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.

FINAL SATURDAY |

June 26, 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 is hot. Standing outside for more than five minutes leads to the all too familiar beads of sweat that start to drip down the small of your back. We are starting to finalize our move out of country, which has led to me spending more of my time outdoors. I don’t mind, and have actually enjoyed the change of pace. Our last containers are packed up and we are going to start our trek home this week. In all actuality, this should be the last Saturday that I type on this keyboard.

Our Brigade Command Sergeant Major came out to visit this last week. One thing worth mentioning is that he plans on making some moves with the First Sergeants in the Squadron. It looks as if I will get an opportunity to lead a line troop. Although I would have much rather led a line troop during the deployment, I will enjoy the opportunity as it comes. Don’t get me wrong, I love the Troop I have now, and will be extremely sad to have to leave them. The team that the Commander and I have built is one of the best. We have had the least amount of trouble out of any Company/Troop/Battery sized element in the Brigade, retention numbers are through the roof, and my Soldiers kick ass. I have been very fortunate to have the Troop that I have now.

This deployment wasn’t quite what I thought it was going to be. I expected more action (although I am happy we didn’t see much) than we received. Most of our deployment was spent sending equipment home, accounting for property, and supporting Squadron missions. Our Squadron, as a whole, has done great things providing the Afghan Army with a strong foundation that they can carry forward into the future. My Soldiers continue to impress me and make my job one of the easiest I have ever had. My Platoon Sergeants seem to be mind readers, as they finish jobs before I ask them to be done. God, I love this Troop.

By the time I leave here, my blog will have over 11,000 hits in seven months, a number I never dreamed of hitting. I want to thank everyone for taking time out of their day to read my ramblings. Thank you for your comments on my blog. Thank you for motivating me to write more. What started as something to keep friends and family informed has turned into something that has been read by thousands from a total of 64 different countries. This has pushed me to continue to write. I will write a book, and have actually started it over the past month (which is why my posts have become less frequent).

I figure I will write one more post during the process of going home, but cannot promise anything as I am sure I will be pretty busy. I do promise to keep writing back at home, both on the book and this blog. Thank you again everyone for taking time out of your day to read this. Keep my Soldiers in your prayers as we start this final leg of the deployment.

SEVENTY THOUSAND |

June 21, 2013

Name: Ross Magee
Stationed in: Afghanistan

I walked into the barber shop and the proprietor looked me up and down and returned to cleaning his clippers. Without raising his eyes to mine he asked, “What can we do for you?” 

I’d never been in the shop before and I sensed that I was intruding. I felt immediately unwelcome; like perhaps I required an invitation which I didn’t have.

“I need a haircut.” 

I climbed into the chair without being motioned to do so, removing the option for him to turn me away, which I sensed was a very real possibility.

I didn’t feel like talking. It didn’t appear that the barber did either, and for that I was quietly grateful. My return to Afghanistan was imminent and a haircut was one of the last things I needed to do before I headed back. The shop was cluttered with magazines and newspapers, none of them carrying news of the war I had been granted a short reprieve from.

There were two barbers in the shop, an old black man with a large pot-belly and a deep, hustling laugh and an even older white man who wore bent glasses and needed a haircut himself. They talked idly with the other customer in the room and ignored me. The barber turned down my collar and the apron snapped as it swooped across my chest. He fastened it tightly around my neck and combed out my hair. I felt him step back and stare at the back of my head. 

“This is a terrible haircut. Where did you get it?” 

“Kabul.”

“Where?”

“Kabul. Afghanistan.”

“What the hell were you doing in Afghanistan?”

“I’m in the military. There is a war going on. I’m going back and I need a haircut.”

This was exactly the conversation I didn’t want to have with an oblivious American.

“I’d be afraid to get a haircut in Afghanistan, for fear somebody would throw a grenade in the shop while I was sitting in the chair.”

I ignored his comment and felt my temperature rise as a flush of frustration and anxiety came over me. This was not what I came to the barber shop for. It was suddenly too quiet and claustrophobic. The room seemed to shrink. The apron suddenly felt too tight and I noted the door without moving my eyes. The other barber and the man in his chair had stopped talking. The scissors quit snipping. I resisted the urge to get up and walk out. I closed my eyes and breathed deeply.

