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.

MUSIC! |

April 22, 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

Framed Gibson MUSIC 1 Things are good here in the “Stan” as you can see by the picture. My Soldiers continue to amaze me on a daily basis. I consider myself lucky to be First Sergeant for a group of awesome Soldiers. I think we have a pretty good team here as we have met the retention goals of this year (with four months to go) and have already re-enlisted so many 2014 eligible Soldiers that Brigade has told us to stop (we are taking all of their slots). Overall, it has been a good week here.

We continue to train and enable the Afghan National Army on a daily basis. Just yesterday we conducted a clearance mission with the ANA in order to deny the enemy the ability to conduct attacks. It was a success. We are also conducting gunnery training with them to better hone their war-fighting skills over the coming weeks as we slowly pull out of the country. I wish I had some more exciting things to write about, but it’s truly becoming Groundhog Day around here.

As I sit here with headphones in, Led Zeppelin begins to play. Guitar feedback, synthesizer, and bass fill the track as “In the evening” is bellowed out by Robert Plant. The song sends a flood of endorphins through my body. Oh how I love music and its ability to shape my moods, take me away to different places, or just pass the time.

I have told the wife on numerous occasions that I thought I would be a great music producer. I seem to have an ear for the good stuff. I still believe that if I was to listen to an album of a brand new band, I could tell you if any of the songs on the album would be a hit. It may have to do with growing up with a couple of awesome friends (Mike and Jason) that both enjoyed good music. No matter what we were doing (except trudging through the woods) we had music going on. From searching for beers in the garage with Jason and wanting to shoot the speakers because it seemed that “Tonight” from Phil Collins was always on, or working on Mike’s Mercury Capri while blasting Ronnie James Dio and Led Zeppelin, music was shaping me. But one song by Alice in Chains had the most impact…

That one song that has had the most emotional influence on me, by far, is “Rain When I Die.” I have written earlier about it; it was one of my Roll Out songs during my last deployment. I still remember the exact place I was when I first heard it: 1993 at Forest Grove High, eating lunch with my back to the small grate barrier that blocked off the auditorium. Ben Gorham was sitting to my right, with Andrew to my left. Ben leans over, hands me his headphones and says, “Listen to this.”

“Is she ready to know my frustration? What she slippin’ inside, slow castration; I’m a riddle so strong, you can’t break me; Did she come here to try, try to take me; Did she call my name? I think it’s gonna rain; When I die.”

I was forever hooked on Alice in Chains and the song “Rain When I Die.” So much so, that I forced my crew to listen to it almost every time we rolled out the gate. It got me in the right mood. In the Amber zone; not the Green chill zone or the Red hyper-alert zone, but in the right mind to operate and conduct mission.

Every crew had one. Even now when I conduct Pre-Combat Inspections of my Troops leaving the wire, I notice that all of them are listening to some sort of music. Back in Ramadi some of the favorites were “Ram Jam Black Betty" (Bartlett) “Seven Nation Army" (White Stripes) “Stink Fist" (Tool) and many others. 99.9% of the time, the song was to get you pumped up.

Music was listened to most of the time during the mission as well. Depending on the mood of the truck at the time, it wouldn’t be strange for the whole crew to be singing along with the jam. Reminds me of this one time…

We had just captured a few Al Qaeda on a mission and had to transport them all back to Camp Ramadi. Normally my truck, along with the Platoon Leader's, was the last to transport prisoners. Some would say that it was because we had transmissions on our radios from Battalion that we didn’t want the prisoners to hear, but in reality it was a benefit of the rank and position; the prisoners usually stunk pretty bad. Well, due to the large number of prisoners we had, my truck had to provide a seat. My crew blindfolded the prisoner (standard practice) and placed him in the back seat behind me. As we started to roll out, still high on adrenaline from the mission, “Crazy Train” by Ozzy starts to play on the iPod player we had on top of the radios. Without thinking I reach over and turn it up and our crew begins to sing along with the song at the top of our lungs. I chuckle now as I write this, thinking back to that night. I can’t imagine what was going through the detainee’s mind; just captured by American Forces that he was trying to kill, can’t see anything, and he's listening to five pumped-up Soldiers belt out some Ozzy!

Music was our escape.

Fast forward to our last mission. It was a weeklong screen line and clearance mission north of Ar Ramadi. Days were spent on our trucks, parked in pairs, covering almost 10 miles of empty desert. It seems as every second of that mission was spent listening to music. We saw no action (thankfully) and headed for the long drive home. We talked about the song that we would play for our “last” song as we entered the Camp. Over and over I was rehearsing what I was going to say over the radio while calling our return-to-base report to Battalion. Lots of songs were being thrown around among us all as the last one to be played. This was a big moment: Fifteen months of brutal combat were going to be summed up in one last song, so we had to make sure it was the right one.

As we approached the gate I called up: “Tiger X-Ray, this is Saber 7! Saber, RP, FOR THE LAST TIME, Camp Ramadi; eight trucks, thirty-two pax; one interpreter; Saber’s Mission is Complete!”

And the song that my crew played and that was blaring on the speakers as we entered the gate?

“That shit is Bananas, B-A-N-A-N-A-S!” Our whole 15-month deployment was wrapped up by Gwen Stefani... *sigh*

IN THE TRUCK COMMANDER'S SEAT TO CHEMTAL : PART FOUR |

April 18, 2013

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

I can only speculate, but I’m pretty sure the biggest question on my men’s minds was whether or not we would take contact on the way back up the road. The road that we had traveled to get to Qal-e Khowsouddin was the only road we could take to get back to the ABP checkpoint. We had been at our location for more than an hour and that was plenty of time for insurgents to set up an ambush or to place an IED on the road.

Throughout our training, we had been taught to “keep our heads on a swivel” meaning to constantly be aware of our surroundings. As our little group walked through the doorway and back out to the trucks, heads were moving.

The Afghan Border Police followed us through the doorway and congregated in front of a green ABP Ford Ranger that was parked nearly inside the entrance way. I pushed ahead of the group in the direction of our trucks in order to turn around and capture photos of last minute conversations between MSG Mellohn, the general, and the ABP soldiers.

Framed ABF CHEMTAL 4 five


As the convoy commander departed from the group, an ABP soldier with a white shemaugh stood up from the bed of the truck and took his position as the gunner for the Ford Ranger.

The differences in security protocols and travel between the US Forces and the ABP were numerous. The ABP did not drive around in large camouflaged, up-armored vehicles equipped with counter-IED systems, rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) netting, bullet-proof glass and other various safety features. They didn’t drive at convoy speeds that kept distance between vehicles allowing every truck in the convoy to maintain communication. They didn’t use GPS-enabled mapping systems to determine their location or to communicate with other vehicles or an operations center. They didn’t wear full body armor, helmets, knee pads, or elbow pads. They merely jumped into an average Ford Ranger pickup, stuck an un-vested man with a weapon in the open bed of the truck, and said, “Let’s go!” They didn’t follow speed limits or any rules of the road as we know them. They drove at excessive speeds and held on. As a matter of fact, during MSG Mellohn’s planning of the mission, he had determined the order of march for our convoy vehicles and made sure that his vehicle was first so that the ABP couldn’t drive ahead too fast, get too far ahead, and lose the rest of the convoy.

Framed ABF CHEMTAL 4 pickup


The men on the trucks had not relaxed while we had been inside speaking with the general. The gunners, with the hot sun beating directly down on them, had been sitting walled behind their metal fortresses, rotating their turrets and scanning the area in defense of our presence. The junior Joint Fires Observer (JFO) had set up shop near my truck and was contending with his radio chatter to higher. The drivers and the medic had also been very vigilant in posting security as they sat in the trucks and kept a watchful eye out through the hazy, sandy windows of our up-armored vehicles.

With our senses on full alert again, we mounted our vehicles and ran through the quick routine of radio checks. SGT Anise took his place again as my gunner. Our Soldiers were harnessed in their seats and the doors were combat locked. It was time to roll out again.

Once we were underway, it was very difficult to see the road in front of us. The wind had picked up and sand was being kicked up by the vehicles on front of me. My driver kept his foot on the gas pedal despite the limited visibility, and we maintained our convoy speed. Although it was dangerous to have trucks too close together in case we got hit, it was equally dangerous for the trucks to be too far apart.

Now there was no chatter nor any music in the truck. Engulfed in a large dirt cloud, we rumbled loudly along the straight, dirt path. The clicking of the rotating turret could be heard over the roar of the engine. The radio was quiet and I could hear the slightest ringing in my ears inside of my headphones.

