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.

MEMORIAL DAY |

May 27, 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

It’s tough not to notice all of the posts on Facebook about Memorial Day weekend. All my Army buddies are posting photos to remind everyone of what the weekend is about. But for me, it is nothing special. I wear a bracelet every day on my right wrist with the name and date that SGT Brooks was taken from this world. Every day is a Memorial Day for me.

Framed TOP 2

SGT Lee Duane Todacheene – 6 April 2004
SPC Richard K. Trecithick – 14 April 2004
SPC Edgar P. Daclan Jr. – 10 September 2004
SFC Joselito O. Villanueva – 27 September 2004
SPC Gregory A. Cox – 27 September 2004
SPC Curtis L. Wooten III – 4 January 2005
SGT Jason L. Merrill – 3 September 2006
PFC Edwin A. Andino – 3 September 2006
CPL Eric G. Palacios Rivera – 14 November 2006
SPC Jordan William Hess – 5 December 2006
PFC Paul Balint Jr. – 15 December 2006
SGT Corey J. Aultz – 30 January 2007
SGT Milton A. Gist Jr. – 30 January 2007
PFC Louis G. Kim – 20 February 2007
SSG Michael L. Ruoff Jr. – 1 July 2007
SFC Raymond R. Buchan – 1 July 2007
SGT Edward L. Brooks – 29 August 2007
SGT Kevin A. Gilbertson – 31 August 2007

Say a toast, say a prayer, and enjoy the weekend that is set aside for remembering the fallen that paid the ultimate sacrifice. They did it for us.

Framed Top OIF

Framed TOP 3


SGT JACOB SIMPSON |

May 22, 2013

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

Framed Piro SIMPSONIt has been eight years since SGT Jacob Simpson, my friend, former crew member, and Soldier died in Tal’Afar, Iraq. My memory is not so good anymore. There is a murky haze around the details, so when I jump around in this post or if you remember it differently, please forgive me.

When I first came home I would have described what I was doing in the third person. It would have had a deluge of Army-specific terms like “avenue of approach” or  BOLO (Be On the LOokout). I would have described these events tactically and clinically. It is easy to summarize events, even events that are horrific, when you avoid the emotions. As time has passed those terms are mothballed, but the feelings remain fresh. I write about my feelings a bunch but I have never verbalized this day eight years ago until today. It is too hard.

Up and Down

I was patrolling blocks away when “CONTACT!” burst over the radio.  That word, in that intonation, spikes your adrenaline. If you are outside the wire, it means FIGHT. If you are not near the fight, it means GO TO THE FIGHT.

It seemed like only moments before that high turned into a pit of despair. The highs and lows always seem to affect me still. This and other events linger as reasons. The voice on the radio, alarmed and excited seconds before, now reported to us with the solemn words that dropped us all:

“He’s dead.  Simpson’s dead.”

F##################CK!!!!

Why? Where? What?

The updates rolled in and my troop deflated. The enemy disappeared back into the population. The attack was so quick our response bore no gains.

We were providing security for Iraqis trying to receive treatment at the local hospital. There were gruesome reports of mistreatment along sectarian lines. Our presence stabilized a city resource and brought relative normalcy to a town where the mayor’s son had been killed and booby-trapped not months before.

None of that sh!t mattered now.

Memorial

The next few days are a blur. I remember wanting to cry at the Hero Flight but being so angry that I wouldn’t. That rage fueled us all for a while, but these days mine has given way more to sorrow. A Bradley Fighting Vehicle brought his body back to camp. As the track plodded along slowly towards the tarmac, the reality set in. Our Troopers bravely escorted him into the plane, painting an all too familiar picture of a Soldier draped in a flag en route to his final resting place.

My Commander and First Sergeant had the impossible task of eulogizing Jacob at the farewell ceremony. They nailed it. The images of boots, rifle, bayonet, Stetson and dog tags still give me pause. We crossed in front of it, gave our last salute, gently touched the dog tags and walked away hoping that those ritualized acts could seal the wound. They didn’t.

The day after the attack I remember talking with our Regimental Commander and telling him the good stories about Simpson. There were only good stories about Simpson.

This is what I remember.

I met Specialist Jacob Simpson the first day I arrived at my troop. I had a different Combat patch (4ID), a Combat Infantry Badge, and a screaming high and tight. I didn’t look, smell or act like a scout and Jacob could see that, so he started pinging me with questions. He had the look of a squared-away Soldier and was extremely attentive to my replies, so I immediately took note and liked him.

I had the further good fortune of getting Jacob on loan during gunnery before our deployment. Even though he was not officially assigned, he took his job with a seriousness that impressed me. It would have been easy to slack off or do the minimum. He did the opposite.