“What do you want me to do with this?” he asked as he ran the comb through my hair again.

I resisted the deep urge to snap at him. “Just trim it. I’ll get it cut when I get back. I need it short enough to get back. Just get it off my ears.”

He murmured to himself I suppose, or at least I pretended that was what I thought. I closed my eyes to indicate that I didn’t want to talk, figuring that he’d take the cue and just get on with it. I caught myself falling asleep, which happens almost instantly when I close my eyes and sit still anywhere now. I’ve learned to live with fatigue, but it isn’t overcome by a few weeks of rest, not when its source looms in the distance like something dark and heavy just over the horizon. I struggled to keep my head up and my eyes closed without bobbing my head too much. This task was in itself exhausting.

His voice came to me as if it had been carried from across an ocean. “I thought we brought everybody home.” The tone was clearly serious. 

“No. There are about seventy thousand of us.”

“Damn. Really?”

“Yes, really,” I said without opening my eyes.

I heard the other man pay and walk out of the door, then the sound of the other barber climbing into his chair and opening the newspaper. There was no reference in the paper to the on-going effort in Afghanistan. In fact, the word “Afghanistan” did not even appear in the paper once. I knew that because I had read the entire thing that morning over a few cups of coffee. I had searched in vain for some bit of information that would confirm that the previous six months of my life might have been recorded in some small way. When I'd left the house that afternoon I carried with me the weight of the anonymous effort of seventy thousand soldiers.

My mind began to turn. I swallowed my surprise and settled on disappointment, the emotion that most often accompanies my exposure to this ignorance in America. I suddenly had no problem staying awake even though my eyes were closed. The clippers buzzed and in my mind’s eye I watched the second hand swoop smoothly across the face of the clock.

“I fixed the back of your hair as best as I could.”

“Tashakur.” 

I cussed myself immediately, but before I could speak again the response came from the barber.

“What?”

“Thank you.”

I stood up and my hands instinctively went to my hips where they go every time I get out of a chair, or in or out of a vehicle, or a hundred other times during the day. This is normally a reassuring motion, one that confirms that I am prepared. I felt nothing, and panicked for the tenth time that day. Then in a steady, internal voice I reminded myself that I hadn’t left my pistol anywhere. I wasn’t carrying one.

I don’t remember what the barber said when he stepped to the cash register. I put a twenty dollar bill on the counter, turned and walked away. The bell on the door tinkled as I pushed it open and strode towards my truck.

Two weeks later I stepped into the barber shop in Kabul. The barber asked about my health and we chatted in Dari about small things; family, the weather and the coming of summer. He woke me gently when he was done cutting my hair, so as to not startle me.

MUSCATATUCK |

June 17, 2013

Name: Skip Rohde
Returned from: Afghanistan
Hometown: Asheville, NC
Milblog: Ramblings From A Painter
Email: skip@skiprohde

I'm at the Muscatatuck Urban Training Center in southeast Indiana. I'm here for a week to help provide training to the next group of State Department and USAID people heading downrange to Afghanistan. This is the same training that I went through 18 months ago, just before deploying, and it is really cool to be able to give back my experiences (or pay them forward?) to those who are on watch next.

Muscatatuck (pronounced mus-CAT-a-tuck) is an interesting place. It was originally built in the 1920s "a home for the feeble-minded" (their words, not ours). It consists of a lot of old yellow brick buildings arranged in a campus-like settings. Some were dorms, others were offices, classes, work areas, a cafeteria, a hospital, and so on. In the 70s, the hospital was closed down and eventually it was turned over to the National Guard and revamped into a training center. Now it is a national asset. It provides realistic training environments to all kinds of classes. Federal civilians (like myself) go through training for Afghanistan. SEALS and other elite military forces practice operating in an urban environment.  FEMA, various local agencies, and NGOs learn about disaster response. There's a permanent school for troubled teens here.

This looks like a ruined parking garage. It's not, really. It's specially built to give students the experience of operating in a devastated area. SEALS, for example, might practice combat operations, or emergency workers can practice getting injured people out of a collapsing structure. This "garage" has floors that can go up and down to simulate building collapse. The first time I saw it, though, it looked exactly like parking garages I saw in Sarajevo after the war.


