The Sandbox

GWOT hot wash, straight from the wire

Welcome to The Sandbox, our command-wide milblog, featuring comments, anecdotes, and observations from service members currently deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. This is GWOT-lit's forward position, offering those in-country a chance to share their experiences and reflections with the rest of us. 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. The Sandbox is a clean, lightly-edited debriefing environment where all correspondence is read, and as much as possible is posted. And contributors may rest assured that all content, no matter how robust, is currently secured by the First Amendment. To submit a post, click here.


Name: David Stanford, Duty Officer
Email: themanagement@doonesbury.com

Launched as a milblog (military blog) by Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau in October 2006, for seven and a half years The Sandbox served as a forum for service members stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan (and a few other GWOT locations), and for veterans who had returned, their spouses and caregivers. Throughout its run The Sandbox was a combination of original writing sent directly to us and posts gathered from existing milblogs. Some contributors only wrote one piece, others contributed dozens through multiple deployments. Some continued to weigh in long after their return home, chronicling the transition back to civilian life, including in some cases dealing with their wounds and losses.

A major goal of this project was to help connect people on both sides of the gap described in this 2007 post:  THE CHASM.

The Sandbox contains over 800 posts by more than 150 contributors. It is a vast body of work -- the equivalent of three-and-a-half Lord of the Rings trilogies. You will be rewarded for roaming and exploring its depths.

DSC_0004

Some of the posts from the last few months were written by longtime contributors in response to our LAST CALL, and at the end of each of those are links to older posts by the same writers. These offer one way to begin exploring the site. You can also navigate around using the calendar links in the right margin. In future we hope to add the capability to search by author.

 

 

 * * *

Garry Trudeau announced the launch of The Sandbox with this Doonesbury strip:

Doonesbury Sandbox Sunday 10-8-06

 

A few months later, he followed up with another Sandbox strip:

 

Doonesbury Sandbox Sunday 1-7-07

 

In the fall of 2007, the publishing arm of Doonesbury's syndicate published this anthology of Sandbox writing, which contained posts from the first 42 contributors:

 

Framed SANDBOX COVER

 

BOOKS BY SANDBOX CONTRIBUTORS:

Welcome to Afghanistan: Send More Ammo; The Tragicomic Art of Making War as an Embedded Trainer in the Afghan National Army, by Benjamin Tupper

Kaboom! : Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War, by Matt Gallagher

Fire and Forget: Short Stories, Edited by Roy Scranton and Matt Gallagher

Fire in the Night: Creative Essays from an Iraq War Vet, by Lee Kelley

When I Wished I Was Here: Dispatches from Fallujah, by Derek McGee

Here, Bullet, by Brian Turner

 

(Please let me know if/when there are other titles to add to this list.)

 

 * * *

 

Lieutenant G gives it a shot. Hilarity ensues:

 

 

The Sandbox has been one of the most satisfying projects of my 35-year career as an editor. To all who contributed, thank you, for your service and your words. I am grateful for the friendships made here.

Onward!

@WR
1SG James L. Gibson
1LT Taylor D. Traversa
1SG Troy Steward
1st LT Will Mangham
A Capt in Fort Hood
A Nurse
Adam Tiffen
Adrian B.
The Afghan Battle Fox
Air Force Wife
Alex Horton
America's 1st Sgt.
Andi
Andrew Kaufmann
Anthony D. Pike
Army Girl
B.C.
Brandon Lingle
Brian Turner
C. Maloney
C.J. Grisham
CAPT Beau Cleland
CAPT Doug Traversa
CAPT Lee Kelley
CAPT Marc Rassler
CAPT Mark Martin
CAPT Matt Smenos
CAPT Mike Dunn
CAPT Mike Toomer
Captain Dave
CH (CPT) Brad P. Lewis
Chaplain CPT Dr. Father Tim
Charlie Sherpa
Citizen Soldier Sojack
Charles
Cheese
Chris Misner
Christina Steward
City Girl
Cmcjake
Colby Buzzell
Combat Doc
Daniel Gade
Deployed Teacher
Derek Eland
Doc in the Box
Don Connolly
Don Gomez
Doug Templeton
Edda 2010
Eddie
EOD Officer
Eric Coulson
Eric Fair
Eric Jones
Eric Wolf
Gabriel Russell
Garrett Phillip Anderson
Genevieve Chase
Ginger Star Peterman
Grunt MP
Gruntshit
Guard Wife
Ian Wolfe
I.A.O.
Jacob Sorrell
James Aalan Bernsen
Jason Payne
Jeff
Jeff Clement
Jenn Neuhauser
Jennifer M. Pierson
Joe Roos
John
Josie Salzman
JP
J.P. Borda
K
Kellie Coy
Kerrie Drylie
Kevin
Kyle McNally
Lisa Wright
LT Carl Goforth
LT COL Patrick
LT G
LTC Robert Bateman
Lurch
MAJ Andrew Olmsted
MAJ B. Tupper
MAJ Gian P. Hernandez
MAJ Michael Irwin
MAJOR Dan
MAJOR Mark Duber
Mart Gallagher
Michael
Michael C.
Michael Brameld
Michael Fay
Mike Guzman
Mike T.
Mikey Piro
Molly Pitcher
MSGT Ken Mahoy
Nicole Powell-Dunford
NCO at Campbell
Old Blue
Owen Powell
Paul McCollom
Rob
Robert
Roman Baca
RN Clara Hart
Rocinante
Ross Magee
Roy Scranton
Sacrificial Lamb
Sarah
Scott
Scott Kesterson
Sean Dustman
SFC Toby Nunn
SGT Allen
SGT B
SGT Brandon White
SGT de la Garza
SGT Derek McGee
SGT "Roy Batty"
SGT Sack
SGT Salamander
Sharon Swanke
Sideways
Simon H.
Six Foot Skinny
Skip Rohde
SPC Beaird
SPC Freeman
Anne Freeman
SPC Ian Wolfe
SPC Jami Gibbs
SPC J.R. Salzman
Soldiers Wife
SPC O
SSG Emily Joy Schwenkler
SSG Glenn Yeager
Steve Bauer
Stephen Canty
Tadpole
Anthony McCloskey
Teflon Don
T.T. Carnehan
Toby Nunn
Uncle Jimbo
The Afghan Battle Fox
The Dude
The Unknown
The Usual Suspect
Vampire 06
Virgil Harlan
Yambo
Zachary Scott-Singley

Name: MSG C.J. Grisham
Returned from: Iraq and Afghanistan
Hometown: Texas
Milblog: A Soldier's Perspective

In 2009, I had the opportunity to interview then-Vice Chief of Staff Peter Chiarelli. We talked at length about his efforts to reduce or remove the stigma associated with a diagnosis of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). During that conversation, I made a conscious effort to challenge his assertion and began my journey to healing.

