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.

A GIFT FROM MARGHALARA |

July 31, 2013

Name: Virgil Harlan
Returned from: Afghanistan
Hometown: Tucson, AZ
Milblog: A Gift From Marghalara
Email: virgil.harlan@gmail.com

The little girl went scurrying from one of the mud wall homes, running up the rocky hill, her colorful clothes contrasting with the hill tones of brown and black. The children of Afghanistan have very hard lives, and they move through the mountains with a speed that amazes American troops.

Framed Harlan GIFT“Hey, Sarn’t! There’s your sweetheart!” my gunner called to me through the headset. He was a slow-talking kid from Oklahoma, prone to exaggerate his experiences. He came from a heavy weapons company, and was fine as long as you gave him a weapon in a fixed position with a set sector of fire. My driver was a young Cav Scout from Maryland on his first deployment, who carried the old air of the superiority of cavalry over infantry. Most of the rest of us were from light infantry companies, scattered from throughout the United States; that year we were together in D Company, 1-102nd Infantry, 86th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, Mountain. Fourth platoon, Blacksheep.

In the early Spring of 2010 we were at COP Bulldog, Nangarhar Province, between FOB Torkham and what would later become FOB Shinwar. Shinwar was being built on the ruins of a Soviet fort where the Soviets had been defeated during their war in Afghanistan.  They had built their fort next to the ruins of a fort where the British had been defeated in one of their Anglo-Afghan Wars. The Afghans are known for their patience and memory. An Afghan who had been wronged by his neighbor waited 70 years before enacting revenge, a story goes. “Why was he in such a hurry?” the other villagers asked.

A couple of times each week, we would stop at a small post controlled by the Afghan Border Police. It wasn’t much; some Hescos, some connexes and plywood buildings, sandbagged fighting positions and C-wire, all emplaced on the top of a hill overlooking a wide valley surrounded by mountains. The Pakistan border was a couple of miles away, and the Taliban ran supplies through the valley. 

It was the second time there that I saw her.  I was checking the positions, joking with the gunners, ignoring a group of boys calling for pens, water, and biscuits. The boys were becoming demanding and beginning to annoy me, when behind them appeared a little girl with brown hair, light brown skin, and beautiful black eyes. She was brightly clothed in green and blue, her purple and silver scarf draped over her head and shoulders.  A little princess of the desert. She looked at me, tilted her head to the side, and smiled. No matter how hard you think you are, no matter what you’ve seen or have done, there are some things that will always bring out the soft side in you.

A group of the guys started to call to the boys, and both sides heckled each other as I walked away. After moving about 50 meters I sat down on some rocks, when suddenly, there she was, standing about 15 feet away, looking at me. 

“Singh yeayh?” I said to her. The little princess smiled to me, and at that moment I fell for her. She had become my little sweetheart. I reached into one of my pouches, pulled out a Cliff Bar and a pen, and handed them to her. Her smile widened, she scampered over, took them, and quickly hid the items under the folds of her jacket. She was not quick enough, though. One of the boys had seen what had happened, and they all came running over, demanding pens and other baksheesh. When they realized they were not going to receive these things, two of them went to the princess and tried to take them from her. One of the less admirable characteristics of Afghan culture. She tried to resist them, turning her body, trying to hold on to what was hers. A feeling of anger built up in me, as it did many times that year.

“Walarsha!” I yelled, walking towards the boys, motioning for them to leave. “Walarsha! Buro!” I yelled again. The boys looked at me and fled back 15 feet. The little girl, who had been caught in the middle of them, froze, and then ran too, a look of fear and confusion in her eyes. One of the boys threw a rock at me, narrowly missing. Afghans are very good at throwing rocks. I began to pick up rocks and throw them at the boys, my aim pathetic in comparison to theirs. My guys were laughing watching all this, and as the boys fled in one direction, the little girl fell back ten feet in another. She looked at me, scared. I stopped, and looked at her for what seemed a long moment. Slowly, I put my right hand over my heart.

“I’m sorry, sweetheart, I’m sorry.” I sat down and she continued to look at me. I reached into my pouch again, and found another Cliff Bar.  Humbly smiling, I reached out, handing it to her. She cautiously approached. She quickly snatched it, and darted back ten feet. Suddenly the boys began to approach again. I pointed to them, looked at her, looked at the boys again and said “Neh! Neh hubus!” Through my motions and broken mixture of poorly pronounced Pashto and Dari, she understood. She stayed where she was, while I approached the boys yelling “Walarsha! Buro! Walarsha!” The boys backed off and I returned. She was still there, this time smiling. I sat down and she moved a bit closer. After awhile I pointed to her and said, “Nom?”