After about ten minutes of driving, the sand cloud had begun to fade a bit and I could now see a few mud homes near the road in front of us.

I heard the quietness in my headset change to a dull fuzz as if someone had queued their microphone.

"And on the left, you will see goats on a wall.” MSG Mellohn’s voice rang out through the silence as if he was playing the role of a tour guide. He emphasized "goats on a wall" as though the words were the title of a piece of art or literature or, as it were, an oddity.

The men in my truck snickered half-heartedly as someone asked, “What did he say?”

I repeated in my best MSG Mellohn impersonation, “He said ‘goats on a wall’.”

At that moment, my truck was in the location that MSG Mellohn’s truck had been in when he offered his tour-guide impression and, indeed, there were goats on a wall. To the left of the road was a mud wall that stood three or four feet tall, and on top of that wall were eight or ten brown, white, and black goats. They stood there balancing atop their perch, not moving, not grazing. It was the most peculiar sight I had seen on a convoy yet.

As we drove by, I chuckled to myself. MSG Mellohn’s attempt at humoring us with this oddity had helped to take the edge off the tension. Although we stayed vigilant and alert, I think everyone’s shoulder muscles loosened up slightly. MSG Mellohn’s comment was just the dose of reality that I needed to put into perspective just how simple the Afghanistan way of life was in comparison to my life as an American.

The trucks picked up speed and our vision was once again clouded by the burst of dirt in front of us. Occasionally, through the dust puff, I would catch a glimpse of a donkey grazing near the road, or a farmer in his field. The silence in the truck had also returned and we kept a watchful eye for the remainder of our short jaunt to the district center.

I monitored the Blue Force Tracker, watching the icon that represented my truck move toward a square marking the district center, and watching the messenger for any new intel for our area.

Once again the trucks began to slow and MSG Mellohn’s voice came over the radio instructing me that we were at our destination. As all good Soldiers do, I scouted out my new area. To my left was a thin patch of trees, a couple of fields, and a donkey tied in the tree line. To my right, a Hesco barrier surrounding the district center that we had passed earlier. There were no other buildings in the area, no vehicles on the roads, no children, no homes.

Framed ABF CHEMTAL 4 donkey


MSG Mellohn had pushed his truck to the far side of the entrance way to the checkpoint with his gunner still pointed down the road in front of us. The ABP pickup, which had been between the convoy commander’s and my truck, disappeared through the gate and into the compound. I instructed my driver to hold back to the near side of the gate and SGT Anise, without hesitation or my command, turned his turret to cover us from the rear.

Framed ABF CHEMTAL truck


I waited to hear the go-ahead from the convoy commander before opening my door. I dismounted my vehicle slowly, taking note of as many details of my surroundings as I could, scanning the area for threats.

MSG Mellohn was greeted by the ABP Colonel Akhbar and General Wadood near the front gate. The general had ridden in one of the ABP pickups from Qal-e Khowsouddin to the checkpoint.

“Salaam alaikum,” the master sergeant said with a warm smile as he shook the colonel’s hand. The two had been working together over the past few months and had formed not only a working relationship but also a friendship.

“Wa alaikum as salaam,” Colonel Akhbar quickly replied with the same warm smile.

I watched the three leaders chat briefly with the help of the interpreter. The colonel pointed across the road to the patch of young trees and then the two nodded and walked toward the road followed by a handful of ABP soldiers who had come from within the compound.

MSG Mellohn motioned for me to come over to him, told me that our KLE would be taking place across the road under the shade of the trees. It was well after noon and quite hot out so Col. Akhbar felt a breezy outdoor meeting would be nice.

The master sergeant instructed me to tell the remainder of the team and then bring both JFOs to the meeting. I quickly moved back to my truck, donned my headset, and gave the update to our team over the radio. As quickly as I said it, two JFOs -- one junior and one senior -- were out of their respective trucks and ready to go. I flopped my headset down on my seat, jumped back off the truck, and grabbed my assault pack with one hand and my camera with the other. The three of us walked away from the trucks and across the road.

An ABP soldier had laid a dark, dusty blanket and three black pillows out on the ground for the three leaders to sit on. MSG Mellohn, showing respect to his counterparts, took off his body armor and helmet, setting it in the dirt off the side of the blanket. He rested his sunglasses on the top of his head and sat down on the blanket between the two ABP leaders. The general, keeping his patrol cap on his head, laid comfortably on his side with a pillow under his arm. The master sergeant followed suit and leaned back on his pillow. Completely comfortable in his relaxed position and with his company, he focused on the colonel and began to jot down notes as the colonel spoke.

The interpreter sat in the tall grass beside Colonel Akhbar and one ABP soldier sat on the ground next to him while another ABP soldier stood behind them. The two JFOs and another ABP soldier sat opposite the line of men creating a small walkway between the two rows of men. Behind the JFOs was a tree and on the other side of that, a few feet down an embankment, was a small pool of stagnant, murky green water.

Framed ABF CHEMTAL 4 KLE


I removed my helmet and clipped it to my assault pack, then wrapped my head with my shemaugh again. Although wrapped in Pashmina, my head seemed to feel cooler than it did when I wore my helmet.

I stood off to the side of the group for a bit in order to take photos then carefully made my way across a narrow footing of dirt to cross the swamp-like creek in order to catch a different angle. I didn’t want to get in the way of the meeting so I hovered around from one side of the group to the other, crossing the creek as I needed to and being careful on the uneven ground so that I would not fall in.

Framed ABF CHEMTAL 4 KLE 2

I glanced back at the trucks once in a while and then up and down the road for any activity. I took turns photographing the KLE and then other things that were around me. The frayed donkey that was tied to the tree line looked miserable in the heat and was doing what he could to nestle himself in the trees and out of the sun. The mountains were hazy from the humidity and, at one point, there was traffic on the road. Albeit, it was a local Afghan man slowly riding by on his donkey, but it was traffic nonetheless.

Framed ABF CHEMTAL rider



The Colonel, the General, and the Master Sergeant’s business was nothing that I particularly listened to but I did pay attention enough to them to get the gist of the conversation. My role, at that moment, was to take photos of the KLE in order to document the mission not only for our security force assistance team (SFAT) but also for the ABP. They were not equipped to send a public affairs person of their own out on missions nor did they fully understand the value of having one on the mission.

The 5th Zone ABP were good at documenting the activities of the general commanding the 5th Zone.  Most of the public affairs capability was nested with him and his personal bodyguard. The 5th Zone did have a Public Affairs Officer who was, to this point, vestigial. This was the reason that I had been included in this mission; to show the ABP the value of documenting their activities in the field that contributed to security and stability in northern Afghanistan. We wanted to show them that this could contribute to establishing a positive awareness of the role of the ABP and, through that, to assist in enhancing government legitimacy.

There had been insurgent activity in the area recently, and Col. Akhbar was explaining to the commander of the Quick Reaction Force (QRF) and to our seasoned master sergeant how the situation was being handled. MSG Mellohn’s working relationship with Col. Akhbar and the ABP was as the QRF advisor. In short, although there was nothing short about his advisor duties and responsiblities, he mentored the ABP in regards to how they performed operations, training, and leadership.

At one point during the KLE, Col. Akhbar must have said something to one of the Afghan soldiers, because an Afghan soldier had left the blanket session and returned with some delicious, hot tea. Yes, 100 degrees outside and I was offered hot, steaming tea. I was taught not only from the Army but also from my parents to be polite and accept hospitality when it’s offered, so I put the camera down for a couple of minutes, sat on a tuft of long grass, and enjoyed a small cup of Chai.

General Wadood remained quiet throughout most of the meeting, as did MSG Mellohn. Col Akhbar would say a few sentences, gesture something with his hands, then pause for the interpreter to repeat the information in English.

The meeting adjourned as Col Akhbar invited the group of us to come inside the compound to see the checkpoint’s operating center. One by one, the group crossed the little dirt paths across the bog and made our way back up to and across the road.

Our gaggle of ABP and American Soldiers walked through the guarded opening in the Hescos that encompassed the compound. A few small trees were planted in the dry dirt in the middle of the compound. Beyond the trees was a one-story unfinished cement building with wood-framed holes for windows. Despite being unfinished, the building was being used. Plastic sheeting hung over a few of the window openings, and three of the larger entrance ways had been converted to drying racks for brush that was most likely going to be used for roofing. Two rows of five brick walls stood on the roof above the openings. The bricks did not match the cement walls of the building so I don’t know if they were permanently affixed there or not.