To paraphrase John Stuart Mill, “PTSD is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things.” Failing to seek help by those that are afflicted, and mocking those have it by those that don’t, are worse.

Seeking help was a difficult choice for me. I was a First Sergeant at the time on a glide path to earning Sergeant Major rank. I was one of the fastest promoted Master Sergeants in my field and I didn’t want to ruin it. But I believed that this was just the old-school thought process. General Chiarelli assured me the Army was changing the way it looked at PTSD.

So, with a heavy heart, I gathered my troops around and tearfully explained to them that I was stepping down as First Sergeant. 

“If I’m going to stand up here and tell you it’s okay to get help,” I told them. “I have to be willing to get help myself.”

I’m forever grateful to my commander at the time, who understood and supported what I was doing. And my wife couldn’t have been more supportive.

It had been six years since I was attached to 3/7 Cavalry in the 3rd Infantry Division (Mechanized) for the main assault into Iraq on the evening of March 19, 2003. Our task was to perform a hook maneuver and scout ahead of the division. We raced northwest to Al Salman, then made the sharp right turn towards As Samawah. Salman was a hilly, peaceful place. It was apparent the Iraq military never thought we’d head that way. We had a few small skirmishes, but no damage or injuries were sustained. The biggest problem we had was getting our vehicles through the rugged terrain.

Samawah would be the first time I had to fire a weapon at another human. It wasn’t pretty either. The mujahidin were infesting Samawah. We had outpaced most of the Division, so the fighting largely rested with us. They played dirty, using human shields as they fired their AK47s on full auto while resting the weapons on the shoulders of women who were bleeding from their ears from the sound. It’s hard enough to kill a human enemy; it’s even harder having to kill an innocent person in order to do so.

At one point, we were stuck on a raised roadway on highway 28 to the southwest of the city. In the distance, I heard loud booms -- incoming! The rounds fell well short of our position, but forward observers were walking them in on us. The tanks and infantry fighting vehicles had no problem turning 180 degrees around to retreat, but we didn’t have that luxury. Our unarmored HMMWVs with trailers needed to perform very difficult, multi-point turns without tumbling down the high embankment. 

BOOM! BOOM! One vehicle took a near direct hit near the canal. We were working hard to haul ass out of the kill zone. Then, I spotted a problem.

Just down the embankment, we had set up a hasty enemy prisoner of war (EPW) pit where my two interrogators were busy deciphering the defenses ahead of us and within the town. Geneva Conventions require us to protect EPWs to the best of our ability, but we didn’t have the space to take them with us. We couldn’t just leave them there to be blown to bits, no matter how much we wanted to. The guys we captured had surrendered without a fight because they were taken from their farmlands and forced into service by Saddam Hussein.

As I ran towards the cage, a round landed near me and blew me off the road. When I landed at the bottom of the embankment I felt a sharp pain in my back. Miraculously, there was no blood and didn’t appear to be any shrapnel. Through the stabbing pain, one of my interrogators and I gave the prisoners strict instructions to run south and surrender to the next unit they saw, or they would be killed.

Once we were out of artillery range, we began tending to the casualties. I was checked out by the medic who saw what happened and noticed I was limping. He asked for my casualty feeder, but I refused to give it to him. 

“We need that to submit for your Purple Heart,” he explained.

I looked around at the other troops who were injured, some badly.

“It doesn’t seem right. I’m able to walk and I’m not bleeding,” I replied. There was no more conversation. He issued me some ibuprofen for pain and I went back to my truck.

For the next several weeks we followed the Euphrates River northward. The fighting was steady, at times intense, and at times barely worth the bullets.

On March 25th, we had to actually dig foxholes because the armor was needed to head off a column of Iraqi tanks headed our direction from Karbala. Every Soldier in the unit was needed to create a defensive perimeter to protect the TOC from small arms fighters while the M1 Abrams Tanks and M2 Bradley Fighting Vehicles positioned themselves for the battle. Visibility was barely a few feet as a major sandstorm had blown in that turned the sky dark and eerily orange. Bullets whizzed by, mortars landed all around us, and an RPG missed our windshield by inches. We were shooting towards the gunfire, but couldn’t see our targets. After reinforcing our position and laying claymores along the woodline, we settled into our foxhole, trying to keep warm in the frigid temperatures throughout the night.

I wrote in detail about what happened to us thereafter, and during the rest of our deployment, on my military blog, A Soldier’s Perspective.

When I finally got to come home in late 2003 after fighting into Baghdad with 1-64 Armor and then over to Fallujah with 3-15 Infantry, something didn’t feel right. I first noticed it a few days after I returned when I went to a Subway restaurant to get a quick lunch just outside Fort Stewart, GA.

The man in front of me ordered his sandwich and asked the young kid making the sandwich to cut it into thirds. He ended up cutting it into quarters and the man started berating the Subway employee.

Was this guy really complaining about how his sandwich was cut, making a scene in the process? If that was the worst of my problems, I’d have been overjoyed! I had made it home by surviving brutal combat in which I had made my peace and accepted my death on three distinct occasions, only to come home to a society whose biggest problems in life were how their sandwiches were cut. I pushed on and tried to ignore the fact that I just didn’t fit in with society.