“Marghalara,” she replied. Marghalara. “Pearl” in Pashto.

From that point, every time we went there, I would always bring something for Marghalara. After making sure security and the guys were good, I’d sit down, and Marghalara would sit near me. We would smile at each other and talk, her in Pashto, me in English, never fully understanding each other, but we had become friends. Eventually, Marghalara started to throw rocks at the boys who came too close. The boys looked shocked, as this was something they had never considered:  A girl throwing rocks at a boy?!  Eventually, they left her alone, and she could hide Cliff Bars and Gatorade safely under her blouse. The guys all gave me a hard time about it, asking me if I was going to convert to Islam and come back when Marghalara was 14 so I could marry her. But their teasing was the humor of the infantry. They had fallen for the little princess as hard as I had.

One afternoon in the late spring, Marghalara and I were sitting on some sandbags when suddenly she said something to me. She reached under her scarf, behind her neck, and took off one of her necklaces.  She handed it to me, motioning for me to put it on. It was a simple piece of G.I. dog tag chain, but it was the only time an Afghan child ever gave me something. I put it around my neck, smiled to her, and something sweet and very sad welled up in my chest. The two of us sat there without speaking for a long time.

The next day our company was moved to FOB Kala Gush, Nuristan Province. The summer of 2010 was very busy there. We had our share of firefights, ambushes, and wounded. Throughout it all, I continued to wear the necklace Marghalara had given me.

That winter I came home in one piece. 

 

 

THE COMING OF A STORM |

July 22, 2013

Name: Ross Magee
Stationed in: Afghanistan

The coming rain hung heavy in the summer air. I waited and scanned the field in front of me with a clear mind, eyes open, breathing cordite in, heart pumping in my chest and whooshing in my ears. Jason called the targets with one hand on my shoulder and fed ammo into the gun. The M240 stuttered reassuringly against my body. The silhouettes fell in strings of three and four as the rounds walked across them in perfectly timed ten-round bursts. With Jason at my side, I was shooting better than ever before; everything seemed right. I burned my hand trying to help with a barrel change from behind the gun. I knew better and, through my Peltors, I could hear Jason laughing at me as the acrid smoke curled up off of my gloved hand. It was the last time I remember hearing him laugh.

The storm clouds rolled in over the pine trees in the distance like a dark tide coming ashore. I had no idea what they would portend that day; what sadness they might wash over us. The range disappeared in the storm and that is where my memory of that day ends.

I spoke at Jason’s funeral a few months later. His photograph, boots, and rifle stood next to me on the stage. Looking out across the chapel at his parents sitting in the front row, I felt fear welling up inside of me. I wanted to hear Jason’s voice, to feel the reassuring touch of his hand on my shoulder, to have him there with me, talking me onto the target. My vision went blurry, my hands trembled and I felt my voice begin to crack. All I could hear was the ringing in my ears. I paused to collect myself and recall being grateful it didn’t matter that I couldn’t read my prepared remarks.   

Jason and I shared many days on the range over the decade before his death. That is where we gathered to practice our trade. That last day on the range with him is now one of my most vivid memories. As it was happening, I knew in my soul that it was special — I just didn’t know why. But I do now. 

We stood in my office and I looked at him, a man I had known for over a decade. Before me stood a competent and capable young NCO, newly married with a bright future ahead of him. I signed his out-processing forms, shook his hand and hugged him before he walked out of my office. I never thought that it would be the last time I would see him, or hear his voice, or hold his hand in mine. 

Jason took his own life a few weeks later. There are many reasons, but no explanations. I have searched my soul, my heart, and every fold of my memory without success. I have stared blankly at the ice in the bottom of a tumbler alone at night, but even there I could not find a satisfactory answer. Instead of continuing to search for that elusive answer, now I just wonder if Jason remembered that day on the range the way I do. I hope he did. I hope he does. I hope I always will.

I helped bury him at Arlington National Cemetery where chalk-line straight rows of stone course across rolling hills. From his grave I counted identical white marble markers with the names of five other men I knew; six souls within a hundred meters of each other. Two of them took their own lives. The war took the others. Perhaps the war took all of them. It was a day of brilliant sun and I silently wished for a storm to come and make the field before me disappear. I cannot recall anything else about that day, nothing of significance anyway.

Whenever I hear gunfire now, no matter where I am or how far away the sound of the guns are, I smile and think of Jason. It does not make me sad. 

 

BACK TO SCRATCH |

July 17, 2013

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

Editor's note: I appreciate this update on Scott Kesterson's project. Troy Steward posted about "At War" here on The Sandbox in November 2007, and the original trailers embedded in that post -- especially the haunting second one -- have stayed with me.