Two ABP green pickups were parked at the far end of the building and two additional vehicles were parked in front of me beside a two-story yellow painted building. The truck closest to the building had been parked in the shade. The truck’s tailgate was lowered and two stocking feet hung out the end of the bed on a dingy blue blanket. Clearly an Afghan soldier was napping or, at minimum, resting in the shade. Another ABP soldier laid on his back on the blue sleeping mat stretched out on the cement slab in front of the building. He, too, was in his stocking feet.

Framed ABF CHEMTAL 4 shade truck

Our group stopped outside the door to the yellow building as we heard a “Hey! Hey!” from MSG Mellohn. A tall American Soldier with a tan ball cap and cigar limped toward us. The gentleman was a lieutenant colonel and a friend and fellow combat advisor of our master sergeant. The two had known each other back in the States, and both had the role of mentor in Afghanistan. They exchanged a friendly greeting and had a brief but jovial conversation about their deployments thus far. Aside from a few informal comments about their respective mentorships, the conversation was a ribbing about the manner how the lieutenant colonel had gained his limp. Apparently, the middle-aged officer thought he could take on some young bucks on the basketball court. In short, the stogie smoker ended up with a broken leg that slowed his pace but not his spirit.

After a few more moments of joking and chit-chat between the two, MSG Mellohn turned to me and asked if I would take a picture of the two old friends. Here is our smiling master sergeant on the right with his helmet under arm, and the lieutenant colonel on the left, cigar still in his mouth.

Framed ABF CHEMTAL 4 old friends


It was time to move on with the mission, so we walked past the yellow building where another unfinished cement building stood. This building was a bit more constructed than the other one, as it had glass windows in nearly half of the window openings.

Again, I lagged behind to get photos. Our leader walked across the gravel walkway with the ABP leader ahead of the group, followed by their interpreter, then the two JFOs and myself. As we reached the door to the command building, we walked in front of a few coalition force and Afghan soldiers. The reaction was nearly the same as it had always been on missions like this. These men didn’t anticipate a woman on the trip and I could tell they were watching me. I just continued walking as if I were no different than the other men around me.

Framed ABF CHEMTAL 4 going in



We crossed a short corridor and went into a very tall, brightly lit room. Sunlight streamed in through the windows that lined the perimeter near the top. With the ceiling painted white and the room painted yellow, the brightness of room was very inviting. In the corner was a tall ladder that had been built out of stripped branches of wood.

Framed ABF CHEMTAL 4 hall


Three Afghan soldiers sat along one wall behind two tables that were being used as desks. Contrary to the simplistic ruggedness of the compound, on the tables sat pieces of modern radio equipment, a computer, and a printer. Coaxial cables draped out of the equipment onto the floor and climbed up the wall behind the ladder like thick black vines. The vines disappeared out a window at the top of the room.

Framed ABF CHEMTAL at work


Col. Akhbar walked MSG Mellohn past a wooden divider in the middle of the room to the far end of the square command room. On the other side of the divider that was made of sheets of particle board hung three large maps of the area and a few sheets of paper with Dari or Farsi words written on them. The far wall of the room was decorated with more Dari-covered sheets of paper.

The two leaders migrated toward one of the maps and the Afghan colonel began showing MSG Mellohn where insurgent presence had been in the Chemtal area. There had been an ongoing joint effort, Ebtikar 4, between the Afghan Uniformed Police, the Afghan National Army, and the ABP to counter insurgent activity. The maps were just a visual affirmation of the information that Col Akhbar had shared earlier in the meeting across the road outside under the trees. By the look on MSG Mellohn’s face, one could infer that he was pleased with Col Akhbar’s handling of the situation.

Framed ABF CHEMTAL 4 maps


A few more moments of conversation between our master sergeant and the colonel then is was time to step back outside and wrap up the day’s business.

MSG Mellohn asked me if I could get a photo of him with Col. Akhbar before we left. After seeing the bond that the two of them had, both as friends and working together toward a better Afghanistan, I was more than happy to oblige. They stood side by side in the sunlight and I believe I caught the most genuine smiles the two of them could have had. Theirs were looks of kinship, assurance, and pride.

Framed ABF CHEMTAL 4 MSG and COL


This moment was exactly what our presence in Afghanistan is about: helping them to help themselves --  training them, supporting them, encouraging them, and reassuring them. I was there to witness it, to capture it, and to document it. I had taken photos of leaders who were making progress, one step at a time, against the war on terror.

We returned to our home post unscathed. Although ready for the fight, we never took any contact that day.

SGT Anise, despite his attempts to sabotage my position as the truck commander, did respect me throughout the day and did not cross me. He did what was expected of him and acted responsibly as the gunner of my truck. He did not, however, speak to me in a casual manner, on that day or any other day we were on mission together for the rest of my deployment.

My photos were sent upward to my command and distributed to many news outlets, both civilian and military. I also sent a copy to the ABP public affairs officer whom I ended up mentoring by the end of my deployment. Those photos helped to solidify the reason why public affairs is so important on those types of missions. MSG Mellohn and his Afghan counterpart were in sync in their efforts that day and I held the proof that Afghanistan was transforming and working against the insurgency.

LOOK TO THE VETS: BOMBS, EMOTIONS, AND PTSD |

April 16, 2013

Name: Mikey Piro
Returned from: Iraq
Hometown: Lindenhurst, NY
Milblog: ptsdsurvivordaily
Email: mpiro45@gmail.com

I am sitting and watching the television as I try to work. The images streaming on the news channels are familiar. I see them and I am reminded of my other senses. Sulfur, burnt hair, melted plastic. The attacks that have just struck our society again are unfortunately more common in other parts of the world. Ironically, if you find a Veteran of the past ten years, there is a good chance they are more familiar with this scenario than most Americans. Hell, most of my Facebook friends are well versed in this drill. I hope we can lead the country at large around the pitfalls of these types of attacks.

“Chaos” is a singularly accurate word to describe these scenes, but singular descriptions are inadequate. I have written about the aftermath before. As a nation, we are firmly entrenched in a review of details.

We will watch video and listen to interviews, but I am now paying keen attention to the emotions. The emotions that will pour out of the trauma that has now affected thousands of people will take a long while to unwind. The feelings of people who ran towards the blast, people who ran away, those who panicked, those who resolved to stay and help; anger, sadness and helplessness will feed many nights of sleeplessness.

The images are now seared into the minds of the EMTs, the Police, the First Responders and, through the television, the rest of America. Feelings of a lack of safety, and hopelessness, but also hope and resolution, all juxtaposed in a heap like the crowds immediately after the blast. They are battered, bloody and waiting for triage. And even without the help of the evening news, they will replay over in our minds. I feel confident about these statements because it is a glimpse into my mind's eye after a few key events in my service overseas.

In My Head

I am anxious, but not as anxious as I would have been three years ago. My wife came home to see me at my desk with the news on as I sifted through work emails.

“You know you shouldn’t watch that all night,” she gently told me.

“Yeah, I haven’t been watching long...” I lied.

I have lived through the aftermath of more than one car bomb. One of the most traumatic events I have ever lived through was dealing with triage for hours on end as a result of a massive car bomb in Tal’afar, Iraq. The lines of amputees and severely burned stretched to our gates.

I am now neatly preparing my mind for the next few hours and days. I am eliminating the “stuck points,” or in laymen’s terms, using “always” or “never” in my opinions or feelings. I am forcing myself to stare at the triggers. The pictures of blood-stained concrete are all too familiar. In staring at them I force myself to realize that these are low probability events. There were half a million people at the race today. Three killed and over a hundred wounded is not much more unsafe than driving and maybe safer than some parts of urban Detroit.

This is what terrorism tries to do. It tries to impact your emotions into forming unreasonable and illogical conclusions. It plays on safety and fear, and it is powerful. I think that had we known more about the treatment of emotions I would not have been hastened back into conflict so quickly. Today and here we do not have to rush anyone back to work.

Stiffen and Strengthen

One more resolution is to stiffen against these attacks. I can feel the callouses return. I think this is in our nature.

F**k me?

No.

F**k You!

We can now replace the Brooklynese with Southie. I have even looked at signing up for another marathon, so I can qualify for the next Boston.

The details will unfold, but more important than the details of the day are how the details make you feel. That will be much more telling about what is happening, and what is to come. If you are waning or lost, and you know a Vet, look to them and reach out.  Both sides will benefit.

IN THE TRUCK COMMANDER'S SEAT TO CHEMTAL : PART 3 |

April 15, 2013

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

The room of Kwalee Khowsouddin that we walked into was probably only eight feet wide by sixteen feet long. The floor was covered with a worn, brown carpet that stretched half way across the long room and a deep red carpet to stretch the other half. Like two jagged, half moons that met tail to tail, the bricked ceiling above us was dome-shaped and beautiful in its own way.