As time went on, I became more and more angry. I pushed people out of my life because I didn’t want to get close to anyone. Friends die. If I don’t have friends, I don’t have to worry about losing them. I questioned how God could allow such misery, pain, suffering and loss of life. Why was I allowed to live and people like SPC George Mitchell and SSG Stevon Booker allowed to die? I continued to “suck it up and drive on," pushing through the constant battle in my head over my self worth, and a constant stream of violent imagery that plagued me all night and when I least expected it during the day. I needed help, but I didn’t dare ask for it.

Since 2009, I’ve made great strides. I’ve learned to let go of the survivor’s guilt and found ways to deal with the sights, sounds, and smells that are triggers for my anxiety. I largely self-medicated through my writing and blogging. Thankfully, I never turned to drinking or drugs, though I thought often of just wanting to down a bottle of the cheapest liquor I could find to let go for awhile.

The problem with being honest and writing about PTSD successes and failures is that people who either don’t understand it or have an axe to grind will use it against you. Both types of people are dangerous to efforts made in helping troops overcome their demons of war.

Last year, I was accepted into the Warrior Combat Stress Reset Program here on Fort Hood. Reset is a three-week, outpatient program for qualified active duty troops suffering from extreme PTSD. The therapy combines both individual and group therapy with complimentary alternative medicine (CAM), like reflexology, deep tissue massage, yoga, Reiki, and more. 

That three weeks did more to help me successfully deal with the complications associated with PTSD than the previous four years of counseling alone did. Not only did the program address the mental pain associated with combat and living in a combat environment, but it also addressed the physical pain I have suffered since that day I was blown off the embankment. For the first time in over ten years, I got up off that bed feeling like I was floating. I felt virtually no pain at a time when my “normal” pain level was about a five on a scale of one to ten.

Unfortunately, because of the time and space requirements, each three-week program can only accommodate 10-12 troops. The groups are broken down into seniors and juniors, keeping senior NCOs and officers together and junior enlisted troops together to foster openness and trust.

For the first time in ten years, I no longer feel like a leper in society, constantly on guard seeking a hidden enemy in the bushes or the median of a highway. I can better control my anger, depression, and guilt. I’ve also accepted that I’ll never be able to forget the evils and perils of combat, but I can learn to live peacefully with them. In other words, I feel human again.

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank The Sandbox for all the hard work it has done to tell the story of our military through our eyes. Encapsulated within the confines of this site is more honesty and reality than we will ever see in the media. For many years, The Sandbox has told the stories that simply weren’t being told. It will be missed and its presence was appreciated.

 

C.J. Grisham's numerous Sandbox posts include Huggy Lady, Kaf-Tastic Killer Bunnies, How To Keep Your Soul, SSG Brian Cowdrey, Infinite Progress, SFC ZekeA Second Knock at the Door. and An Unwelcome Christmas.

 

 

 

Name: RN Clara Hart
Formerly stationed in: a civilian military hospital in the U.S.
Email: clarahart2@yahoo.com

It’s hard to believe it’s been two years since I left my career as a civilian nurse in a military hospital. Nine years I spent caring for war wounded troops and their families. So many memories; wonderful, encouraging memories and others filled with deep, heartbreaking sorrow. The names of the dead float through my mind as I write. This story is a tribute to all those who have given their lives, for those they left behind, and to those who look in the face of their war-given disabilities and find success.

Many months before I actually left the ICU, friends had begun asking if it wasn’t time I took a break, did something different. They would mention how sad I seemed or how stressed I was, or how often I cried. They didn’t know about the nightmares that plagued my sleep or the knot in my stomach that never went away. Despite those things I wasn’t ready to leave; I loved what I did and knew I made a difference. I was staying until they didn’t need me anymore. Then one day I no longer had a choice.

For some months I'd been assigned a patient, and was caring for him and his family. He was a young service member injured in the line of duty, with no chance of meaningful survival. He had an equally young, naïve wife without any idea how to care for herself, their two-year-old daughter, or the baby she carried. Yet, when the time came, she somehow made decisions at 20 years of age that those decades older are unable to make. She chose to honor his wishes and allow him to die. She stood up against his family, who cursed her decisions. She carried herself with her head high even as that same family abused her to the point where the sight of military police became common in the ICU. For months I watched this, caring for him, encouraging and supporting her, hugging the bright two-year-old when she came to see her dada. 

One day the wife asked me, “Will you be the nurse who is with us when we stop everything?”

Many times I have been asked that exact question. It’s a double-edged sword really, for it shows the deep connection made with the family, their need for you to be there with them in one the worst times of their lives, and in some ways it is an honor. Few are allowed into that particular circle. The other edge of the sword is the one that cuts you to shreds as you struggle to do your job. A job that requires you live up to the expectations of a grieving family and show the compassion they require, when all you want to do is curl up in a ball with your own sorrow.

The night before the end, I encouraged a young wife to snuggle up to her husband’s side, and watched as she wrapped her arms around him and fell asleep. The following day I returned, only this time it was my arms that held her as I softly told her, “Yes, he is dead.”  

The funeral followed, and as I stood in Arlington National Cemetery I thought about how the many times I had been there, honoring and remembering as Honor Guards carried flag-draped caskets, the other nurses and hospital staff standing side by side as we continued to care for our patients the only way we now could -- by supporting their families and friends.   

In the following two months, we had to withdraw care for two additional warriors and allow them to die. I began to cry every day, and for the very first time I didn’t want to go to work. I was irritable and angry and rarely slept through the night. One day I inadvertently slighted a junior physician, and suddenly the choice to leave or stay was no longer mine.

I didn’t look for another job, I didn’t work; I took care of my family and I healed. One day my phone rang and the young wife, now a widow, asked for my help. I struggled with her request because, as nurses, as professionals, there is an unspoken rule that says “Do not get involved with patients and their families outside of the work environment." But my faith dictated I help her, for my Christian beliefs and God said "Help the widows and the orphans." This young, courageous widow did not know how to care for herself, and, encumbered with grief, loneliness, and despair, was hospitalized with malnutrition and a baby in distress. My church family came alongside her, encouraging, supporting, teaching life skills, having baby showers for the unborn youngest daughter and birthday parties for the oldest daughter. 

