recovered on the main land, not counting those that were swept away by the river or were on Donkey Island).

Sergeant First Class Raymond R. Buchan – KIA
Staff Sergeant Michael L. Ruoff Jr. – KIA

Rest in Peace, Buchan and Ruoff. We will meet again at the Fiddlers Green.

 

SPRING IS COMING |

March 07, 2013

Name: Ross Magee
Stationed in: Afghanistan

There are glimpses of spring. 

We pulled into the compound and through the windshield wipers saw a man with a Gandalf-like beard standing in the garden and turning the soil with an ancient spade. A simple shalwar kameez, a woolen waistcoat and an enormous white turban were all that protected him against the cold. None of his clothes appeared as warm as his beard, which hung long, tapered and white, reaching well below the second button of his shirt like an enormous coarsely-woven scarf. Our breath smoked as we exchanged greetings. I stood on the pavement in a suit and polished shoes and he stood in the freshly turned gardens, wearing traditional dress and clogs. We were from different worlds. 

“Che mekonee?” (What are you doing?) I asked.

“Man sport zariet mekonem,” (I’m gardening) he replied with a smile that increased the depth of his wrinkles more than I thought would have been possible. 

I smiled as I considered his choice of words. “Sport” roughly translates as “to exercise” and, had I been in his position, I would probably have used “kar” which is the verb for “to work.” Words matter and perhaps I was guilty of overthinking the situation, but his response told me that he was enjoying what he was doing and did not consider it toilsome.  

We shook hands and he held mine for a long time looking at me and I thought he might have been reading my fate as he stared into my eyes. It would not surprise me to learn that this man had that ability. He exuded a learned confidence in all things human and an indifference to things beyond his control. I have seen him weekly for the last six months; always present, always outside, always tending his garden.  

“Fikr mekonem ke bahar mesha,” (I think that spring is coming) I offered hopefully.

He wrapped his hands around the hand-planed sapling that served as the handle to his spade and looked skyward into the leaking grey dome that encased Kabul. Rain gathered on his beard and beaded up like it was falling on a waterproof tarpaulin. He was unconvinced by my prediction but instead of disagreeing with me, he simply offered “Mumkin ast” (It is possible) and returned his gaze to me.

“Wachte gul nazdeek ast,” (The time for flowers is near) I said, gesturing to the plastic-draped greenhouse that stood behind the garden.

His face illuminated and I knew my words had touched the right spot in his heart. His weathered hand grasped my wrist and I followed only enough of the rolling Dari to know his plans. He was nursing small flowers that he planned to plant in neat rows among the roses before they would begin to bud.

His roses stood in a deep garden, sculpted and bermed by simple geometric designs carved into the earth, yielding a pattern to match any Central Asian carpet. His plot was small, but it was obviously important to him and he took great pride in tending it. That the garden also brought him joy was simply implied. In a city of dust and smog, this garden would soon be a welcome sight to all who would visit the compound.

When I first met him, summer was fading and the flowers that remained were in their final days.  The roses lasted into the fall and, within the walled space along the river, they emitted a sweet musk that could be smelled over the diesel and dust that overwhelms much of the city. Then one day the roses too were gone, pruned back almost to the ground so that they might rest through the winter, restored and ready to bring life and color back after the snow had revived the earth.

A few weeks later the roses were completely submerged in snow, hibernating through Kabul’s winter. They now stood small and brown, bristling with brittle thorns in the tilled and muddy garden. 

Hours later when we left the compound the gardener was pushing a wheelbarrow across the garden. We “Sallamed” as we passed him and left the compound wondering what the gardens might look like on our next visit. Going home I noticed that the snow had disappeared from all but the deepest shaded corners of the city. Soldiers shovelled the snow and ice out from around their guard shacks into the street where it was warmed by the sun and crushed by passing cars and carts pulled by donkeys before trickling into gutters and eventually making its way to the river like everything in Kabul does. As we passed over the Pull-e-Kisthi Bridge the river flowed strongly, washing with it the trash and waste accumulated along its banks through the dry fall and cold winter.  The mountains once blanketed in snow were now streaked with black, their sides showing like bare ribs as the sun burned them dry. 

I caught sight of a splash of color in an alley. Outside of a shop, on a muddy street crowded with people, kites hung lifelessly from an awning. They dangled like gems, turning gently in the shade waiting for small hands and strong winds to carry them aloft over the city.

The cycle has not yet come full circle. The roses are still sleeping, though I believe they have begun to stir with the turning of the soil. The gardener is gently waking them; he and the roses already know what I can only hope is true. Spring is coming and soon there will be flowers in the garden.

MY MIND WAS MY ENEMY: PART TWO |

March 03, 2013

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

 

Read Part One here.

Even in my tent, for the first two weeks or so of going on missions I would jump at the slightest of noises, a person’s touch on the shoulder, or even an unannounced figure standing beside me.

My stomach nervously churned every time I climbed up in my truck to go out. Feeling conflicted, I would toss my assault pack in, climb the metal stairs of the back gate of the uparmored vehicle, fasten my seatbelts, and wait helplessly to arrive at a destination. Unlike the hum of a car engine when I was a young child, the loud low hum of the vehicles engines did not comfort me. With every bump in the road I bounced around, held only slightly in place by the harness that kept me strapped me to my seat. I feared that one of the bumps in the road might hold an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) and that a blast was imminent. I would create panic within myself to the point of a cold sweat.

I fought with myself. In part, I was excited and eager to see new places and to photograph this new country that surrounded me, but the pit feeling I had in my stomach often made it hard to be optimistic about each day’s journey.

When we rode through the city, I would look out the side window of my uparmored vehicle and watch Afghan women in blue burqas walking along the dirt road beside us, headed toward a market. I would gaze at young Afghan school boys in their blue shirts and Afghan girls in their white shamaughs on their way to school. I observed older Afghan men working in their road-side shops and younger Afghan men driving carloads of people up and down the paved roads of the city.

Like a lightbulb on a dimmer switch, two things slowly began to occur to me. First, these people were going to the market, to school, and to work -- just like I did back home! I was watching people who were, in these respects, no different from me, my friends, and my family.

Secondly, I realized that nothing hazardous was happening when I went out on my missions. The Afghans were going about their business and I wasn’t even a concern to them. Heck, most of them didn’t even look up at the convoy when we passed them, and the ones that did were waving at us like we were a parade. Waving -- and smiling! Threatening people don’t do that!

I hadn’t lost my sense of awareness, but with each mission I started to feel less and less uptight. The fog created by my fear was beginning to lift, and with my new clarity I was seeing people, not threats.

I grew tired of feeling a constantly exhausting state of nervousness and I knew that I had several months in Afghanistan ahead of me, so I decided that I had to let go of some of my fears. If something was going to happen, it was going to happen, with or without my worrying about it. I wasn’t going to be able to anticipate a negative event, so why stress myself out over it?

It took me nearly a month of missions to ease up on my tension to where the nervousness didn’t exist. As a Soldier, I continued to be apprehensive and cautious. Whether inside or outside the wire, I just didn’t trust anyone, save a couple of close American friends there. I wasn’t like that before I joined the Army. I don’t like that I had changed to become who I was at the beginning of my deployment. I’m actually ashamed of the misconceived thoughts I had about the Afghans.

Threats of violence do not come from an entire population, I told myself. One bad person in a photo or on a video is not indicative of an entire country of threatening people.


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