This is a specially-built area to provide training for emergency workers in flood rescue.  All those flooded houses were deliberately built to look like flooded houses.


Here's one of the old 1920s-vintage buildings, along with a section that looks like a street in some third-world country. It looks like it's in bad shape, right? Actually, the buildings are all structurally strong. Many of the old buildings are desolate-looking inside, with crumbling concrete steps, broken furniture, and dirt and dust everywhere. But it provides a pretty realistic introduction for what Afghan hands will find downrange. The debris field?  It was specially created, along with demolished cars all over the place.

My job this week is to run some of the training scenarios for the students. They're going to be put into situations where they have to meet with Afghan officials, talk with private citizens, respond to requests for assistance, have TV cameras shoved in their faces, and get "attacked."  All these are realistic situations. The role-players are all Afghan citizens who now live in the United States. They're a great bunch of people. Many are very educated and had very responsible roles in Afghanistan. Like me, they really want to help prepare these students for life in Kabul or wherever they're going. Most of the role-players have been doing this for a long time and are very experienced at the different scenarios.

The other trainers are a great bunch as well. All have been downrange for anywhere from one to four years. There are ex-military, ex-cops, a lawyer, a European, former USAID and State Department workers, a former Assistant Secretary in three agencies, graybeards, and young folk. What really distinguishes them is that all are mission-focused. They're committed to providing the best and most effective training possible. Clock-watching and nit-picking is not a part of their vocabulary. Whatever it takes, it will get done, without theatrics and usually without asking.

So that's my business this week. It's been a lot of fun since I arrived here Friday. The rest of this week looks like it'll be even more fun. Our first real scenario is in a couple of hours. Time to get to work!

NO FEAR |

June 11, 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’m reading a great book called They Fought For Each Other, by Kelly Kennedy. It’s a book about the hardest hit unit since the Vietnam War, C Co. 1-26 Infantry, 2nd Brigade, 1st Infantry Division, while deployed to Iraq in 2006-2007. The author does a good job painting the picture of what it was like dealing with the terrible faces of combat. Losing Soldiers, friends, and the heartaches family members had to deal with back on the home front.

One of the points that the author brings up is how the Soldiers began to look for action, or how they were taking more risks than during the beginning of the deployment. It was almost as if the action they were seeing wasn’t enough. Was it because they became numb to the danger? Did they think they were invincible? Or was it because they lost so many of their friends that they no longer cared if they lived or died?

That got me thinking about Ramadi. I remember my fist patrol with the unit we were replacing like it was yesterday. As I sat in the back seat, situated behind the driver, I would fire off questions such as “What’s in there?” or “What’s up with that road?” and the answers were always the same as he told me that they didn’t go there because they got shot at or had a truck hit with an IED. Those answers, coupled with the latest Significant Acts (SIGACTS) that were given to us from sector, had me nervous.

While in Kuwait we would get nightly updates of what was going on in our new sector. Over 100 SIGACTs were happening a day in the city, including IEDs, firefights, and Vehicle Borne IEDs (VBIEDs). So when we arrived at our observation point (OP) for our mission, I was taken aback when the vehicle commander pulled out a pillow, along with the driver, and told the Gunner that he had the first shift while they promptly fell asleep. I was so nervous that I couldn’t shit a greased BB.

I got out of the truck and pulled rear security for the twelve hours. The vehicle crew laughed and said “Nothing is going to happen, nothing but open desert here, you are safe.” I didn’t’ care and continued the watch. The whole situation was messed up, and as soon as we returned I let Jimm know about it. “The unit we are replacing is hot garbage, Jimm. They haven’t done anything and every time I asked them about something they said they didn’t go there as they had been shot at!” Jimm looked at me with a half-crooked smirk and replied, “I guess they are leaving us a target rich environment!”

Our first few months were spent up in the northern sector of our Battalions operational environment. Nothing was going on. We spent most of the time driving around, scouting possible weapons cache locations. We were cautious when driving down the road, weary of possible IED strikes, but knew that the area was pretty calm, except for route Gremlins that ran North and South through the sector. It was the worst route in our sector. Every time we drove down it for the first couple of months it would take a few hours after mission for everyone’s ass muscles to relax. But sometime after a couple of months of being in sector, something changed.