One day the widow asked me, “Will you be the one with me when the baby is born?”

And so a trauma nurse, with no experience in labor and delivery, ended up in a delivery room. We placed photos of her husband around the room and the nurses were told all about him and their life together. She told them how I had been with her on the that day. Hours later, I was the first one to hold the youngest daughter of my former patient. As I looked down at her tiny face I saw her daddy’s. Tears streaming down my face I handed her back to the nurse and fled the room. In the hallway I slid down the wall to the floor sobbing. One of the other nurses sat beside me, holding and rocking me as I cried. Through my tears I explained, “I was with her when he died. I disconnected the ventilator, shut off the medications, took out the IVs, and it was me who had to tell her he was dead. And now I got to hold his baby daughter.” Framed NURSE baby 

I had endured countless withdrawals of care and watched life end, but now I watched life begin. What a wonderful way to end my career as a civilian nurse in a military hospital. God has given me a gift; a gift that has been instrumental in healing my heart. 

My gift is two years old this month. She and her mom and sister no longer live close by, and she probably wouldn’t know who I am. But I know, and every time her mom sends me a photo of her, I see her daddy’s face and in that I see my successes.

Framed NURSE Blurred_NURSE The GiftMy life is very different these days. Aside from friends, my military contact is limited; I miss it tremendously, miss the environment, the relationships with coworkers and battle buddies. My sleep is only infrequently plagued by death. Now my days are spent as a nurse case manager and an occasional ER RN. My church has started a medical missions ministry and medical missions are in my future. My first one will be this month, to El Salvador, and another to the Dominican Republic later in the year. If you’d like to follow along, two other nurses and I have started a blog called MBC Nurses on a Mission. I will warn you though, unlike my friend and fellow Sandbox contributor Troy Steward, who seems to post twelve times a day on his milblog Bouhammer, I am not an every day (or even an every week) kind of blogger. 

One last thing before I sign off. Through The Sandbox I have met wonderful people who I now call my friends. Friends who have kept my true identity a secret for years, coming up with half truths or boldfaced lies when people asked how we met. I came up with the name Clara Hart as a symbol of my profession. “Clara” after Clara Barton who nursed innumerable soldiers in her lifetime, “Hart” as a play on the word ‘heart,' because nursing is about compassion, and you cannot be a truly good nurse without a heart of compassion and a willingness to share it.

My name is Susan and I am so very happy to have met you and shared my journey with you. May God bless you richly.

Framed NURSE AND BABY

 

 

Susan's numerous previous posts include:  The Vigil, The FacesVIPs, Incoming Wounded, End of Life, Carnage of the Mind, and If I Could Speak to General Kelly.

Name: Major Dan
Returned from: Afghanistan
Milblog: AfghaniDan
Twitter: Mayordelmundo

  Framed Afghanidan CODA 1
 
Glamour shot, Mazar-e Sharif, 11/7/10
 
 
Right from the start, I wonder if I should prattle on about the myriad of reasons I don’t write anymore. About why such a significant period of my life, spanning two Operation Enduring Freedom deployments and beyond, will mostly remain boxed, gathering over time the type of dust and cobwebs that blur and warp the memories that aren’t already erased. I won’t prattle, not too much anyway. But I’ll restate something I’ve said before, at least once: It gives me no satisfaction to write about the experience of being in Afghanistan when I’m not in Afghanistan. Many literary types manage to do that, but I’m not James Joyce. Hell, I’m not even a writer. I’m just someone who absorbed what he could, and passed on as much as possible, while in the midst of some experiences. When those experiences were done, my urge to write about them was done too.
 
I write now, after a deliberate stop to the post-post-deployment entries a couple of years ago, because the good people at The Sandbox have given me the opportunity to add a new post from AfghaniDan as they wind down that impressive collection of essays and milblog posts from the past two wars. Not to sound like an acceptance speech, but I give them enormous credit for ending their valuable web site in such a way.
 
 
Framed Afghanidan CODA 2 ANA
 
ANA cadets await a concert, Kabul, 10/21/10
 
 
For the purpose of a standard timeline check, and just to make this feels even more as if I’m in a confessional, it’s been more than three years since I returned from the last deployment and four exactly since I was heading to Camp Lejeune for another inprocessing cluster---k. It was eight (!) years ago this month that I took part in Operation Mountain Lion in Kunar Province during my first deployment to Afghanistan. And just for the heck of it, it’s been 14 years exactly since I was in Kosovo with the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, reinforcing a thin NATO peacekeeping contingent amidst a nervous population, thinking that was the hairiest thing we would be doing for a while (in fairness, most of us thought that).

Afghanistan has just held a presidential election, and Taliban attacks intended to disrupt it have failed, though they’ve brutally slain innocents and beloved patriots. As our international coalition sharply draws down its numbers there, it is finally true that Afghan national security forces have the lead. March closed as the first month in over seven years with zero American fatalities, while still we have military personnel and civilians heading over (the media rarely bother to explain troop rotations). Welcome to 2014, the "year of transition."
 
 
Framed Afghanidan CODA 3 AEA

 
Afghanistan Electoral Alliance (source N/A)
 
 
I’d like to say the world has watched, or at least our nation has, as this era of American/NATO intervention in Afghanistan has flowed, ebbed, flowed, and ebbed again -- but if you’ve paid attention, you’ve been in the distinct minority. That’s one of the reasons it’s bracing to hear the chattering class bring up “America’s longest war” when a milestone is passed, because only the very few and far between have maintained any awareness of their nation being “at war.” Over there, of course, it’s a different story, but in many settings, including the most populated ones, daily life generally has a normalcy to it. A normalcy that’s often closely related to the presence of large numbers of international forces, if not directly feeding off the odd system that seemed as if it would retain semi-permanence for decades, but a normalcy nonetheless. I tried to highlight that as my observations shifted from those of a fairly clueless newcomer to those of a more attuned participant, and one located mainly in Kabul in the advisory go-round.
 