The director of a documentary that tells the story of a U.S. Army National Guard Embedded Training Team (E.T.T.) in Southern Afghanistan 2006-2007, as well as a parallel story regarding Canadian security forces operating in the same area, Scott Kesterson says he is throwing out previous versions of the film and going back to scratch.

Kesterson recently updated listeners to the "Top Talk" podcast regarding the project, now in post-production under the working title "Bards of War." For an mp3 of the 53-minute podcast, click here.

In that interview, Kesterson says he now plans to separate the two story lines into two smaller, 40- to 60-minute documentaries. The first, regarding the "Red Devils" of 2nd Platoon, Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry (P.P.C.L.I.), would be released in early December 2013 via digital download or rental services such as iTunes or Netflix. The other, regarding an Oregon Army National Guard team of embedded trainers, would follow approximately one year later.

"These films are kind of putting [Afghanistan] to bed in very critical sense," Kesterson says. "What we're talking about is two versions of the war. That's why the two stories go together. One is a very kinetic version of the war, and the other is this embedded training, indigenous-type, mentor-advisor combat advisor role, which is a completely different lens on the war. You put those two side-by-side, and you start to, arguably, get a glimpse into what we didn't do right and could do better, and, arguably, is a direction in the future."

Originally shot as "At War" and slated for release in 2008 or 2009, music-rights acquisition and other other production challenges put the film project on the shelf for a few years. (A handful trailers and excerpts from that film is available on YouTube here.) After shooting the film as embedded media, Kesterson subsequently worked in Afghanistan as an information operations consultant. He also occasionally wrote at the Huffington Post.

"['At War'] was an attractive and alluring product, but a lot of that was because of the music," Kesterson says, "When you strip away the music, you don't have much of a film." In the new film, he says, contemporary follow-up interviews with veterans will help place the experiences of boots and bullets on the ground into a larger context.

"There's a very rich amount of material there, of telling just that story," Kesterson says. "That's a story of National Guard citizen-soldiers doing something that historically has never happened before: That's training, equipping, and fielding through combat, a nation's military, a national police force, and a nation's border police force."

AFTER WAR: ANGER, PANIC, AND SOMETIMES PEACE |

July 10, 2013

Name: MAJ Ben Tupper
Returned from: Afghanistan
Hometown: Syracuse, NY

I am in room 107 of a modern Army building that overlooks the large green expanse of Division Hill on Fort Drum in New York. Seated around me are my soldier peers, all division staff officers and noncommissioned officers. Collectively we are working through a series of PowerPoint slides and operations orders. Our mission for the day is to hone our skills and prepare for an upcoming training exercise that will take our Army National Guard unit to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where our skills will be put to the test.

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A U.S. Army soldier walks past a flag flying at half staff April 18 at Forward Base Honaker Miracle in Afghanistan. (Manjunath Kiran/AFP/Getty)

Room 107 is thousands of miles away from the dangers of the battlefield. Here the air conditioning is crisp, the high-speed Internet is reliable, and the toilets flush. These facts form the holy trinity of luxury for any soldier who, like me, has spent time deployed to hot, remote, and austere locations “over there.”

Surrounded by all these creature comforts, I should be in a soldierly state of bliss. Instead this tranquil moment is unexpectedly interrupted by the sensation of physical pain.

I feel it hit me, but I can’t pinpoint just where. My hands, which have been busy typing up operations orders, suddenly freeze above my laptop. I hold them motionless, inches above the keyboard. The stillness allows me to locate one of the multiple sources of the pain: the joints of my fingers and wrists, specifically those on my left hand, are throbbing.

My mind tells me this pain has been bothering me for days, but for some reason only now has my nervous system closed the loop and delivered the message. It’s a confusing and frankly disorientating realization. Is this dementia? Is the pain in my hands arthritis? My daughter likes to call me “the old man,” but come on, I’m only 44.

I begin to slowly and carefully massage my hands, like the old ladies did on that arthritis commercial I saw as a kid. As I rub my left hand, I notice a small bruise around the knuckle of my pinkie finger. Does arthritis cause bruising? I didn’t think arthritis caused bruising.

As I tenderly poke at my sore knuckles, I become aware of a rhythmic pounding noise coming from somewhere — a thump ... thump ... thump ... thump — like someone hitting a punching bag. The noise is close. It feels like it is in my head. Where is this noise coming from?

As I slowly flex and stretch my fingers, a new sensation of pain rises to the surface, but again, a disconnect. Where is this new pain coming from? I can’t seem to get my thoughts straight, and I am distracted by the continuing rhythmic pounding in my head. Thump ... thump ... thump ...