The standard for entering and clearing a room is to conduct a “four man stack.” Four Soldiers move to a door undetected, stand with weapons at the “high-ready” and bunch up “nut-to-butt” to form almost a single entity. Each Soldier has his thumb resting on the safety switch, finger on the trigger, crouched down with their center of gravity resting over their lead foot. Each has an assigned sector of fire as they blow through the room, and all are going over every possible action through their head as they wait for the signal. The #4 man breaks from the group, inspects the door, and upon the leader's signal will kick in the door. No words can describe the heart-pounding, adrenaline-pumping, surge of energy that is going through your body as you flow through the room, unsure if someone is inside patiently waiting for you to enter. But sometime after a couple of months of being in sector, something changed.

Driving down the road became less stressful; it became the norm. Our speed began to pick up a little faster, almost as if we were daring the enemy to emplace an IED. Flowing through houses on a raid became less exciting and more “normal” as our deployment went on. I was taking more risks. We had one raid we conducted for a time sensitive target; we had to move quickly. My platoon was hitting a compound and as we arrived we surrounded the compound and entered. I noticed that one of the houses wasn’t being searched and instead of waiting for a section to be complete, I slung my M4 rifle, drew my 9mm, and began to flow through the house, alone. Nothing was in the house as the insurgent had left just prior to our arrival. At the end of our mission, the leadership conducted our After Action Review (AAR), something we always did after a big mission. We each discussed our actions, and as I told my portion I could see the look on a couple of the guys’ faces. It wasn’t until then that I realized that what I had done was really stupid.

Katrin has recently let me know that what scared her most was that I acted as if nothing was wrong. I didn’t sound scared or nervous and acted normal when we talked on the phone. Was it blind ignorance? Were we becoming numb to combat? Or were we subconsciously looking for a rush as everything we had been dealing with had become “normal” ?

I guess this blog entry is more of a question. I would love some input and comments from the Soldiers who read this. I think this is a critical piece to the book and want to capture it correctly. For the Civilians that take time to read this, I would love your input as well!

ALL I COULD BE |

June 03, 2013

 

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

Framed Sherpa ALL I COULD BEOnce just a "dusty specialist" who drove U.S. Army trucks in post-invasion Iraq, Miyoko Hijiki shows up to the book store in military-writer mufti. The author of "All I Could Be: The Story of a Woman Warrior in Iraq," wears a smart khaki shirt-dress, with an American flag pin on her collar. Still, one gets the feeling that the native Iowan would be just as comfortable swapping her bayonet heels for desert combat boots.

Like most veterans, however, she'd rather be judged on deeds, capabilities, and character, rather than appearances.

"Friends, family, and the people at church know me as a mom and an Army wife, and know nothing of my military career," Hikiji tells her audience, introducing herself to a friendly, platoon-sized gathering at a Beaverdale Books, a cozy neighborhood independent in Des Moines, Iowa. Then, reading from her recently published book, she casually drops the F-bomb. Twice. In the first 30 seconds.

The amicable audience settles in for the ride:
The view from left to right for hours was the same—camels, road, sand. Then sand, road, sand. Then sand, road, camels with herder. Road. Sand. [...]

As we approached the first town in southern Iraq, I grabbed a small baseball bat I'd set on the seat and pointed out the driver's side window. In marker I'd inscribed it with "This means get the f--- off my truck in all languages" [...]
Hikiji's Iraq was the one with Desert Combat Uniforms and antiquated trucks, hillbilly armor and makeshift gun turrets. "We didn't have the stuff that you see now on TV [...]" she says. "We didn't have phones, Skype, laundry—the stuff that makes war look like a training exercise."

She and her fellow soldiers received more enemy fire than they returned, Hikiji says, but she delivers her observations with more wit than bitterness. She doesn't shy away from hard topics, including what it means to have women and men serve in the same Army. During the course of a deployment, soldiers routinely form new friendships, alliances, and even romantic relationships. Sometimes those connections bend. Sometimes they break. Hikiji, who was not married when she deployed, certainly kisses and tells. Without falling prey to salaciousness, she accurately depicts the high-school-level hypocrisies and testosterone-fueled minefields faced daily by female soldiers.