  Framed Afghanidan CODA 4 Fruit
 
Fruit vendors, Kabul, 10/31/10
 
 
Was it worth it? Gen. Jim “Chaos” Mattis (ret.) -- he who commanded the initial Marine Expeditionary Brigade that swept into the south of Afghanistan in 2002, before achieving far greater responsibility, fame and notoriety in Operation Iraqi Freedom and eventually at US Central Command -- opined recently on the question of whether it was “worth it” for those who served in these conflicts (as my readers may recall, I’m not a fan of lumping the two together, but that’s apparently how it was asked and answered in this case). The “Warrior Monk” went on to break down his answer in terms of national strategy and personal considerations, and while it’s all worth a read, it’s the latter that truly resonated with me. These are summaries by the piece’s author, not direct quotes:
 
For veterans, "Was it worth it?" should be intensely personal. The focus should be on experiences while deployed and since returning home. What sorts of relationships were formed at war? How deep and rewarding were they? How have you stayed in touch with your buddies since returning home? Have you been able to integrate into civil society in a healthy and sustainable way?
 
You have some control over the answer to these questions, even if doesn't feel like it a lot of the time. This is where the ultimate judgment must reside for each of us. We claim -- or lose -- that mantle through our actions.

  Framed Afghanidan CODA 5 Mattis
 
 
Iraq and Afghanistan vets pull no punches with General Mattis
 
 
Without subjecting you poor readers to a point-by-point breakdown, my reflections confirmed what I’ve long felt; that I’ve failed pretty miserably at reintegration, i.e. becoming a civilian, and that I’ve led a transient postwar existence. I wasn’t exactly sticking to one career like glue before a return to service and the subsequent deployments anyway, so if it wasn’t serving in Afghanistan twice (and in a few other scattered commands) as a Marine, who knows what my job(s) might have been. But that jolt, that incredible jolt, of being on high alert and in incredibly heady situations for months on end, only to return to some place you idealized but instead seems to be fraught with uninteresting choices -- that has played quite a role in my lack of a healthy and sustainable reintegration.

This reflection business is harder than I even thought it would be. I won’t say every day is a struggle, the way it is for so many brothers-and-sisters-in-arms, because for me that’s not always the case. I get to escape the doldrums, sometimes through my ongoing positions through the Reserve, sometimes outside of it completely, and not everyone is so lucky. We’re all dealing with different shit, and as I was recently reminded, just about every single veteran refers to those who had it worse. Still, it is never far from my mind how easy I have it, compared to the challenges in adjusting to postwar life that must be faced by the war's casualties: the multiple amputees, the traumatic brain injuries, the PTSD sufferers who struck an IED one day, or more than once…
 
 
Framed Afghanidan CODA 6 Daybreak
 
Daybreak at Camp Mike Spann, 11/8/10
 
 
It was a welcome break from my issues, and a distinct honor, to spend two weeks recently augmenting the staff of the USMC Wounded Warrior Regiment as they staged the Marine Corps Trials in Camp Pendleton, CA. The event is an extraordinary international competition among teams from the regiment’s east and west battalions, nine allies ranging from Colombia to the Republic of Georgia, as well as Marine Corps veterans who’ve been discharged but still qualify to compete. I can’t imagine another experience that could be so simultaneously humbling and inspiring as this one was. If you’re looking for the true warrior spirit, you need look no farther than the wounded, ill, and injured service members and veterans of these games, or of the more widely known Wounded Warrior Games.
 
“I thought, ‘I need to get out of this funk. The world’s not going to stop moving, I need to get out and do something with my life,’” Sears said.
 
 
Framed Afghanidan CODA 7 MC Trials
 
 
Battling it out at the Marine Corps Trials, 3/11/14
 
  
Marine overcomes obstacles, becomes mentor to peers
 

 
“Try and make it far enough…to the next time zone.”
                                                      -- Son Volt
 
One of those lyrics that just stays in my head, after many long drives across and around the country over the past few years...
 
 
Life isn’t bad in Colorado, despite constant indecision that has me stuck spinning my wheels. If this was a video post, I’d probably do a voiceover with scenes of my energetic jackal-dog Daly playing, with the Rocky Mountains beyond. It wasn’t bad on balance in the self-imposed exile to Miami either, or back in New York City before the western spirit succeeded in calling me out here. But when it’s too much to unpack your boxes, filled as they are with smaller, more compact collections of notes, contacts, receipts, gifts sent to you overseas or ones you bought for others but never sent, reminders all -- you’re left to wonder if normalcy will ever arrive.
 
Was it worth it? I guess “Mad Dog” Mattis is right (gotta get every major nickname of his in there). It’s intensely personal. How Afghanistan does in the next few years will certainly factor into my answer, as mission success has been defined for a good while now as a stable and secure nation. But even if it’s deemed a "failed state" once again, that would be due to so many more factors than how ably U.S. and allied troops performed their given missions. For me it was worthwhile.
 
 
Framed Afghanidan CODA 8 Ride
 
Cramped ride, Herat City, 11/4/10
 
 
If you’re enough the empathetic type, or just ever the overthinker, or especially both, you understand more and more why some adrenaline junkies (be they security pros, aid workers, journalists, many others) never stop traveling to the latest conflicts. You also understand how the least fortunate lose hope entirely, how all the goddam flailing just gives way to morose resignation that some get left behind. No matter how empathetic or not you may be, you don’t want to see another one go down that awful road. And you definitely understand the pull of returning to a place where you fought for something, worked your tail off for something, sacrificed for something, and bonded with those who’d give their last breath for their country -- or a stranger’s country -- to make it.
 
Tonight I attended an event called "Failure to Communicate: Homefront Myths of Veterans and Civilians," put on by Veterans Helping Veterans Now (VHVN), a group with which I was unfamiliar. I usually avoid veterans’ organizations entirely, likely to my detriment, but I was compelled to check out this discussion. With a new approach, its stated goal was for community members and veterans to come together and break down reintegration stereotypes. Interesting concept, I thought, all the more so because of my difficulties in moving beyond Marine duty orders and becoming a part of the fabric of a community, whatever that means.
 