Framed ABF CHEMTAL 2 ceiling


The room had two large arched holes on either side of the door, that served as windows. The traditional American sense of a window -- glass, plexiglass, or a window treatment -- was nonexistent. Hanging on the wall to my left was a weapon and nothing else. It hung from a spike that had been jammed into a crack in the wall. Below it, in the corner, sat a cardboard box with a tray of eggs on top of it; unrefrigerated, room temperature white eggs.

Framed ABF CHEMTAL 2 gun

To my right was a small metal bed, with a mattress wrapped loosely in a white sheet. A couple of pieces of colorful clothing hung from the two bed posts. A large sheet of white paper, serving as a calendar of the patrol schedule for the joint ANSF (Afghan National Security Force) patrols that were being conducted in the area, hung on the dirt wall. On the floor were two thin sleeping mats along opposite walls, with a narrow piece of dark-red cloth between them. 

A blue blanket on one sleeping mat was neatly folded and laid on top of the pillow. The blanket on the other mat was folded in half and laid out over the mat. On the red cloth between the two mats were three stacks of nan (Afghan bread), a bowl of yogurt, two short glasses of water, and another white container with plastic and a rubber band over it to make a lid. Lunch was the first order of business.

Framed ABF CHEMTAL 2 bed

The ABP general had followed us into the room and immediately began to speak to his soldiers. Without hesitation, two men began to move the sleeping mats out of the way and another disappeared back out the door. The general motioned for us to sit, and we each glanced at each other to figure out who was going to sit where.

The general, then another soldier moved to one side of the makeshift table and SGT Hanover followed behind. MSG Mellohn motioned for me to go ahead of him so that I sat next to the general beside the metal bed. He sat to my left and his interpreter sat to his left. SGT Anise positioned himself at the end of the mat.

It wasn’t nervousness that I felt at that moment, but I did feel an odd sense of awkwardness -- for two reasons. For one, I needed to take photos of the key leader engagement, but was in a corner that wouldn’t necessarily give me the best camera angles. I was sitting on the floor between the leader of our group and the leader of their group. As a photographer, I was positioned in the wrong corner and should have been where SGT Anise was sitting. Secondly, I still wasn’t sure how my presence, as a female, was being perceived.

I don’t feel that MSG Mellohn’s reason for putting me first on that side of the mat was solely a chivalrous gesture. I believe that as a leader and a senior enlisted NCO, he was looking out for me as a Soldier with added emphasis because of my gender in this situation. Additionally, he and I had become friends on our past few missions so, perhaps, there was a bit of big brother effort at play.

Nonetheless, I sat between the general and the master sergeant and waited for their conversation to begin. Honestly, during most of the Key Leader Engagements (KLEs) I had attended, I really didn’t pay much attention to the conversations that took place. My job as a public affairs specialist did not include the task of playing secretary and note-taking on behalf of the key leaders. I paid attention to the entire situation in order to document the engagement as a whole: who attended the KLE, where and when the KLE took place, and what the main purpose was. The Army had me write objective stories that gave that a general overview of the mission, but there was not a need to include specific details, mostly for operational security purposes.

I took out my camera and began to take pictures of the group as we sat around the mat. Awkwardly, I arched my back over the bed so that I could get away from the group a bit more in order to get as many of them in the shot as possible. Most of my photos were of three of the guys on the left or the other three on the right but I could never get the entire group from my seated position.

The soldier who had previously left the room upon the general’s command returned with another soldier, both carrying plates of pilau. Unlike the American way of eating, each person at the table did not get a plate for themselves. Pilau was a tasty rice dish that usually had a chunk or two of meat in it and a handful of juicy, red raisins. It wasn’t sticky rice, so each grain fell loose on the plate -- and between your fingers. Yes, fingers. Afghans usually eat these meals with their fingers, and only with their right hand. Muslim religion dictates that the left hand is used for personal hygiene and, therefore, it would never touch the food in a communal dish.

A soft flatbread, known as nan, was passed out to each of us around the table. A staple to every Afghan meal I had, this bread was imprinted with a design and then baked on the roof of a kiln-like oven.

The men tore bite-sized pieces of their nan and dipped it into the bowl of room-temperature yogurt. Afghan yogurt, usually made of goat’s or cow’s milk, was not like the American or Greek yogurt that I was accustomed to. This Afghan yogurt was warm and sour, like curdled milk. I had tried it once before and didn’t like it, so my nan was always eaten without the yogurt dip.

Framed ABF CHEMTAL 2 meal

I put my camera down so that I could partake in the meal. The general did not seem bothered that I was a female at his table but I treaded lightly and waited for the men to begin eating first. MSG Mellohn and I had a plate of pilau to share between the two of us. He started on one end and I started on the other. I was only a small fingers-scoop of pilau into my meal when the general stopped me. He had decided that I needed to eat with a spoon. His kind gesture was atypical of an Afghan man toward a woman. He had apparently had lunch with one of our lieutenant colonels not too long before and the LTC had made a mess of himself with rice everywhere. The general was sparing me the indignity.

He handed me a large serving spoon to use and I thanked him. “Tashakur.”

I wasn’t particularly hungry so I slowly took a few bites and watched the guys with their Army-rugged hands attempt to delicately eat the small morsels of rice.

Framed ABF CHEMTAL 2 morsels

There were minor pleasantries of conversation amongst the men in between bites, some in Dari, and some in English. There was also a bit of laughter, even from the always-stern SGT Anise.

I had resolved that I was finished with my meal and turned back to working on documenting the mission. I rolled myself from sitting cross-legged to a kneeling position. From my new angle, I could encompass the entire group in the camera’s viewer. In the background, three Afghan soldiers stood quietly. They did not eat but just stood there ready to get the general whatever he asked of them.

My movement had sparked the general’s attention. He spoke to our language assistant and asked him to ask me how old I was. A little unsure of whether to answer, I glanced quickly at MSG Mellohn who showed no signs of stopping the questioning, then looked at the general and said “38," which was promptly translated back to him. He nodded.

A new feeling of awkwardness came over me. Obviously, the general was comfortable with me being there on this mission, eating at his table, and taking pictures but now he was speaking to me directly and asking me personal questions. He hadn’t even spoken to SGTs Hanover or Anise, the other men at the table.

He asked me another simple, general question which I don’t recall now but then the general asked a third question that, in my mind, overshadowed the second question completely: “Are you married?”

I didn’t want to be disrespectful and I was in a slight bit of shock so I answered him softly with a “No.”

MSG Mellohn quickly intervened in the conversation at that moment. Sensing that I was slightly uncomfortable and knowing that an Afghan man would not have asked the same question to an Afghan woman, my big brother decided it was time to start in the business side of our trip.

As he began, the general signaled for the three soldiers that stood at the other end of the room. One came over to us carrying a metal bucket and a plastic blue watering can. He stood on the mat still covered in food and dishes. Beginning with the MSG Mellohn, then SGT Anise, then SGT Hanover, then me, the soldier poured water over our hands and into the bucket. One by one, we quickly washed our hands in the thin water stream then dried them on a pink hand towel.

Framed ABF CHEMTAL dishes

The other two soldiers found this to be amusing for some reason. One pulled out a small digital camera and the other sat posed on the floor behind SGT Anise to have his picture taken with the hand-washing activity in the background.

Having washed our hands, the soldier put his bucket and water can back on the other end of the room, and proceeded to clear our table of the food and dishes. The general spoke to him and then the interpreter leaned toward MSG Mellohn to quietly tell him that the general had told the soldier to take food out to the remaining men at our trucks. MSG Mellohn nodded to the general to express his thanks for the general’s generosity and then leaned to me to explain what had been said. He had asked the general in an earlier conversation to send food out to our convoy if there was enough. Apparently, the general felt there was enough.

Everyone settled back into their positions within the circles.

The master sergeant, through his interpreter, began to discuss with the ABP general current operations in the Chemtal District area. He would ask a question then wait while his interpreter would translate the English words to Dari as he asked the general the same question MSG Mellohn had just asked him. The seasoned combat veteran sat patiently with his pen and notebook at the ready for the general’s response. The sequence of events during translation was nothing new for either of these two leaders so the conversation amongst the three men seemed to be flowing smoothly.

Framed ABF CHEMTAL conversation

SGT Anise, SGT Hanover and I remained quiet and observant. Occasionally, I would capture a photo of one of the men speaking but I felt it was slightly rude and intrusive of their conversation so I kept the photography to a minimum.