We had jumped around but settled outside of the dry-fire range one day. We had all of our crap just strewn in the back and it was annoying him. He wasn’t able to do his job as well, so he took out a wrench and started mounting straps on the outside of the track. Then he hung our stuff out there. He didn’t do it to win points, he did it so he was able to do his job better. He took initiative and just did it. Moreover, he did it with a smile. A little rock n roll on the radio, a little sun on his face, and this Specialist was happy to contribute in any way.

When it was our turn to shoot our Gunnery, he put us in a position to excel by counting rounds and keeping track of the firing scenarios. We could come in second in our Troop in large part from the teamwork he helped foster.

When he earned his Stripes I saw the pride and determination enter his face. Ready or not he displayed what all of our great NCOs showed us before and during that deployment: the NCO corps is the backbone of the Army. He was a professional and wanted to earn the respect of his peers, superiors and subordinates alike. He had great tough NCOs above him and while the learning curve was steep, he rose to the occasion.

When the Troop shuffled the roster and he received his team members he continued the excitement and initiative that I witnessed months earlier. They followed him around and knew he was the big brother type who was going to show them the ropes. He moved with urgency and when he got excited he would stand on his tiptoes.

He wanted to go to Selection for the Special Forces. I had a number of friends that completed selection and I had been through a few other schools, so if he ever caught me with down time he peppered me with questions. I was happy to answer. I knew with time and more experience he would be a fine SF Soldier.

He was taken this day eight years ago. He was taken too soon. He died in service to this nation defending the defenseless.

As my commander eloquently pointed out at his eulogy, he is a hero and we will always miss him.

Until we meet again, my friend.

FALL |

May 16, 2013

Name: Ross Magee
Stationed in: Afghanistan

It was fall when I left.  

In my last weeks at home we slept with the windows open some nights; the sound of crickets and the cool night air whispered us into an easy sleep. Days grew shorter, it rained and the leaves along the parkway began to rust. In the mornings we walked along the river, where the woods smelled of rotting leaves and moist soil. On the way home, we would stop at the secret persimmon tree to pick the mottled fruit off the ground while the old dog rested. When the morning sun melted the frost away, the persimmons would fall to the ground, their tart skins splitting on impact. The squishy, pale yellow flesh and sweet custard taste was unmistakably a sign of autumn; each piece of fruit was loaded with the bitterness of my pending departure and the sweetness of fall at home.  

We drove west. The city gave way to suburbs and the road quietly slipped into fields and rolling hills that carried the trees up to meet the blue sky and the cotton-white clouds in the distance.  We left the highway and crossed a creek, then turned up a long-winding gravel drive lined with old stacked stone outbuildings. The truck came to rest under a row of trees and, when the back hatch opened, the dog stuck his head out and gazed into the distance. He lifted his nose slightly and then in one, long, stuttering pull filled his lungs with the autumn air. This was all new.

Framed MCGEE ApplesThe air was thick with the scent of fermentation. We walked up a muddy road and then disappeared into the orchard, picking apples and slowly filling our bags as we savoured the fading afternoon. The dog rested in the shade and rolled in the fermenting apples with his tongue lolling to one side, like a wolf wallowing in a caribou carcass. Moving through the orchard, we paused when we came to a road and then crossed it quickly like fugitives on the run. We wanted to be lost and alone.  

We wandered through the orchards with no intention of ending up anywhere, liberated — at least temporarily — from the constraints of a path. All roads, even the two-lane dirt tracks that crisscrossed the orchard, have a destination. 

For us, all roads led to Afghanistan. 

 

 

BLACKOUT |

May 13, 2013

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

Just over a year ago, on April 4, 2012, I returned to post from a three-hour video and photo shoot, out on the landing zone. Immediately after I made my way through the entry control point, I was met by a staff sergeant who looked quite relieved yet quite frustrated to see me.

“Where were you?” he asked. Before he gave me time to respond, he quickly followed with “Where’s your boss?” I promptly explained to him where I had been and that my officer in charge (OIC) was not too far behind me.

Curious as to why he needed to know my whereabouts, I respectfully asked him what was going on.

There had been an attack near one of our combat outposts in the western end of Regional Command – North and we had Soldiers that were either killed, injured, or missing. The attack had just been reported and details had not come in yet.

I swiftly walked across post to report to my section leader for accountability, then headed to my office to meet up with my OIC to begin receiving details of the attack. As Public Affairs, we acted as part of the team that would need to know names of anyone involved in the attack. My OIC would receive this information and work with RC-N’s public affairs office for the press statement.