 
Framed Afghanidan CODA 9 Krak
 
Krak and me, 8 years later… Boulder CO, 4/2/14
 
 
A bonus feature was that the guest speaker would be Jon Krakauer, the bestselling author I’d met in Afghanistan as he began the embed for what would become Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman. Reconnecting with him was great, but what really stuck with me is what he pointed out in his humble remarks: that after volunteering for years now with VHVN, he couldn’t believe how many veterans described coming home and adjusting to "normal" life as much harder than anything they experienced over there. In the group chats that followed, I expressed a similar sentiment and seemingly for the first time, saw that fellow veterans -- of a few different eras -- fully understood and could relate. 
 
Up until that moment, I was still gripped with fear of telling a few strangers that I’m still figuring out what to do with myself after Afghanistan -- but once I did, and found no judgment there, the relief was extraordinary. It was a fitting ending to the days I’d spent contemplating what I’d write in this space in order to sign off as AfghaniDan. 
 
 
 

Major Dan's numerous Sandbox posts include Ramazan Observed , Commando, Riots, Rockets and an Election, and The Pull to Return.
 

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

Framed PASS IN REVIEW cover

Editor's note: The poems below are from the first issue of a quarterly magazine called The Pass In Review, which features stories, poems, paintings and photographs by veterans from all services. Edited by Alexander Zapata, it is based in Lindenhurst, Illinois. Its website home page explains that it is "focused on destroying stereotypes and misconceptions about the military veteran," and invites "veterans of all nationalities and conflicts to share their artistic visions with the world." It's Mission Statement and staff bios are here. The submission guidelines are here. We thank them for permission to reprint these poems by a longtime Sandbox contributor.

 

QUIET AS TOC-RATS

the talk in the TOC is just talk
and the sergeant major wants it quiet --
more church than circus tent.

we're not the brains of the operation;
we're more like a nervous system.
we keep things running, and people reacting.

we pass traffic by radio, Jabber, and MIRC-chat.
our burble and babble is hushed
by the air-conditioning and fluorescent buzz.

we tell stories on boards
and paint pictures for the commander.
we are Houston to his Mars.

through our bright projections, he squints
to pierce the fog of war. He will see his glories
only as shadows on our cave wall.

track the battle.
track the battle.
track the battle.

we no longer run to the sound of guns.
instead, we phone it in
and listen to reports.

our only fear is half silence:
the constant rush of static that signals
an end to our connections.

 

***

 

CAFE SESSRUMNIR

everyone knows about Valhalla:
the eternal time-share
for weary warriors gone
berserk with roidal rage
and Monster drinks.

not all appreciate, at first,
the monastic joys found elsewhere,
in this twilight hall of clockwork meals,
reflective belts,
and indoor plumbing.

but Mother Freyja claims
half the dead,
and there are many seats
here in her playground
behind the wire.

besides, why await Ragnarok
with kettlebells and grunts,
when you can work
your pickup lines
in this Fobbit coffee shop?

 

***

 

COMBAT PATCH

Another enlistment.
Another war.
Another deployment.
Another separation.
Another patch of sand.

 

Previous poetry posts on The Sandbox include:

Haiku, by Adrian B.
Lost In Thought, by Simon H.
Here, Bullet, by Brian Turner
Dispatches From The [War] Hospital, by Jennifer M. Pierson

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

On 17 May 1996 I arrived to my unit in Schweinfurt Germany. After pulling a slick one (story told in an earlier blog entry) I was assigned my room on the 3rd floor of building 9A, Conn Barracks. Everyone remembers their first roommate when they graduate from Basic and get to their unit, and I will never forget mine. Laid back surfer would be putting it mildly. He took me in and showed me the ropes like we had been friends for a lifetime. We were in the same platoon for a while, and both held a serious disliking of our Platoon Sergeant, SFC. Although he would get fired up and pissed about the way our Platoon Sergeant treated him, after work, he was the same, laid back surfer...

“Hey Brah” was his name for everyone. With his trimmed mustache and outgoing personality, he was always smiling and showing off his nicotine-stained front tooth (which he later had fixed). He got along with everyone, and became a friend of my wife and her friends. No matter the situation, or what club we would go to (hard core techno, house, rock, country), he fit in, but didn’t care if he did. He had an awesome Roadrunner F1 tattoo on his arm. He purchased an Ibanez Performer guitar and really wanted to learn but gave up after a few months and sold me the guitar. It’s still in the family (gifted to a cousin). Guitar playing he said “wasn’t for me Brah.” Laid back surfer...

For the first two years of my career, my laid back surfer buddy was always around. We deployed to Bosnia together, and although we ended up being in different platoons, we kept in touch. Returning from deployment, he was with me when I met my wife. We remained close friends but as my priorities turned to my wife, we drifted apart. Laid back surfer…

He loved the Army, and loved Germany. His ability to pick up on the language was much better than mine. Nothing like a surfer speaking German. A laid back surfer…

He remained in Germany when I moved to Ft. Hood for a year. Upon my return to Schweinfurt Germany a year later, he was still there but had moved to Alpha Company. By this time, I was married and had moved into an apartment with my wife. Although I would see him around Battalion, I was usually busy and unable, no, unwilling to take time out of my day to talk with him. The laid back surfer…

He deployed to Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom II. Kicked ass and took names. We were in different areas of the country, attached to different units. I think I ran into him a couple times. We returned from deployment, both of us had done what it took to stay in Germany. We didn’t keep in touch as much as we should have. The laid back surfer…

Getting ready for Operation Iraqi Freedom 06-08, he was selected to serve on the Personal Security Detachment (PSD). We were once again in the same company. I would run into him, this time on a more frequent basis, but again I wouldn’t take the time to spend a few extra minutes hanging with the laid back surfer.

I look back and kick myself in the ass for not spending more time with him. This earth needs more kind, considerate, and friendly people like him. On January 30, 2007 his life was taken from this world. The PSD was reacting to a large cache of weapons that were found in a building by another element. As his vehicle rolled down an unfamiliar route, a large IED went off, killing him instantly. As the date of his death approaches I am ashamed for not spending more time hanging out with him. He was good people. From this day forward I will make it a point to spend that extra few minutes to chat with friends and to not let them drift away like I did with him.