Sitting next to my laptop is a pile of gum wrappers. Honestly, it is more like a mountain of gum wrappers. Some of the silvery sheets are neatly folded. Others are crumpled up into shiny spitballs. Still others are wrapped around large circular blobs of discarded gum. Most of these blobs are piled into a large mountainlike formation. The smell of spearmint suddenly becomes overwhelming.

Who chewed all this gum? What is this noise? Why does my jaw hurt so much?

My jaw! The source of this new pain comes instantly into focus. From my neck to my temples, there is a throbbing soreness on both sides of my face, all radiating from the hinge of my jawbone. Inside my mouth, my tongue darts about wildly, guiding and maneuvering a large spearmint wad from side to side, while my teeth chomp down, rhythmically pounding away at the gum. Thump ... thump ... thump ...

It’s clear now. I have been frantically chewing gum for two days, pausing only to eat and sleep. Having localized the jaw pain, it quickly becomes unbearable, and I spit the gum out to give my tired face a rest.

The thumping stops. The silence is deafening. I dig around in my pockets for fresh pieces.

What’s with this gum-chewing obsession that’s brought my jaw to the point of muscle failure? Why do my hands hurt? What the hell is going on?

My tranquil training afternoon in room 107 is quickly morphing into a panic attack.

I slouch back in my office chair, breathe deeply, and stare up at the ceiling trying to regain my composure.

My mind travels back two days to Friday. I see myself screaming in rage, insulting my wife and doing everything I can to pour gasoline on her decision to cancel our dinner plans at the last minute, due to some pain she is experiencing.

My blood is boiling. I am bouncing up and down as I yell at her — literally jumping and bouncing like a kid on a trampoline. My hands curl into fists as I yell at her to be tougher dealing with this pain. Pain can’t stop the mission. Doesn’t she know we had a planned mission?

I tell her that she needs to suck it up. I tell her she needs to be more like a soldier. Still bouncing in anger, I launch myself skyward and, at the zenith of my ascent, let my fist fly, punching a hole in my bedroom ceiling. When my feet land on the soft-carpeted floor, my hand starts throbbing.

I don’t stick around long enough to survey the damage caused to my house and marriage. I make peace as best as an infantryman can be expected to do under the circumstances and leave for my favorite bar.

The day before the ceiling-punching episode, I’d had a similar meltdown against my red couch. Much like the ceiling, the couch did nothing to merit the attack. But during an equally mundane argument with my wife, I lost it and decided to pound away at the wooden armrest on the couch until the tendons running through my wrist felt like they were going to snap.

Looking back, the pattern seems painfully obvious. Thursday I attacked my couch. Friday I punched a hole in my ceiling. Saturday I reported to Fort Drum. Sunday came and I was in better spirits; things were settling down, although there was that compulsive gum-chewing habit.

My monthly military drill seems to be the trigger for these anxiety-ridden behaviors. But why? Nothing bad ever happens at drill. There have never been any gunfights with the Taliban at the armory, nor has there been improvised explosive devices planted on roadways that I drive. Really I have nothing to worry about. It’s not like I am being sent away again to a war thousands of miles away for the weekend. I’m just going to be in room 107, where everything is always A-OK.

I sat there, reflecting on this pattern of anxiety and rage, then drill, then a return to normalcy, which had been going on most months since my return home from Afghanistan over five years ago.

As the years passed, I figured out how to mitigate these rough patches through self-medication. On the nights before drill, a couple of adult beverages and an Ambien chaser usually did the trick. But treating the symptoms wasn’t doing much to stop them from recurring. Maybe my vet-center counselor is right, that I need to go deeper and deal with some of this stuff. I can count on the Army always welcoming me to drill month after month, because I put my problems aside, and I show up and do the mission. But I can’t count on my wife continuing to welcome me home from drill given the behaviors I had been exhibiting.

This month’s training in the comfortable confines of room 107 eventually comes to an end, and we are released to our barracks. I gather up my laptop and toss the mess of gum wrappers and chewed spearmint globs into the trash can. As I exit the front door, I pause to put on my patrol cap.

My eye catches the calm and smooth stratum of gray clouds that approach from the south. A slight breeze travels with the clouds, flowing down Division Hill, carrying the sweet smell of the fields of freshly cut grass, slowly working its way toward me. It is a tranquil moment, and my afternoon panic attack seems like ancient history. Division Hill is so calm and green and quiet in this moment that it makes my rage at home and my war experiences seem foreign and distant.

