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.

THE SHRINE OF MASSOUD |

September 23, 2013

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

Last night, while watching the playback of a National Geographic program I had DVR-ed, I watched a brief minute of footage that sent shivers up my spine and sent my mind racing with thoughts of an experience I had in Afghanistan last year. The recorded two-hour program made an attempt to explain the key players and the chronological events that lead up to the horrific terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Enveloped in emotions of frustration and anger, I sat on the edge of my couch, listening to the ominous words of the narrator and glaring at flashing array of photos of the terrorist pilots who would go on to kill nearly 3,000 Americans.

With only ten minutes left, the program was rapidly approaching its climax. Despite knowing the ultimate end to the story, I was completely engrossed in the intense, historical accounts. The dates flashed in the bottom corner of the screen: August 22nd, August 29th, September 5th -- slowly approaching September 11th.

The date bar flashed September 9, 2001, and I gasped. There, on my television screen, was the face of a man that I knew -- not personally but with whom I had a rare connection.

In late June 2012, I went on a mission to an ABP kandak in Northeastern Afghanistan. The mission itself is recounted in another blog post, but it was during this mission that I had a unique experience.

I had been on mission with this particular team a few times before so the team’s Afghan counterparts knew me, in my public affairs role, and accepted me as part of the team. The ABP commander, who was along on this trip, also knew who I was and respected me as part of the team.

I was the only female on this mission and we were in an area where the Afghan Border Police had not seen a female American Soldier before. Additionally, according to our Intel report, the area had not been without action. I was fully aware of all of this so my senses were slightly elevated but I reasoned with myself that my team had my back if need be. Charlie Mike (continue mission)…

Members of our team had been invited to eat with the kandak leader and the ABP commander.

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The food was to be served in the room they called “The Shrine."  Hesitantly I entered the long white plaster-walled room. Our leadership was already seated on the red carpeted floor around a dull yellow plastic food mat. Large rectangular windows lined two walls of the room. The windows had no screens but were wide open to allow as much air and light into the room as possible. The men sipped chai tea and ate apples and dried beans with their fingers.

I took a few photos of the gathering but was very distracted by the walls of the room. Stretching down the long side of the room nearest the door was a very large poster-like painting.

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Beside that, another painting.

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Bedside that, on the far wall, another painting.

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Hanging from the walls in between every window were magazine clippings.

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Taped up like a teenage girl tapes her favorite musician’s or actor’s magazine photos were pages and pages of one man: Ahmad Shah Massoud.

The most revered mujahideen, Massoud was the leader of the resistance to the Taliban.

The ABP commander noticed I was looking at the photos and came to talk with me. He really hadn’t ever talked directly to me, not without one of our males directly beside me, but the team was in the room so he I guess he felt comfortable enough.

“Sergeant Lambas (my name in Dari),” he started. “Do you know the story of Massoud?” he asked through our interpreter.

“No, Sir,” I replied, slightly embarrassed that I didn’t know enough of his history to engage in the conversation.

“Stand right here,” he went on as he put both hands on my shoulders and guided me over just a foot or two to my left.

“Here is where Massoud was killed,” he said. I froze.

“Do you know how he was killed?” he continued.

I listened to the interpreter but said nothing.

“He was killed by a journalist. The bomb was in the camera.”

There I stood… with my camera in my hands… standing in the very place that their most beatified mujahideen has been slaughtered… by a camera bomb.

I think he noticed the blank yet slightly shocked look on my face, so he turned and began speaking with our commander. I don’t think he was upset with me for not reacting or saying anything. Actually, I’d like to think he and I slightly bonded at that moment. I stood there motionless for a moment as I let what he told me sink in. The magnitude of my rare position came over me: the only female, an American, in a sacred room, carrying the same device that was used as a weapon nearly 11 years before. My heart was heavy and my thoughts were clouded and racing.

My mentor and very good friend had been standing just a few feet away from me. I snapped out of it as he walked up to me. We quietly walked over to where the two commanders were conversing.

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The ABP commander was showing our commander photos of himself with Massoud and others not long before Massoud was killed. Again, I felt another pang in my stomach. The Afghan general knew Massoud. I slowly raised my camera and took just one photo of the general pointing to himself in the photo on the wall. Usually ambitious about taking photos, I now felt out of place and almost scared to take photos in that room. I had to step out.

Last night was the first time I had seen video, not still photographs, of Massoud. I had only heard the story about the camera bomb once before and it wasn’t from a narrator on a film. It was told to me years after Massoud’s assassination, directly in the place where he had been killed, and by someone who knew and worked with him.