Rest in peace Sergeant Corey Aultz, you are missed by many. I will see you at the Fiddlers Green where I am sure you will greet me with a wide toothy grin and a laid back surfer “Hey Brah!”

 

1SG Gibson's numerous Sandbox posts include The Battle of Donkey IslandGetting Chilly, NightmareDon't Expect What You Don't Inspect, Music!, and What I Miss.

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

Framed SHERPA milblogs 1I remember my parents exchanging through the mail these little 3-inch reel-to-reel audio tapes while my dad was flying into and around Vietnam. He was a navigator on a C-130 Hercules cargo plane during the war there. As a father now myself, I often wonder what it must have been like for him, to hear my tiny little voice for the first time that way.

When I got word in 2009 that I was soon going to deploy to Afghanistan, I decided that I would start a journal — in part, because I wanted to leave behind my own time capsule, my own snapshots, a version of my own set of audio tapes. I also wanted to be able to one day explain to my children — after they got older, of course — just what was so darned important that I had to leave them and their mom for a whole year of their young lives.

I published those journal entries on the Internet, as a military blog. I was a citizen-soldier, and my Army job involved technologies such as blogs and social media. My bosses in uniform kept asking for my opinions, and I needed some first-hand knowledge. I figured that there's nothing like learning by doing. Besides, it's always better to ask forgiveness than to ask permission, right? 


Still, because Army attitudes and policies about bloggers were mixed at the time — indeed, that's why my bosses kept asking for well-grounded opinions — I started writing under a pseudonym. And, as a further experiment in organizational awareness, I didn't tell my bosses about the blog. It was only months later that some of my buddies figured it out, after they recognized a story in which they'd been involved.

What I didn't realize at the time was that I was also creating a useful persona — one that didn't let politics, bad jokes, or rank get in the way of telling good stories. "Charlie Sherpa" wasn't out to get anyone in trouble, or to laugh at anyone's expense but his own. To my surprise, I also found that many of my readers were spouses and families. "My husband doesn't tell me about his day when he gets home from training," one reader wrote. "Thanks for helping explain what he may be going through."

After years of making physical, mental, spiritual, and legal preparations for Afghanistan — and just days before the unit was to leave — I got bumped off the deployment. I decided to stay on the figurative roller coaster, however. I would continue to write a journal, for my buddies, their spouses, and their kids. I followed the Iowa unit as a citizen-solider, and later as a civilian writer, to Mississippi and California and then to Afghanistan. I'm still writing today.

That shouldn't come as a surprise. You see, parallel to my 20 years with the National Guard, I was also a newspaper and magazine editor. I'm now a freelance writer. I even have a specialty, backed up by a graduate degree in architectural studies, in writing "how to" articles about architecture, home remodeling, technology, and neighborhood planning. That's the reason my former commander used to joke about me writing for "Better Hootches and Gardens."

In my military career, I was an Army communications guy. Not public affairs — that's something else. I was all about radios and computers. On weekend drills and active-duty deployments, I was a messenger, rather than media.

Late in my time with the military, however, I fell into a couple of longer-term but temporary active-duty gigs as a "lessons-learned integrator." I was, in effect, a "how-to" writer for Uncle Sam, part of the first state-level National Guard lessons-learned integration ("L2I") team.

My teammate was an Army-trained broadcast journalist. Our mission was to "document and disseminate lessons from deploying and deployed soldiers," in order to inject them back into our state's training efforts. In a fantastic display of laissez-faire leadership, our bosses even empowered us to invite ourselves to any meeting or training event we thought would be relevant.

We called the team "L2I Iowa." The Army Center for Lessons Learned ("CALL") at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, even adopted us as their own. We were an Army of Two.

Here's what I learned as an L2I guy. Nearly everyday, I apply these definitions. It's something of a personal philosophy:

  • A "lesson" is knowledge gained from experience.
  • A "lesson-learned" is knowledge gained from experience that results in a change to organizational or individual behavior.
  • "Lessons-learned integration" is the practice of sharing with others that knowledge you've gained from experience. So they don't make the same mistakes you did. And so that we multiply our collective successes.

So, after five years of blogging, including a short stint as civilian media embedded with my old unit downrange in Eastern Afghanistan, here's some knowledge gained from experience, put down on paper and the Internet. The usual L2I caveats apply, of course: "Every story is a sample of one. Your results may vary. Take what advice you need, leave the rest."

*****

Lesson No. 1. Blogging is journalism.

A "blog" is an on-line journal. The words "journaling" and "journalism" share not only a root, but an objective: Document the facts and funnies of the day. Regardless of whether you lock it up in a diary under your bed, or publish it to the World Wide Web, or print it in a newspaper, all that matters is the standards to which you hold yourself as a writer. There are good reporters, and there are bad reporters. And you don't need to call yourself a "journalist" to be a good reporter.

Just remember Sherpatude No. 3: "Never speak with complete authority regarding that which you lack direct knowledge, observation, and/or suppressive fires."

*****

Lesson No. 2: Every deployment is a story. Every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

There's a quote attributed to John Paul Vann, who served as a both a military and civilian adviser during the Vietnam War: "We don't have twelve years' experience in Vietnam. We have one year's experience twelve times over." I think about that quote a lot, but I apply it to Afghanistan.

The Iowa National Guard deployments I helped document in 2007 were not the deployments of 2010. Those earlier deployments involved 16-soldier teams of "embedded advisers," who were spread out and partnered up with Afghan troops and police. That whole "advise and assist" theme coming out of Afghanistan today? The National Guard started doing that job in 2003.

By 2010, however, the Iowa National Guard was preparing to send 3,000 citizen-soldiers to Afghanistan as one unit. Army news releases noted it was "the largest deployment of Iowa citizen-soldiers since World War II."

Iowa's 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division (2-34th BCT) arrived in Afghanistan to relieve Vermont's 86th Infantry Brigade Combat Team. Oklahoma's 45th Infantry "Thunderbird" BCT arrived to replace the Red Bull. In each case, state and local media in those states told our respective deployment stories: Beginning, middle, and end. Then, the war moved on. Afghanistan was a moveable feast.