Framed ABF CHEMTAL tres

The conversation between the two leaders didn’t last for more than ten or fifteen minutes. They had discussed matters to a point where both were comfortable, so it was time to convene and head out to our next destination, the Chemtal District Center for another Key Leader Engagement.

Each of us stretched a bit as we got up off the floor. We headed out the door and back into the sunlight.

There were a handful of ABP soldiers standing in the courtyard just outside the door. 

Framed ABF CHEMTAL group

The general was followed by the soldiers that were in the room with us. SGT Anise and SGT Hanover began putting on their body armor. I wandered further into the courtyard and began to take pictures of the men as they gaggled in the shade having their various dialogues. MSG Mellohn, who had been speaking to another soldier through his interpreter, asked me if I would take a picture of the three of them. I was happy to oblige.

Framed ABF CHEMTAL three

As the men said their goodbyes, I hurriedly put on my body armor and got ready to head out to the trucks.

Our day was not over. We had one more stop to make and, with only one road to this checkpoint, we were about to head back along the same route we had taken to get there. Intel had told us that there were known insurgents in the area and, had they got wind that we had traveled on that road and were at the checkpoint, they had more than enough time to have set up IEDs on the road they knew we had to take to get back out of the area.

To be continued...

IN THE TRUCK COMMANDER'S SEAT TO CHEMTAL: PART TWO |

April 12, 2013

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

My eyes, like those of the other Soldiers in my truck, frenziedly darted about as I quickly scanned the vehicles coming toward me and those approaching from the side streets. White Toyota Corollas and station wagons over-stuffed with Afghans zoomed past us. Motorcycles, ridden by one, two, and sometimes three people, zig-zagged in and out of traffic. Faded and dirty jingle trucks traveled slowly down the paved roadway, blocking cars from passing.

Gazing out the up-armored vehicle windows, we attentively focused on the details of the people we were passing, the roof tops of buildings, and the leaves in the trees. The busyness of the city began to lessen as we rode away from the packed paved city streets.  The cramped side by side buildings of the city dwindled to only an occasional mud home alongside our route. The masses of people diminished to a few children playing here and there in the dirt and fields near their homes. We traveled out of the streets of Mazar-e-Sharif into the country in the direction of Chemtal.

The sun was warm and directly overhead as I followed the ABP truck in front of me.  The sky was clear and blue. There was a beautiful range of mountains to the south of our route and the land nearest us was patched with plush green fields and arid, dry lots of dirt.  Small rows of thin trees lined an occasional creek bed.  For a brief moment and aside from the plated body armor and the massive vehicle, one could think we were on a Sunday outing.

The guys in my vehicle had decided that the low dull roar of the engine was too mundane for them so they asked to plug-in an iPod.  I, being a music lover, agreed that our journey needed a soundtrack.  SGT Anise, despite his earlier demeanor, quickly offered up his music repertoire and, with a couple of quick plug-ins, we were rumbling along to the sounds of Breaking Benjamin and Limp Bizkit.

I had not been to the Chemtal District before so I was excited to be in a new area, although much of it looked like other areas of Afghanistan I had already been in.  Something new in my sights, though, was camels.  I had only see camels in pictures and at the zoo until now.  Never had I seen them free roaming or carrying people and their belongings.  Seeing them was just enough of a reminder that I wasn’t home.

We had traveled nearly 45 minutes away from Mazar-e-Sharif when MSG Mellohn came across the radio indicating he was turning.  The turn was a sharp hair-pin to the right and then an immediate left.  I saw his truck make the turn and then disappear behind a building.  The ABP pickup in front of me followed suit.  My driver slowed and maneuvered our vehicle along the same path as I called up our completion of the turn.

Framed AFB CHEMTAL 2-1 city

We were now on a smaller paved road in a small village with mud homes to both my left and right.  Not that we hadn’t been continuously scanning for threats, but once again we were on a slightly more heightened alert as we rolled through the village.  There was simply more to scan than in the country.

As he continued to scan for threats, my gunner radioed to me that, as we had passed a group of three Afghan men, all three began to dial on their cell phones.  Although it could honestly be coincidence that all three chose to dial their phones in the same time, my training it taught me this action was a possible indicator of a threat.  I asked SGT Anise to clarify what he had seen in terms of description and direction.  He reiterated exactly what he told me before and, upon this clarification, I proceeded to radio up the information to the convoy commander.  The information I spoke of was now being broadcast through the headset of every Soldier on that convoy.

The seasoned convoy commander calmly acknowledged my transmission.  The best we could do was to continue to be vigilant and aware of our surroundings.  The reality was this: if something was going to happen, it was going to happen.  There was going to be only so much we could do to prevent something negative from happening.  Unless we actually saw a weapon or an improvised explosive device (IED) before we got hit with it, we were stuck in a wait-and-see game. My pulse raced as I continued to look out the windows and we continued on our way out of the small village area.

The music continued to play although none of us was really listening to it anymore.  Occasionally, MSG Mellohn would radio back to my truck to check in to make sure everything was OK and, of course, it was.

We drove for a little while longer and passed a large cement building that had been painted a light color yellow. Around the building were rows of Hescos serving as a security border. White box-shaped buildings stood as towers high above the Concertina wire-lined Hesco wall. I was unsure of what the building was but it looked to be important at the time.

Once past the building, the paved road ended abruptly and we found ourselves continuing on a dirt road.

A dozen kilometers or so later, we rolled to a halt, positioning ourselves tactically to be looking up and down the road we were just on. The area was bare with the exception of a compound that stood next to the dirt road. The mud walls were probably twelve or so feet high and the entrance way was nothing more than an opening… no gate, no door.

I took off my headset, gathered my gear, and checked with the men in my truck to ensure they were ready to exit. We waited for the signal from the master sergeant to dismount our vehicles. Seeing him climb out of his truck, I looked out the window so see what was around me. Seeing no immediate threat, I gripped the inside handle of my large, heavy door and forcefully shoved the door open. I looked directly down at the ground below me and continued to sweep my gaze outward to the left and right of my next step. Too many times I had seen videos of Soldiers blown up as they stepped out of their vehicles. I slowly lowered myself down the metal steps and stepped down on the firm dirt. I grabbed my assault pack and camera then turned around to look at the vast, flat area beside me.

The moment was brief and I walked out from behind my truck headed toward MSG Mellohn’s truck. He had already walked with his interpreter to link up with the ABP and had a brief discussion about the events that were about to ensue. As I turned the corner of my vehicle, I looked at the small group that had gathered between our trucks and the doorway. The master sergeant, his security force (SECFOR), and his interpreter had their backs to me but the eyes of other men standing there took turns looking over at me. What was their fascination? I wondered.

The brief meeting concluded and the trio walked toward me. MSG Mellohn explained to me that the ABP wanted to extend an invitation of lunch to some of the members of our group. His decision was that SGT Anise might benefit from some Afghan hospitality to counter his negative personality of late. SGT Anise would therefore relinquish his gunner’s position for our brief stop at the post and would work as SECFOR for our team. Additionally, MSG Mellohn felt that a JFO should go in the compound as well so he chose for SGT Hanover to go in with us. The remainder of the group would stay with the truck but food would be brought out to them.

MSG Mellohn and I moved back to our trucks to get the proper personnel in the correct position then our little group of five moved toward the doorway. As I neared the doorway, I removed my helmet and wrapped my head with a shamaugh. I had learned from dealing with the ABP on other missions that I was respected and taken more seriously when I wore a head scarf instead of my helmet. It was seen as a sigh of respect for their culture.

We were greeted by ABP soldiers and led inside through the arch into the compound’s main area. The compound area was slightly cluttered with trash, housing a couple of broken down vehicles and some rusted equipment. The dirt was uneven and a few clumps of dried out weeds sprang up here and there. There was also a rusted water pump close to the front door. There were no tents, no trash receptacle, no storage facilities.

ABP soldiers milled around near the door inquisitive of their new-arrived guests. The ABP general, walking out of the doorway to the left of us, reached for MSG Mellohn’s hand and gave it a solid handshake. The pleasantries of a welcome were shared between the two. The master sergeant knew enough Dari to carry on small conversations with his Afghan counterparts. The general motioned for us to come in to a room that we could sit down for lunch. As we each walked past the general and into the room, MSG Mellohn introduced each of us to him. SGT Anise and SGT Hanover each shook his hand and gave the quick greeting, “Salaam” meaning hello. When my introduction came, I simply nodded in acknowledgement and avoided looking him in the eyes then moved into the room.