A dreaded feeling came over me as the information began trickling in. We had lost three Heroes and there were several injured Soldiers as result of a suicide bomber in the village of Maimaneh, Afghanistan. I knew the men that were killed and several of the injured.

The next three days were rough for many reasons. To start, I had to photograph the Ramp Ceremony and the Memorial Ceremony. I had to watch the faces of the friends, colleagues, and fellow Soldiers as they watched their battle buddies' caskets being loaded into a plane in the early morning hours on an eerily quiet tarmac. I had to hear the chilling shots of the three-volley salute and their first sergeant sounding off the Last Roll Call with no responses from the three Heroes during their Memorial Ceremony. I watched grown men tear up, sob into their hands, and outright cry. One by one they walked up to the makeshift memorial, slowly raised their hands to salute the fallen then slowly allowed their hands to drop back to the position of attention.

Once the ceremonies were over, I spent hours going through the photos and videos, editing and perfecting the productions to build CDs for the Heroes' Families. Over and over I looked at photos of the caskets, weeping men, and the memorial. While part of my mind was wrapping itself around what had happened, the other half of my mind had to drive on and to work. I had a job to do and I didn’t have time to grieve.

To add to the roughness of the situation, we were on blackout with our communication. There was no internet, so that meant no way to email or to video chat. The phones were out and the televisions had no signal. There was no way for us to contact our family members to let them know that something had happened but that we were still okay. There was no way to know what had been reported on the news or if our families knew why we weren’t contacting them. There was no way for us to hear their voices or read their messages to calm us while we dealt with the reality of the life we were living over there.

We were 7,000 miles and four months away from home. A horrible attack had occurred and, for three days, all communication to the outside world had been cut off.

THE BLACKOUT CHALLENGE

I challenge you to go Blackout for a day. No Internet. No texting. No emailing. No phone. No TV. Could you do it? What if you didn’t have a choice? Are you mentally strong enough?

How would you communicate with your friends and family? How would you know what was going on in the world? How would you conduct your everyday business?

What if your friends and family heard that something bad had happened in your life and there was no way to get a hold of you? Can you imagine how they would feel?

Rest in peace, Capt. Nicholas J. Rosanski, Master Sgt. Jeffrey J. Rieck, and Master Sgt. Shawn T. Hannon. Fallen but not forgotten.

THE SAFE STORY |

May 08, 2013

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

Framed PTSD WatermelonIf I am in a new group or environment and the topic of the Iraq war comes around I always keep my safe stories handy. If you are a Veteran, you know the type: anecdotal humor aimed at the lighter side of war. Some have more meaningful undertones than others, but those few safe stories that can break the ice and divert the conversation to mundane questions are invaluable for a readjusting Vet. (For the record: Yes, it is hot in Iraq. Yes, it is a dry heat. Yes, it still sucks.)

I highly recommend them, unless they become a crutch.

My Duty as a Soldier

I usually tell this story in the summer with friends at a BBQ. It is my safe story.

When I was a little more than half way through my second trip, my commander took mid-tour leave and I assumed command.

One of the more bizarre crises that developed arose from some Extra Soldiers who were shacking up on our camp and did not fully understand their environment.

We had an excellent perch atop a grain silo on the camp we controlled. The line of sight stretched well across the city, and it was adjacent to a Shia enclave that appreciated our presence. With thermal optics we could easily see a dog taking a crap a mile away.

The Shias in the town had been on the receiving end of some vicious attacks with car bombs and snipers. As such, they formed a heavily armed militia and barricaded their part of town.

The Extra Soldiers utilizing our facility were in a Sniper nest way up on the grain silo. I don’t know what their mindset was, or if they had been properly briefed. I kind of just assumed by rank and experience they knew where who were the good guys and bad guys. Bad assumption.

On a particularly hot afternoon, the Sniper team saw one of the militia raise a weapon seemingly aimed at a helicopter. Using a suppressed weapon, they shot him dead.

It must have been terrifying for the other militia men with the boy because he received a number of rounds in rapid succession that must have seemed to come out of nowhere. One minute screwing off on “guard duty," the next minute full of bullets and dead.

I was on patrol at the time and not at the silo. One of my Lieutenants called higher headquarters and briefed them on what happened. The concerned Shia group came over and inquired if we had killed one of their militia.

My Lieutenant, obviously having a slight lapse in upholding the Army values, told them the enemy must have done it. I wish I could have seen the instant he realized what a mistake that lie was.

As the words dribbled out of his mouth and through an interpreter, the Shia group immediately leapt into action. Cell phones started ringing across their compound. Someone was going pay, Death Squad style. They were going to drive across town and f#ck some Sunnis up.