Only I can tell this story…

BACK HOME |

September 16, 2013

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

It’s been a while and I figure I owe everyone an update on what has been going on since my return from Afghanistan. One thing is for certain, the train didn’t slow down any upon our return. It seemed as if every day was filled with certain tasks that needed to be accomplished (tasks that were dreamed up by a good idea fairy) in preparation for our eventual block leave period.

One thing that was different this time from all of my other deployments was that we were not afforded the opportunity to take leave immediately upon our return; we had to wait nearly two months before we were allowed to go on vacation. Nonetheless, my Troop was able to accomplish all required tasks and go on a much needed vacation.

Katrin, our girls, and I have been going 100 mph since my return. It wasn’t until just this last Monday that we could just sit around and do nothing. Here is a quick rundown of what has been going on.

16 June:  Return from Afghanistan. We were released for a 96-hour pass once we landed. The first day home we ate dinner at the Ram and went home early; jet lag was kicking my ass. The next two days were spent at the Great Wolf Lodge with the last day of pass being spent getting unpacked and prepared for work. Each weekend we planned out something to do, mostly centered around the girls (zoo, parks, walks, shows, etc.).

4th of July weekend we spent at our family’s beach house in Manzanita, Oregon. Every weekend after that was spent somewhere doing something.

August 8:  Squadron Ball. It was a super success and Katrin and I had a great time. I really enjoy those events. I was able to enjoy some gin/tonics and maintain my composure enough to MC the event. That night was the last night of “work” and our vacation started the next day.

August 9:  Packed all day in preparation for the flight to LA the next day.

August 10–15 we spent in LA doing the Disneyland / Universal Studios / Malibu Beach / Santa Monica Pier / Hollywood thing. We paid for the guided tour but found that we had a better time finding stuff on our own. We would put the address into the GPS and just go…. Such a great time.

We returned home the night of the 15th and left for Oregon the next morning. It was my 20 year HS reunion that night. We linked up with my two best friends from Forest Grove and their wives, hit the reunion, and drank much. The gin/tonics were flowing freely that night. It was cool catching up with some of the old gang. I really need to keep in better touch with some of them.

We stayed the night in Forest Grove and then headed out to the beach to visit my Grandparents. We stayed out there for a few hours and then made the four-hour drive home. We were really looking forward to it as it was the beginning of the “Do NOTHING” period of our vacation. Unfortunately I picked up a nasty bug and was really sick for about 4 days (still only about 90% right now).

Went to a Mariners game last night. King Felix was on the mound. They lost. Had a great time anyway. Katrin is really getting into the game, Kiersten loves being at the park, and Tabea had a good time too. Made it home before midnight and everyone was asleep once we got back.

Today I am enjoying the calm-before-the-storm. I am getting ready to paint the interior of our house. Katrin has decided on some colors and I am going to go crazy tomorrow. I am going to rent a power sprayer, kick the girls out of the house for the day, and get busy.

Other than that, it’s really good to be home. My adjustment from deployment to home-life has been much less stressful this time around. I was talking with Katrin about it the other day. The only problem I have noticed is that I am still quick to want to tell someone exactly how I feel. While deployed, one of the benefits of being a First Sergeant is that I can tell someone off if they are doing something stupid; it doesn’t matter if I know them or not. An example while deployed: “Hey dumbass, how about you not camp out in the exit door, and let everyone through?” I have had to catch myself on a few occasions while out in the civilian sector as I was about to uncork on someone for doing something dumb, and change it to a “Pardon me, can I get by please?” Other than that, I am doing great, my girls are doing great, and I am glad to be back home.

As we get back to work in a few weeks I will write more. I will share the next experience in our lives as we prepare for the eventual shut-down and relocation of our Brigade. A move from Washington to another state (Colorado most likely) is possible by next Summer. Till then, I am going to get knee deep in some “Swiss Coffee White” and some “Porpoise Grey”!

END OF A LINE |

September 10, 2013

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

I spent last week up at Muscatatuck, training another group of State Department and USAID folks who are heading to Afghanistan. My luck held out: once again I had a team of really sharp people. They made my job easy. I could just suggest a few things, make a couple of recommendations, and ask that they consider this or that aspect, and they would take it and run with it. If anything, they made things a bit harder on themselves because they  over-prepared themselves for the different events. They did their research and knew what was going on every time.  

In some cases, they had actually worked relevant real-life situations and knew much more about what would have been going on in reality than we presented in the training scenario. So I learned from them as well. And they definitely came a long way last week. At first, they were a group of students sitting around a table. By Friday, they were a tight-knit team, able to divide responsibilities, work with each other, handle anything we threw at them, and generally kick butt. And it is so cool to see that happen. So I'm wishing all the best to Mark, Amanda, Bernie, Bill, and Chris as they head downrange.  Good luck and stay safe!