Traditional Afghan culture dictates that Afghan men do not speak to women and Afghan women do not speak to men aside from their husband and family. The same culture lends that women do not look men directly in the eyes nor do they shake hands with them. Women and men are not seen as equal.

Very few Afghans have worked closely with U.S. Soldiers and even fewer have interacted with a female Soldier. The ABP there knew MSG Mellohn’s team was coming but they were not aware that a photojournalist was coming nor did they know that there was a female on the mission. Those looks I was getting earlier? Those were because those ABP soldiers had never seen a female American Soldier… and I got out of the truck commander’s (TC’s) seat. That meant I had some rank and some authority on this mission. Simply put: they didn’t know what to think of me or how to, if they even should, interact with me.

To be continued...

ULTIMATE SACRIFICE |

April 10, 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

Not everything about combat is glorious.

The communications black-out has finally been lifted.

The Taliban bloodied our noses a couple days ago. Three warriors from our Brigade were taken from us, a US Diplomat, and numerous more were injured. The Operations Sergeant Major made his way into my office yesterday morning to alert me of the contact that was happening in town. “Get your CLEAR team prepared” he said “Two KIA, possibly more.”

My CLEAR team is a group of Soldiers that received special training back in Washington before we deployed. They have the worst job in the Army; dealing with the remains of Soldiers that have been killed. I notified the team and went back to the office to wait for further guidance. As I waited, I observed my Soldiers closely and watched their emotions change as they grasped the severity of the situation.

“Initial reports are always worse than reality,” I thought to myself as I hoped for the best.

I received a call from the Battle Captain: “All Soldiers with A-Positive blood type need to report to the Level 2 Aid Station." I have a list created on my desktop for just this purpose. My runner and I went through the buildings ordering Soldiers to go give blood. This was a bad sign.

Five minutes later I received another call, this time for type O-Positive.

The Soldiers in contact were not from our unit, but another that is part of our Brigade. I don’t know any of them personally, but living on a small FOB I have met most everyone. After a few hours I was told to stand down my CLEAR team as they were not going to be needed. Numbers of Killed In Action (KIA) and Wounded (WIA) were still unclear.

At around 1500 we were told that they wanted all available Soldiers to the Helicopter LZ, in formation. Immediately I knew what was happening; we were headed to pay our last respects. I walked through the buildings notifying the Troop and we all headed down to the LZ. We arrived and stood in formation for around 45 minutes before we were told that it wasn’t happening at this time. Brigade would call us all back when they were ready to conduct the dignified transfer of remains.

I took this time to address my Troop. These were the first KIA that we have had this deployment, on this FOB, and I knew that it was going to bother all of them to some degree. I made sure that they knew that I was affected by it, and that they needed to talk about it with someone, the Chaplin, their leadership, myself, or anyone.

After I was done talking with the Troop the commander and I headed up to grab some chow. As we waited in line, CPT Lindberg came in and grabbed us. Brigade called us all back down for the event. We made our way back and got our Troopers in formation. The Brigade CSM gave us a heads up; the first three ambulances would be carrying the wounded to the Medical Evacuation Helicopters. It was quiet. Two Blackhawks landed and turned off their engines.

About 500 Soldiers were lined up in two formations, facing each other to create a path from the Level 2 Aid Station to the LZ. As the wounded were being loaded up, a second pair of Blackhawks arrived; the “Angel Flight.” It took a little over an hour to completely load all of the wounded, there was no hurry, and no one complained about standing in formation for that length of time; it was silent except for the gentle hum of the Humvee engine as it passed by.

After the wounded were loaded the Humvees went back to pick up the KIA. We were going to have to wait another 10 minutes while the wounded were flown out. The oxygen level was running out on the Blackhawks; the wounded needed to get to higher level care.

The wounded flew out as the KIA were loaded onto the ambulances. As the Humvees approached we rendered a salute to respect those who had paid the ultimate sacrifice, and lowered the salute after they passed. We rendered another salute as they were removed from the ambulance and loaded onto the helicopter. As the helicopter left, we were released back to work. It was a quiet walk back to the office…

IN THE TRUCK COMMANDER'S SEAT TO CHEMTAL : PART ONE |

April 09, 2013

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

Public Affairs support had been requested for a mission to an area in the Chemtal District in central Regional Command North. As I had for many other missions before, I reported to the staging area in the morning and began my usual routine of double-checking my gear, packing extra water bottles, and using the Port-a-John, always returning to the front of the trucks to patiently wait for our convoy brief. The mission had been pre-briefed the night before with the team, but the briefing immediately preceding the actual mission would reiterate the information and give us the latest intelligence.

Master Sergeant Mellohn, on his third deployment in five years to Afghanistan and our CC (convoy commander) that day, began by sounding off the roll call.

Where your name fell in order for each truck called determined your role within that truck. He started with his own truck -- himself, his driver, his gunner, a young joint fires observer (JFO), and his Afghan interpreter.

The list for the second truck began with my name, then our driver, our gunner, our medic, and an E-5 JFO. The JFO in the first truck was a young one who had no real-time experience and had never been outside the wire, so the E-5 JFO in my truck, who had gone on a couple of missions previously, was working in a mentoring capacity to the junior JFO.

Since my name had been called first I was the TC (truck commander). The order of march would be the convoy commander’s truck, an ABP (Afghan Border Police) pick-up truck, my truck, and then another ABP pick-up.

He followed the roll call with the intelligence report that had been gathered for us. To begin, the area we were headed to had an incident just four days before. A Norwegian unit’s convoy had hit an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) and one of their troops was critically injured and had lost his leg. Additionally, there were known enemy still in the area. Also, in the city of Mazar-e-Sharif, a large city that we had to venture though to get to Chemtal, there had been reports of IEDs placed in trees aimed at our gunners.

The briefing continued as more details of the mission were heard for the next several minutes.

“Any questions?” he asked. No one said a word. “On the trucks, rolling in 15.”

I grabbed my assault pack and body armor and headed to where my truck was parked. All four heavy doors of the up-armored vehicle were open, and my team was diligently getting their gear up in the truck and moving things around in order to leave. I stepped up on the metal side rail, threw my assault pack on the floor in the TC’s seat and jumped back down. The medic was securing his gear behind the driver’s seat and the senior ranked JFO was messing with his gadgets in attempts to “talk to higher” on his radio to confirm our coordinates.

My gunner, Sergeant Anise, a buck sergeant with an SF (Special Forces) wanna-be mentality, a bad attitude, and the thought that he was the ultimate, superior being of Soldiers, was working on getting his weapon mounted in the turret. He was a unique character who had actually been removed from the Q-course (SF school) because of disciplinary reasons, so I think hanging onto the SF look made him feel better about himself. He had let his hair grow out to the point where it probably pushed the limits of regulations and, because of a supposed shaving profile (a temporary medical excuse for why he didn’t have to shave -- dermatology issues or whatever), had more than just overnight scruff on his face. He was the tall, skinny type that worked out daily yet still had the scrawniest of chicken legs to support his upper torso. That didn’t stop him from puffing out his chest, though, adding to his arrogant behavior.

I stepped slightly away from my truck and began to put on my plated body armor. I could hear a muffled conversation but it wasn’t directed at me so I didn’t pay it much attention. Because I was fairly ready to go but couldn’t mount the truck (TCs ground-guided the trucks off post), I spoke to a couple of other guys on the mission as they were ready to go as well.

After just a minute or two of idle chitter-chatter, I walked back over to my truck to ensure that my team was “up." On the way, however, my gunner approached me and asked if I knew anything about the blue force tracker (BFT). I, not knowing the magnitude of problem this statement would cause, jovially and slightly sarcastically spouted off something along the lines of “enough to be dangerous," a statement that this Soldier did not see as funny or sarcastic and took to heart. He looked blankly at me, said nothing, turned and walked away.

Returning to my truck, I jumped back on the side rail and leaned over my seat to check my radio and the BFT. My JFO, SGT Hanover, a sergeant whom I had known since we went through the Warrior Leader Course (non-commissioned officer training) together the previous summer, was standing next to my door.

Climbing back down from the truck, I asked him what was up. He told me that my gunner had told him that he was TC-ing, not me. He seemed as perplexed about that information as I was, so I told him I’d check into it. As he went back to getting ready, I made my way over to the convoy commander to explain what had just been told to me.

I approached MSG Mellohn and asked if there had been any last-minute changes to assignments, explaining to him that SGT Anise had just told SGT Hanover that he was the TC. Without hesitation, MSG Mellohn crossed in front of me and walked to the door of my truck. I promptly followed him. He stood with SGT Anise to his left and me to his right as if he was a boxing referee about to lay out the “have a clean fight” rules.