My First Sergeant called me on the radio and requested I come back as an issue was brewing that required my attention. He didn’t want to discuss it over the radio.

“Great,” I thought. Radio discipline generally meant something messy.

I returned to camp and talked to my Lieutenant. I don’t remember the exact conversation we had that well, but I am pretty sure “What the f#ck ever possessed you to think this was a good idea?” came out in some way shape or form.

The sheik of the Shia group was a gnarly old leathery dude who looked like Splinter from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. He was a wily old man who knew how to play the US forces like a skilled musician.

The plan I scratched out in my mind was simple: I had to get to him fast, tell him the truth, and hope to avoid sectarian violence or blood revenge against US forces. The heat of the day was past, but it was still well over 100 degrees.

My crew and I mounted up. In a single Bradley, I took our senior interpreter, my Bradley crew, and a Radio Telephone Operator and drove into their compound.

The hive was busy getting weapons loaded into cars.  Men of all ages carrying RPGs, AKs and bandoliers scurried about, preparing for a fight. Everyone looked serious and pissed off.

As the ramp lowered and our interpreter and I looked around, we knew this was not going to be easy.

Quick aside: I am one of the apparently few Americans who despises watermelon. Taste, texture, and smell all make me nauseous. I wont even go near artificial shit. No watermelon lollipops for me. No sir. Please consider that while I finish this story out.

Did I mention the heat earlier? Oh yeah, the heat, a crammed stuffy room full of pissed-off Iraqis, me and my interpreter. One solitary fan twirled overhead and provided the equivalent effect of pissing on a 20-acre forest fire.

The Sheik’s lieutenants were all in the room with us. They knew that if I was there under these circumstances it was strictly business. I had to make them understand the gravity, so after a few minutes, I took off my armor and asked the Sheik to kick everyone out of the room.

He was a little surprised, but did as I asked. I was trying to tread carefully to observe courtesies and customs. I was delivering bad news, I did not want to make it worse.

Once everyone was out of the room, the Sheik decided it was time to eat.

You can see where this is going, right?

From another room a small boy with a large metal bowl walked into our meeting. The contents of the bowl was an obscene amount of the Iraqi equivalent of watermelon.

As boy placed the bowl in between the Sheik and I, the Sheik reached down with his gnarly hand into the warm bowl, picked up a slimy piece of the vile watermelon, and held it out.

I looked at my interpreter and asked, “What do I do?”  He knew the customs and he simply said, “You eat it. You don’t want to offend him.”

I glared at the interpreter and said, “You don’t understand, I can’t eat this.”

He just smiled.

So with that I reached out, took the fruit, and raised it to my mouth. I made an over-exaggerated “Mmmmm” sound as I choked back vomit.

Then I held that sweaty piece of melon and explained to the Sheik that we had actually killed his family member. The Lieutenant had been mistaken and we were to blame. There was no need to go across town. The Sunnis were not responsible for this one.

He thanked me for being honest. I thanked him for telling his men to stand down. We worked out another meeting to discuss a reparation payment for his family member.

I left the smoldering watermelon on the seat. We mounted back up and I went back to base, swearing off watermelon for the rest of my days.

Unsafe Stories

I have told that story without crying for years. It is safe. It doesn’t involve much death or gore or stress.  It is mildly comedic. I use to tell it to avoid the deeper emotional scars of Iraq.

A few weeks ago I spoke with a man I consider a friend at length about my time in Iraq. It has been years since I was there and yet when we talked the emotion of dealing with loss in Iraq made me weep. I could have told him the watermelon story cold, but that would be equivocal or dishonest. He asked hard questions and I tried my best to answer.

In one instance he asked me about the first time I lost a Soldier.

Ironically, next week marks seven years since we lost SGT Jacob Simpson. I still cannot talk about him or that day. I still think of him. I still mourn him. I cried when I tried to tell my friend about the loss.

One of the many realizations I have had over the past few weeks is that this is my new normal. I don’t think I will ever fully get over losing him. He is woven into me and in some ways I carry on because of him. I do not take for granted my gift of life. Though some days are harder than others, I remind myself that a piece of him is with me, and it is my duty to preserve and honor his memory.

I can rationalize all of this, yet I choke up when I try to articulate with the spoken word how he was a tremendous Soldier. I cannot help but weep at the crater of loss he left. I have dozens more stories where the grief of loss ties me up.

These are my unsafe stories. They stir emotion and are hard to get through. I made it a goal a while back to cry less and talk more, especially when caught off guard.  It is a work in progress, and I have a feeling it will be like that for a while. But the unsafe stories are where the real healing takes place. If you don’t have an unsafe story, I recommend you find someone, and get started.