There was a sadder note to this week, though. This was the last of these classes for the State Department. The drawdown that has been accelerating over the last few months means that there won't be many State Department people going out to the field in Afghanistan anymore, and certainly not enough to justify continuing this course. So it has now ended. That's life, of course, but you hate to see a good thing go away.  

I have to say that this training program has been one of the highlights of my professional life. Every once in a while, you get a perfect storm of an important mission, one that's fun and worthwhile in itself, and also get to work with a great group of teammates. We had that at Muscatatuck. The mission was critically important to those who were going to Afghanistan. It was so much fun to do. And my fellow trainers are a great group of people: dedicated, committed, experienced, sharp, witty, creative, innovative, and always put the mission first. We worked like hell to make the training scenarios the best experience for the students that they could possibly be. And we had a helluva lot of fun doing it. I'm going to miss working with them.

But there's always the chance that one day the phone will ring and somebody will say, "Hey, we're getting the band back together. We're on a mission from God and we need you at Muscatatuck." I'll be there in a heartbeat.

DILLION |

September 04, 2013

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

"On average we are losing 25 of our best young people every day to a condition that could be eliminated with more effective care."

The family of a deceased Iowa "Red Bull" soldier hopes that publicizing their story of loss to suicide will help other citizen-soldiers, families, and friends seek help and resources. The 46-minute documentary "Dillion" debuts on Kansas Public Television station KPTS, Wichita, on Sept. 11, 2013, at 8 p.m. CDT.

The subtitle of the documentary is "The true story of a soldier's battle with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder [P.T.S.D.]." The family is seeking other venues and media outlets through which to distribute the film.

Their messages? That suicide is not a rational option, nor is it inevitable. That there is never a single event to which one can trace an explanation of suicide. And that there are others, like their son, who may be suffering depression, PTSD, or ideas of suicide.

Dillion Naslund, 25, of Galva, Iowa, was a former member of the Iowa National Guard's 1st Battalion, 168th Infantry Regiment (1-168th Inf.) and 1st Battalion, 133rd Infantry Regiment (1-133rd Inf.). Both are units of Iowa's 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division.

"Dillion had felt he was alone," says his mother Lisa, "but we quickly found out that he wasn't." In the days and weeks following his December 2012 funeral, she says, more than a handful of other soldiers have independently contacted her family. They told her that Dillion's example had inspired each to seek help in their own struggles. "Dillion's legacy can be to save lives," she says. "He's already saved lives."

According to news reports, eight former or actively drilling citizen-soldiers from Iowa have committed suicide since December 2012. All were between the ages of 18 and 25, and experiencing relationship and/or financial problems. Nationwide, suicide-prevention efforts continue to be a concern of military veterans and families. They are also the focus of programs throughout U.S. military and veterans communities, including the National Guard.

Naslund had previously deployed as an infantry soldier to Iraq in 2007-2008. More recently, he had returned from a 9-month deployment to Eastern Afghanistan's Laghman Province in July 2011. Back home, in addition to being the member of a close family, he was active in the the local fire department, and worked a concrete construction job. Naslund died of a self-inflicted gunshot Dec. 10, 2012.

"Dillion wasn't any different than anyone else," Lisa Nasland says. "He had chores, he got grounded. He was just an ordinary kid who went off to war."

Friends and family say that Dillion had changed upon his return. He was no longer upbeat and respectful, and his drinking became destructive. Earlier in 2012, family and friends had picked up on warning signs, and had gotten Dillion to medical help. Once out of in-patient care, however, medical and counseling resources were located more than 2 hours away from Naslund's Ida County home.

"You want something or someone to blame," says Lisa Naslund. "It took me a long time to realize that my argument [with Dillion on the day of his death] wasn't to blame. His girlfriend wasn't to blame. I call PTSD 'the Beast.' The Beast is to blame."

Russ Meyer, a veteran, father of two U.S. Air Force pilots, and former president of Cessna, introduces the "Dillion" documentary in 1-minute trailer here, as well as embedded in this blog post below.

Independent film-maker Tom Zwemke is a Vietnam War veteran, a Naslund family friend, and a current member of the KPTS board of trustees. The documentary was first screened at a private gathering of more than 200 friends and family earlier this summer, at a Western Iowa celebration of Dillion's July 2 birthday.

The Veterans Crisis Line is a toll-free and on-line resource staffed by trained Department of Veterans Affairs personnel, who can confidentially assist soldiers, veterans, families and friends toward local help and resources.

According to the Veterans Crisis Line website:
1-800-273-8255 and Press 1, chat online, or send a text message to 838255 to receive confidential support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Support for deaf and hard of hearing individuals is available.


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