You are the TC,” he stated firmly as he looked to his right at me. Without moving his feet, he shifted to his left and said, “SGT Anise, I expect you to be helpful.”

“Rrrrroger that,” I slowly replied in a slightly confused tone with the thought of ‘Why was there some confusion?’ but I said nothing else. The master sergeant turned swiftly and footed his way back to where he had stood before our dialogue. I didn’t dwell on my thought for long. I gave myself a mental shoulder shrug then climbed back up on the truck to see where the rest of my crew was.

I knew MSG Mellohn from previous trainings back home and other missions in Afghanistan. He had thirty-one years in the military, taught counterinsurgency in Afghanistan for fifteen months, and had an impeccable reputation. I had no reason to question what was going on. He outranked me and told me what to do. Enough said.

Moments later, MSG Mellohn gave the command that we were ready so I grabbed my helmet and shut my door. With all the men in their respective positions, I put on my helmet, goggles, and gloves, and walked to the front of my truck so the driver could see me. As I turned my body toward the gate, I gave an overhand signal letting my driver know to move out. Slowly, we followed the lead truck to the gate where we paused so both TCs, the master sergeant and I, could get in and get strapped into our harnesses.

We began the routine radio calls to and from members in the truck and then back and forth from one truck to the other. We were “REDCON 1″ and rolling out.

Now, I had not ever TC’d in Afghanistan before but I had TC’d in training back in the U.S. and I had been on dozens of convoys before going on this one, especially with this team. Through my headset, I had listened to every word said by every Soldier in my truck as well as the chatter between the convoy TCs before. I knew the commands and when to call things up. Through my training, I knew what I needed to be looking out for and what to do if something bad, heaven forbid, should actually happen. I just had not yet been a truck commander while in country.

MSG Mellohn’s decision to put me in the TC seat was fairly straightforward. A medic should not be a TC because if all s*** hits the fan, you’re going to need him to patch people up. The JFO, if the same problem occurs, is going to be busy on the radios calling up for air support. The second JFO with us had never been on a convoy nor had he ever worked with this team so he wasn’t a good choice. Obviously, the drivers were no-gos. The gunners are not usually best used as a TC and a gunner at the same time, though it can be done. True, they have great eye advantage but they are going to be the busiest guys around if we take contact. They won’t be able to call up the reports or tell their teams what to do because, obviously, they will be shooting back. My gunner had experience in both seats. I had not been in either seat overseas thus far but, apparently, my demeanor under pressure also played into MSG Mellohn’s decision (he told me this later). So, given the choice based on who was on this mission in whatever assignment, I was going to either TC or gun the truck.

The master sergeant had made his decision and had pre-briefed his command the night before and they concurred that I would be in the TC seat for this mission.

So there we were, rolling along dirty, dusty roads headed out to the 5th Zone, the Afghan Border Police post, to link up with the ABP that were going on this mission with us. The little bit of chatter in my truck was between the medic and driver who were good friends. I called up turns and checkpoints to the CC as I needed to and, occasionally, I could hear the JFO checking in with ’higher’ and the other JFO from the seat behind me. The gunner quietly listened in on his headset and scanned the area for potential threats.

Once we arrived at the 5th Zone, MSG Mellohn left me with the trucks and the men and headed off to meet up with our joint-adventuring ABP soldiers. The sun was bright and it was probably around 85° F (30°C) already. The young Soldiers stood around in a semi-circle near truck one as it sat parked in the dirt and stone parking lot. The loud dull hum of the trucks made it hard to hear anything more than just that. Unlike what my gunner misunderstood about my earlier comment, I was busy working with the BFT. We realized en route that the convoy commander had not been receiving all of the incoming messages so I was forwarding those messages them. The BFT messages were about current intel that had been received about the area we were headed into. Very pertinent information.

It wasn’t long before MSG Mellohn reappeared and signaled for us to rally up. We were heading out!

As we made our way through the city of Mazar-e-Sharif, I continued to call up checkpoints. Every Soldier in the truck was looking out a window in case they saw indicators of trouble. We passed down one road and on to the next. I had taken these roads many times before but, because of the intel we received and the level of responsibility for the position I was in, I was on even higher alert.

My eyes, like those of the other Soldiers in my truck, frenziedly darted about as I quickly scanned the vehicles coming toward me and those approaching from the side streets. White Toyota Corollas and station wagons over-stuffed with Afghans zoomed past us. Motorcycles, ridden by one, two, and sometimes three people, zig-zagged in and out of traffic. Faded and dirty jingle trucks traveled slowly down the paved roadway, blocking cars from passing.

Gazing out the up-armored vehicle windows, we attentively focused on the details of the people we were passing, the roof tops of buildings, and the leaves in the trees. The busyness of the city began to lessen as we rode away from the packed paved city streets. The cramped side-by-side buildings of the city dwindled to only an occasional mud home alongside our route. The masses of people diminished to a few children playing here and there in the dirt and fields near their homes. We traveled out of the streets of Mazar-e-Sharif into the country in the direction of Chemtal.

The sun was warm and directly overhead as I followed the ABP truck in front of me. The sky was clear and blue. There was a beautiful range of mountains to the south of our route and the land nearest us was patched with plush green fields and arid lots of dirt. Small rows of thin trees lined an occasional creek bed. For a brief moment, and aside from the plated body armor and the massive vehicle, one could think we were on a Sunday outing.

The guys in my vehicle had decided that the low dull roar of the engine was too mundane for them, so they asked to plug in an iPod. I, being a music lover, agreed that our journey needed a soundtrack. SGT Anise, despite his earlier demeanor, quickly offered up his music repertoire and, with a couple of quick plug-ins, we were rumbling along to the sounds of Breaking Benjamin and Limp Bizkit.

I had not been to the Chemtal District before so I was excited to be in a new area, although much of it looked like other areas of Afghanistan I had seen. Something new in my sights, though, was camels. Until now I had only seen camels in pictures and at the zoo. Never had I seen them free roaming or carrying people and their belongings. Seeing them was just enough of a reminder that I was far from home.

We had traveled nearly 45 minutes away from Mazar-e-Sharif when MSG Mellohn came across the radio indicating he was turning. The turn was a sharp hair-pin to the right and then an immediate left. I saw his truck make the turn and then disappear behind a building. The ABP pickup in front of me followed suit. My driver slowed and maneuvered our vehicle along the same path as I called up our completion of the turn.

Framed Afghan Fox CHEMTAL 1

We were now on a smaller paved road in a small village with mud homes to both my left and right. Not that we hadn’t been continuously scanning for threats, but once again we were on a slightly more heightened alert as we rolled through the village. There was simply more to scan than in the country.

As he continued to scan for threats, my gunner radioed to me that, as we had passed a group of three Afghan men, all three began to dial on their cell phones. Although it could honestly be coincidence that all three chose to dial their phones in the same time, my training taught me this action was an indicator of a possible threat. I asked SGT Anise to clarify what he had seen in terms of description and direction. He reiterated exactly what he told me before and I proceeded to radio up the information to the convoy commander. The information I spoke of was now being broadcast through the headset of every Soldier on that convoy.

The seasoned convoy commander calmly acknowledged my transmission. The best we could do was to continue to be vigilant and aware of our surroundings. The reality was this: if something negative was going to happen, it was going to happen. There was going to be only so much we could do to prevent it.  Unless we actually saw a weapon or an IED before we got hit with it, we were stuck in a wait-and-see game. My pulse raced as I continued to look out the windows and we continued on our way out of the small village area.

The music continued to play although none of us was really listening to it anymore.  Occasionally, MSG Mellohn would radio back to my truck to check in to make sure everything was okay and, of course, it was.

We drove for a little while longer and passed a large cement building that had been painted a light color yellow. Around the building were rows of Hescos serving as a security border. White box-shaped buildings stood as towers high above the Concertina wire-lined Hesco wall. I was unsure of what the building was, but it looked to be important.

Once past the building, the paved road ended abruptly and we found ourselves continuing on a dirt road.

A dozen kilometers or so later we rolled to a halt, positioning ourselves tactically to be looking up and down the road we had just been on. The area was bare with the exception of a compound that stood next to the dirt road. The mud walls were probably twelve or so feet high and the entrance way was nothing more than an opening -- no gate, no door.

I took off my headset, gathered my gear, and checked with the men in my truck to ensure they were ready to exit. We waited for the signal from the master sergeant to dismount our vehicles. Seeing him climb out of his truck, I looked out the window so see what was around me. Seeing no immediate threat, I gripped the inside handle of my large, heavy door and forcefully shoved the door open. I looked directly down at the ground below me and continued to sweep my gaze outward to the left and right of my next step.