Was it really me jumping and punching and yelling days ago? Was it really me in combat years ago? Did all these things really happen to me? Or was it someone else, a stranger who occasionally takes up transient quarters in mind and causes such turmoil during his short stay?

Above the grass, below the clouds, the large flag flying in front of our training building captures my gaze. The breeze from Division Hill calls it to attention, and I hear its metal clasps clang loudly as they bang against the shiny aluminum pole. But today the flag is frustrated in its duties, flying at half mast in honor of two Fort Drum soldiers recently felled on a battlefield thousands of miles away.

In the course of its service, I know the flag has been exposed to hostile elements and violent forces, bleaching summer sun and cold winter winds, and I feel a sense of solidarity. I have faded in the heat of the desert sun, been frayed in the winds of combat, been stained by the black smoke of burning vehicles.

I stand still before the flagpole, transfixed by this lowered flag fluttering erratically in the breeze, and feel a new shock of recognition. The flag is me, a metaphorical image of my postwar self. Sometimes I am up, unfurled, engaged in the current of the world around me. Other times, I am lowered, hobbled by anxiety and rage.

In the coming days, the official mourning period for these recently fallen Fort Drum soldiers will end, and the flags on post will be elevated again to their rightful and proper position. I hope that my spirits and emotions will join them in this ascent.

This post originally appeared on The Daily Beast as part of The Hero Project.

OUT OF HERE! |

July 03, 2013

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

Everyone loves the Red and White Guidon and Stetsons!

Each Soldier in my Troop was patiently waiting for the CH-47s to call us forward to load. We were excited to leave FOB Apache for the final time and begin the long trek home. I was (and still am) carrying my guidon and wearing my Stetson whenever I can. I love the Cavalry.

Framed Top OUT OF HERE 1After what seemed like an eternity, the Crew Chiefs waved us forward to load up. I was the final Soldier in a long line and as I approached the bird the Crew Chief ran up to me and yelled in my ear, “We have a deal for you! You let us fly your guidon out the back of the helicopter during the flight and we will let you sit in the door gunner’s seat!”

“Hell Yeah!” was my response. Everyone loves the Red and White Guidon.

We arrived in Kandahar after a 40-minute flight. My Troop was to spend three days there waiting for our flight to Manas, Kyrgyzstan. The days flew by as we spent most of the time repacking our containers of equipment for the trip home. The weather was a lot warmer compared to FOB Apache due to the altitude difference. The hottest we had to deal with so far this year was maybe close to 90 degrees. Every day we spent in Kandahar it was 110.

Time flew by and we were soon on our way to Manas. As we loaded up onto the C-17 for the flight I sat down, extended my guidon while posting it in the rear of the plane, and put on the Stetson. It wasn’t two minutes later when the crew chief walked up to me and asked, “The pilot and co-pilot want to know if you want to sit in the cockpit for the flight!”

“Hell Yeah!” was my response. Everyone loves the Red and White Guidon.

Framed Top OUT OF HERE 2We landed in Manas after the two-hour flight and loaded onto busses that would take us to our temporary living areas. Everyone got settled in and made their way outside to the park benches. It was amazing to see all the Soldiers standing around and taking deep breaths of fresh air that smelled of trees and grass. It has always been the first thing I have noticed and enjoyed on all my previous deployments.

Each of us is allowed two beers every 20 hours. They control it by scanning our ID cards to ensure no one purchases more than allowed. Every bartender wears a shirt that reads “Best Two Beers Ever” across the back. They are correct.

We have completed all requirements here. Tomorrow morning we are loading up on the 747 (also known as the Freedom Bird) for the long flight home. Our Squadron has done great things, my Troop has done great things, and I get to bring them all back home alive. Mission accomplished!

I would like to thank everyone again for reading this blog. It has been an awesome journey. I plan to continue to write, but much less over the next few months as I get settled back into a routine at home.

I would like to thank the Soldiers of “Hunter” Troop for kicking ass and making me proud to be their First Sergeant. They have made my job easy.

But most of all I would like to thank my Wife. Katrin has done an amazing job back home taking care of three girls (11, 2, and 7 months), a dog, a cat, and all the craziness that comes with it. Not once has she complained about any of it. She is my Wonder Woman! She has kept everything back home running, which has allowed me to focus 100% on this deployment. Without her awesome support I wouldn’t be close to where I am now.

It has been one hell of a ride and I appreciate everyone taking time out of their day to go on it with me!

Respectfully,

JAMES L. GIBSON
1SG, USA
First Sergeant
“Hunter 7″
Headquarters and Headquarters Troop
2nd Squadron, 1st Cavalry Regiment


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