One part True Adventure, one part True Romance, then, this is a military memoir that offers something to nearly every reader: Whether soldier or spouse, leader or follower, or friend or foe to women in uniform.

Having enlisted in the U.S. Army for college benefits in 1995, Hikiji had returned to her home state of Iowa and joined the National Guard while a journalism and psychology student at Iowa State University. When Iowa's 2133rd Transportation Company (2133rd Trans. Co.) was notified for federal mobilization in 2003, she was three days away from the end of her enlistment with the guard. She chose to re-enlist for another term, she says, because "I didn't want to miss the opportunity. I wanted to do what I'd been training to do for so many years."

In addition to writing personal letters and the unit newsletter, Hikiji kept an extensive journal and mission log while on the 18-month deployment. "I had thousands of pages when I got home." Still, she didn't start actively writing a memoir until 2010–more than five years after deployment, as well as getting married to a fellow National Guard soldier.

"I only started writing after I found I was empowered, that I could help make a difference," she says. "Before that, I was just trying to figure out what [the war] meant to me."

As part of her new mission to explain soldier and veteran life, Hikiji also seeks to celebrate two 2133rd Trans. Co. soldiers who died during the unit's deployment—Spc. Aaron J. Sissel, 22, and Pfc. David M. Kirchoff, 31. Two others were seriously injured while overseas. "It is very important to remember that, in all my healthy days, they and their families had a very different experience than the rest of us," she says.

After five months of training at Fort McCoy, Wis. and in Kuwait, the Iowa unit was attached to 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in Western Iraq. While based at the former Al Asad Air Base, the unit's 2-soldier truck crews could spend hours, days, or weeks out on missions.

"When I first joined the National Guard, I didn't like it," admits Hikiji. "It didn't feel like the Army. It was too relaxed."

"Then, I found out that the truck drivers on active duty Army just drove trucks. The truck drivers in the National Guard, however, were also electricians, plumbers, firefighters, teachers. We were always fixing stuff up. Vehicles, living quarters. The active-duty units eventually figured out: If you needed something fixed, you came over to Hawkeye."

(Members of 2133rd Trans. Co. wore the Iowa National Guard's "Hawkeye" patch, the shape of which is based on the 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division's patch.)

Something of a Swiss Army knife herself, the author-mother-veteran is also an occasional actor and model. She appears on the cover of her own book—a woman contemplating a composite image of dog-tags and a female soldier. Hikiji took a professional risk and paid for the photography out of pocket, then sent the cover to her publisher for consideration. "They could have said 'no,'" she says. Better to ask forgiveness than permission.

At the book event in Beaverdale, Hikiji deftly navigates through hot-potato questions, some of which seem like they could easily cook off like grenades:

Given the backdrop sexual assaults in the military, would she recommend military service to young women and men today? "I would never tell someone they couldn't serve [...] but I'd want people do their research and know the risks. There's such a variety of experiences, and much depends on local commanders."

  • What was the Iraq War really all about? "I know people who were involved in the search for Weapons of Mass Destruction," she says, "but I was just a dusty specialist."

  • Don't all veterans have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (P.T.S.D.)? Hikiji replies that PTSD has three components: The experience of a traumatic event; stressors such as joblessness, homelessness, and social isolation; and lack of a support network. "All of you are now part of my support network," she tells the audience.

  • Most of all, how are friends and family going to react to the book, particularly since you openly discuss love and sex downrange?

"I wouldn't want someone to reject me based on the person I was then," she says. "That was a necessary person."

Her own preschool-aged daughters can read the book when they're 14, she says. "Otherwise, they would never have the opportunity to know the person that I was then."

What about the people at church?

She shrugs, leans back on the desk, and smiles the big smile: The happy warrior. An everyday iconoclast. The veteran next door.

"I guess I'll find out Sunday."

*****

"All I Could Be: The Story of a Woman Warrior in Iraq" is available in trade paperback
and Amazon Kindle formats.

An official book launch event is planned for Fri., Jun. 7, from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at the Iowa Gold Star Museum, on the Camp Dodge military installation near Johnston, Iowa. Contact the author via e-mail (m_hikiji AT yahoo.com) not later than Thurs., Jun. 6, to reserve a seat at the catered event.

For information regarding this and other "All I Could Be" events, as well as a blog written by Hikiji, click here.


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