Framed Afghan Fox CHEMTAL plains

Too many times I had seen videos of Soldiers blown up as they stepped out of their vehicles. I slowly lowered myself down the metal steps and stepped down on the firm dirt. I grabbed my assault pack and camera then turned around to look at the vast, flat area beside me.

The moment was brief and I walked out from behind my truck headed toward MSG Mellohn’s truck. He had already walked with his interpreter to link up with the ABP and had a brief discussion about the events that were about to ensue. As I turned the corner of my vehicle, I looked at the small group that had gathered between our trucks and the doorway. The master sergeant, his SECFOR (security force), and his interpreter had their backs to me but the eyes of other men standing there took turns looking over at me. What was their fascination? I wondered.

The brief meeting concluded and the trio walked toward me. MSG Mellohn explained to me that the ABP wanted to extend an invitation of lunch to some of the members of our group. His decision was that SGT Anise might benefit from some Afghan hospitality to counter his negative personality of late. SGT Anise would therefore relinquish his gunner’s position for our brief stop at the post and would work as SECFOR for our team. Additionally, MSG Mellohn felt that a JFO should go in the compound as well so he chose for SGT Hanover to go in with us. The remainder of the group would stay with the truck but food would be brought out to them.

MSG Mellohn and I moved back to our trucks to get the proper personnel in the correct position then our little group of five moved toward the doorway, as I removed my helmet and wrapped my head with a shamaugh. I had learned from dealing with the ABP on other missions that I was respected and taken more seriously when I wore a head scarf instead of my helmet. It was seen as a sigh of respect for their culture.

We were greeted by ABP soldiers and led inside through the arch into the compound’s main area. The compound area was slightly cluttered with trash, housing a couple of broken down vehicles and some rusted equipment. The dirt was uneven and a few clumps of dried out weeds sprang up here and there. There was also a rusted water pump close to the front door. There were no tents, no trash receptacle, no storage facilities.

ABP soldiers milled around near the door, inquisitive about their new-arrived guests. The ABP general, walking out of the doorway to the left of us, reached for MSG Mellohn’s hand and gave it a solid handshake. The pleasantries of a welcome were shared between the two. The master sergeant knew enough Dari to carry on small conversations with his Afghan counterparts. The general motioned for us to come in, to a room that we could sit down for lunch. As we each walked past the general and into the room, MSG Mellohn introduced each of us to him. SGT Anise and SGT Hanover each shook his hand and gave the quick greeting “Salaam,” meaning "Hello." When my introduction came, I simply nodded in acknowledgement and avoided looking him in the eyes, then moved into the room.

Traditional Afghan culture dictates that Afghan men do not speak to women and Afghan women do not speak to men aside from their husband and family. The same culture lends that women do not look men directly in the eyes nor do they shake hands with them. Women and men are not seen as equal.

Very few Afghans have worked closely with U.S. Soldiers and even fewer have interacted with a female Soldier. The ABP there knew MSG Mellohn’s team was coming but they were not aware that a photojournalist was coming nor did they know that there was a female on the mission. Those looks I was getting earlier? Those were because those ABP soldiers had never seen a female American Soldier -- and I got out of the truck commander’s (TC’s) seat, which meant I had some rank and some authority on this mission. Simply put: they didn’t know what to think of me or how to, if they even should, interact with me...

(to be continued)

BOONIE'S HAIKU CONTEST |

April 02, 2013

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

The winners of "Boonie's Haiku Contest" are announced below. More than 50 entries were considered.

During judging, names were removed from entries. The judges looked first for strict adherence to the 17-syllable format specified in the contest rules (lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables), then moved on to consider questions of how the poems evoked nature and deployed military life. The best created a surprise of recognition.

***

First place goes to Mariecor Ruediger, who will receive a $200 boxed set of "China Beach," soon to be released for the first time on DVD. (Due to music rights issues, it was never released on VHS.) Here is the winning entry:

        One bare Huế tree
        Shields a tower position;
        Home is far away.

The judges said: "We liked how the reader is left to determine whether the tree shades the guard tower, provides cover for it, or potentially blocks its view. We also liked how the poem suggested Vietnam."

***

Second place goes to John Mittle, who will receive an autographed and personalized edition of David Abrams' 2012 novel Fobbit. Mittle is a contributor to The Duffel Blog.

        From dusk until dawn
        fighting from my cozy desk,
        Bronze Star on the way.

The judges said: "The 'on the way' cracked us up! So did the sudden idea of the Bronze Star as either wishing star or morning star."

***

Third place goes to Joseph Davidovski, who will receive a "Blue Falcon" coffee mug designed by Doctrine Man!

        Sandstorm blocks out sun
        Birds, vics, talibs stay quiet
        Still the slides march on

The judges said: "Anyone who has weathered the 'red air' of a no-fly situation will recognize how nature can stop everything but PowerPoint and a staff meeting."

***

One entry, from tgdrakes, practically created its own category, generated by the power of its laugh-out-loud gravitas. It will be appropriately (?!) recognized with a separate Doctrine Man! Blue Falcon coffee mug.

        Sh-- in the shower?
        Why in the f--- would someone
        Sh-- in the shower?

The judges said: "Profound. Profane. And, in many ways, a nearly perfect description of the challenges of FOB life."

 * * * * * * *

Honorable mentions included the following, presented here in random order:

By Mariecor Ruediger:

        Bleak like grim winter
        Combat makes me spring then fall:
        This ain't no picnic.

The judges said: "This one sneaks up on you, like old age and bad knees." 

***

By NavyOne:

        Sprint in a flightsuit
        Long tarmac, rip my crotch
        Warm Iraqi breezes

The judges said: "This is an effective reminder of why 'going commando' is never a good idea, even when wearing Nomex. It also makes us want to sing the theme to 'Born Free'!"

***

By Travis Martin, founding editor of The Journal of Military Experience:

        OD green stretches
        White salt stains: Chalk-lined soldiers
        Echo restless sleep.

The judges said: "Anyone who has spent a hot, sweaty night on a transient-tent Army cot will recognize the salty-shadowy outlines evoked by this writer."

***

By Nate Didier:

        COP Kalagush night
        Raining rockets again right?
        Commando will fight!

The judges said: "Rhymes and references to Red Bull territory downrange in 2010-2011 Afghanistan! In this case, 'Commando' is a 1st Battalion, 133rd Infantry Regiment call sign. 'Attack! Attack! Attack!'"

***

By mil-blogger America's SgtMaj:

        Silly pogue don't know
        Gunslingers don't drink lattes
        Macchiato sir?

The judges said: "Eskimos allegedly have 17 different words for snow. We imagine there are also 17 different ways to pronounce the 'sir' in this poem, each with its own unique flavor. And sprinkles of sarcasm."

***

By Tim Kindred:

        My mind thinks of home
        I'd love a beer and Maid-Rite
        Not an MRE

The judges said: "Bonus points for using juxtaposing an acronym and a much-beloved Midwestern brand!"

***

By Scott McDaniel:

        Where is the Kandak?
        Alone at the command post.
        Oh, it's Thursday night!

The judges said: "We think this lonely letter from an Embedded Training Team member is potentially the first time that 'Man-love Thursday' has been recorded in Western war-poetry!"

***

By Jim Keirsey:

        Eight deployments down
        most surreal thing I've seen is
        KAF's TGIF

The judges said: "This is the most adept use of acronyms we've seen! And it alludes to the carnival vibe some got from seeing a T.G.I. Fridays restaurant on a downrange boardwalk."

***

By Raj Bose:

        POWs
        Nodding a smile to the guards
        Through the barbed wire fence

The judges said: "This, like the Mona Lisa, was nicely ... enigmatic. And universal."

***

By "Dark Laughter" at The Duffel Blog:

        This summer sandstorm
        Couldn’t blind the first sergeant
        To my day-old shave.

The judges said: "This is beautiful! It places the reader in both time and place, and also feels a bit like a Burma-Shave ditty."

***

By Krystal Miga:

        Oh it’s you again
        Working, living, together
        It’s like we’re married

The judges said: "This writer found a memorable new way to evoke the ideas of 'Groundhog Day' and the 'downrange spouse.' If you have to ask what that means, don't ask."

***

Finally, a bonus quasi-entry from cp3002, commenting at Tom Ricks' The Best Defense blog:

        An empty Rip-It
        held to your ear in Helmand
        sounds like the ocean.

The judges said: "Marines love the sound of the sea!"

 

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


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