WHAT I MISS |

May 07, 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 

I am now a paid writer! Military1.com has hired me to write articles about my deployment for them. The editor of the website found my blog through a follower and asked if I would be interested. The editor sent me a link with a recent article that was posted on their website so I knew what kind of articles they were looking for. The article was about Soldiers returning from deployment and the welcome home ceremony. I shot the link to Katrin and asked her opinion (as all good husbands do) and we decided to take the plunge!

That article got Katrin and I to discuss my homecoming. She had asked if I wanted a bunch of people there to welcome me home and when I told her yes, it got me thinking... Do I really? The more I thought about it, the less I want people there. You see, all I want to do is get reintegrated with my wife and daughters. They are the ones that I love most, will spend the rest of my life with, and need to get back to some sort of normalcy with. It’s not that I don’t want to see friends and family, it’s just that I won’t have the energy or focus that you all deserve. All my attention needs to be on my wife and daughters.

I have spent every day of this deployment missing things.

I miss drinking water from the tap.
I miss brushing my teeth with tap water.
I miss walking to the bathroom in the middle of the night without having to get in the “proper” uniform.
I miss taking a shower without flip-flops.
I miss going to the bathroom and doing my business on my toilet and not having to hear the guy next to me handle his business in the stall next to me.
I miss taking HOT showers.
I miss taking HOT showers for longer than 3 minutes (time limit here on showers).
I miss being able to dry off in the shower without worrying about my towel hitting the floor and sucking up the nasty stagnant water on the ground.
I miss not having to worry about carrying my weapon everywhere.
I miss good food.
I miss driving my car.
I miss taking road trips down to Oregon to visit my friends, drink way too much, and reminisce about the old days.
I miss FRESH fruits and veggies.
I miss fresh air.
I miss silence (we have the constant hum of generators here).
I miss my comfortable bed.
I miss the colors of the Pacific NW (everything is dirt brown here).
I miss trees.
I miss grass.
I miss blue water and the ocean.

But most of all, I miss my wife and daughters.
I miss the way Kiersten comes running to the door with a big smile on her face to hug me when I get home.
I miss getting to be there for Tabea during key events in her life.
I am missing the first 7 months of Amelie’s life.
I miss EVERYTHING about my wife.

I have gone without all these things for the past seven months and like all other deployments, they all will hammer my senses when I return home. No longer will I have to be hyper alert or worry about my Soldiers being shot or blown up, I will be trying my best to function correctly in society. It will take some time, but the event that deserves the most time is that of reintegrating with my wife and daughters. When they finally release me to my family, it will be at the culmination of a week’s worth of stressful events.

As the First Sergeant I will be responsible for the re-deployment of a couple of hundred Soldiers during the trek home. The trip will start with ensuring that everyone has their proper equipment, weapons, and have cleared their living areas. We will board aircraft and fly to another base where we will turn-in more equipment, clear, and sit around for approximately a week. This is the time that Soldiers like to do stupid stuff and get in trouble. We leaders need to stay engaged and keep them focused. After nearly a week of sitting around we will fly to another country to turn in the last of our equipment and conduct a mandatory three-day “cool-down” period. To add fuel to the fire, Soldiers are allowed to drink a maximum of two beers. Again, I will be spending most of my time ensuring Soldiers are not trying to get too out of hand.

After the three day period of living in open bays, bored out of our minds, we will finally load a plane for the 12+ hour flight home. Once the bird lands back in Washington we will unload the plane, turn in weapons, receive briefings, and then be thrown back on busses and taken to the gym where our family members will be waiting. We will stand in formation, a VIP will say great and wonderful things about us (in which most of us won’t hear as we are scanning the crowd looking for our loved ones), and then we will finally be released to go home.

As much as I would love to have lots of people waiting for me, all I want is my wife and daughters. They deserve my 100% attention for a while, a good while. They have been at home, waiting on me for the last seven months, worried, and have been anxiously waiting for my arrival home every second that I have been gone. I want to go home, take a long hot shower, and then get to know my wife and daughters again. I want to hold Amelie, my seven-month-old baby that only knew me for a few days before I left. I want to talk with Kiersten, my two-year-old that is just learning how to say words. I want to converse with Tabea, my 11-year-old that amazes me every time we talk. I want to hold and kiss my loving wife that has supported me through this and six other deployments, numerous schools, and countless field problems.

I want my family to be complete.

AFGHANISTAN 2012: CARNIVAL |

May 03, 2013

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

 

Here is the first video on the Afghan Battle Fox channel on YouTube:


Search Doonesbury Sandbox Blog

LINKS


About

My Photo

FEATURED BOOK