We haven't fought 13 years of war in Afghanistan. We've fought 13 different wars, a year at a time.

The news media hasn't covered 13 years of war in Afghanistan. We've covered the war one state at a time, one unit at a time.

"Beginning, middle, end."

"Wash, rinse, repeat."


*****

3. Everybody has their own war.

In literature, the story goes, every narrative can be reduced to one of two prompts:
  • "A hero goes on a journey."
  • "A stranger comes to town."
I think a deployment is a combination of the two: "A hero goes on a journey" ... but "a stranger comes back." No, I'm not arguing that all veterans are somehow broken, or crazy, or a potential danger to themselves or others. Military experience, however, is like any major life experience. It changes people. Sometimes, that's a good thing. Sometimes, it leaves scars. And, if you want to write about war, you have to write about those changes.

Why did we go to war in Iraq, or in Afghanistan? In the absence of a grand strategic narrative from our national leaders — or reported context from our media — our veterans are left to answer the question of what their war was all about. A hero goes on a journey, a stranger comes to town, and he or she spends the rest of his days trying to figure what it all meant.

"Everybody has their own war" has become a personal mantra. It's a good reminder to be humble, and to first do no harm — whether in your writing, or your everyday actions, or even just listening to people on social media. Everyone's experiences downrange, after all, were different. Everyone left back at home had experiences, too. We need to listen to each other, regardless of age, gender, color, branch of service, or military job.

Because, while everybody has their own war, people shouldn't have to fight theirs alone.

*****

4. Homecoming is a journey, not a destination.

My journey to Afghanistan may have had an end, but the story didn't stop there. I thought I would pack up my body armor and helmet, write my blog (and perhaps a book), and move out smartly. Instead, I've found myself repeatedly returning to veterans issues and military themes — sometimes, in ways that surprised me.

Some of my words, for example, have been published and republished in venues such as Doonesbury's "The Sandbox," and the Southeast Missouri State University Press "Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors" anthologies. A 2012 Military Experience and the Arts Symposium on the campus of Eastern Kentucky University, Richmond, was a lightning rod for meeting other veterans and military supporters engaging in creative work. I've also participated as a cast member in a theatrical production of The Telling Project, in which veterans and military family members from all eras shared their own stories of service and sacrifice.

Finally, during the annual Iowa Remembrance Run, I've been humbled to read aloud the names of those Iowans who have given their lives during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. (Four were "Red Bull" soldiers who deployed in 2010-2011.) Some day soon, I hope, we'll be able to stop adding names to that list.

Meanwhile, there are more and more literary publications focusing on military-themed writing, whether from veterans or others. The telling of our stories is just beginning.

"A lesson is knowledge, gained from experience." Share yours.

I once had a favorite journalism professor — his name was Bob Woodward, but not the one you're thinking of — mark in red two words of praise in the margins of a term paper I'd written. I try to pass along his encouragement whenever I can, particularly when I'm working with other writers who are veterans or military family members:

"Keep writing!"

Or, like the Red Bull says: "Attack! Attack! Attack!"
 
 
 
Over the past four years Charlie Sherpa has contributed over 30 posts to The Sandbox, including Not In Front Of The Kids, Scenes From A Send-Off Ceremony, Coming Home On A Bungie Cord, We Apologize For The Inconvenient, The Sherpatudes, and Boonie's Haiku Contest.
 
 

Name: Doug Traversa, Capt, USAF (retired)
Returned from: Afghanistan
Hometown: Tullahoma, TN

Framed TRAVERSA Signing Off DTAlmost six years have passed since I last posted on The Sandbox. I was fortunate to be among the first contributors to the site, and it was my blogging that helped me keep my sanity during a year-long deployment to Afghanistan. My blog, Afghanistan Without a Clue (AWAC) has been deleted, and I have retired from the Air Force, attended seminary under the GI Bill, and am now the minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Tullahoma. I’ve used stories of my days in Afghanistan in numerous sermons, and I am often asked my views on the war, which is amazingly still going on.

I am far from an objective observer. Not only did I spend a year of my life in Afghanistan, but I sent my two sons off to fight in the same war. My older son, Taylor, is in the Army, and my younger son, Ryan, is a Marine. They were both in harm’s way more often than I was, and my wife and I had the horrible agony of waiting for deployments to end and our sons’ safe return. 

So what do I think about the war? Well, as villains go, you can’t really come up with anyone more farcically evil than the Taliban. If you were to write a novel, or make a movie with them as the villains, you would be told to go back and make them more believable. After all, they blew up schools and killed teachers who dared educate little girls. They outlawed fun (no, really -- they banned kite-flying, many forms of clothing, music; pretty much any expression of joy). Their thugs walked the streets beating people for the slightest violation of their standards. They destroyed ancient statues of the Buddha. They executed people as half-time entertainment at soccer games.

Framed TRAVERSA Signing Off MM
The Afghanistan Without A Clue crew: Drew Morton, Doug Templeton, Mike Toomer, me.

If they had the technology and the military power of the Nazis, they would have set the new gold standard for universally recognized evil. No one in their right mind would want to be one or live under their rule, or so you would think. And yet they still exist, and they recruit new members, which either says something about our foreign policy, or about humanity’s willingness to submit to thugs. But if all the years we have spent in Afghanistan have not succeeded in reducing the Taliban to irrelevancy, I’d be hard-pressed to call it worthwhile. Perhaps we went about it all wrong. But that’s for the "experts” to hash out.

I’d like to say my final goodbye to The Sandbox and its readers by sharing two stories. They tell of personal marks the war has left on me, one good, one sobering. Countless numbers of people have been changed by the war. At least in my case, I came out okay on the other end. Far too many others have not. And the sense of betrayal and distrust I feel for our nation’s leadership will never leave me. 

The first story begins when my youngest son, Ryan, was deployed to Afghanistan. As a Grunt, he would be in harm’s way a great deal, or so I assumed. We were able to maintain regular contact via the internet, so we could know pretty much day-to-day that he was still alive. One day, I read that several Marines had been killed in the south, which is where Ryan was. It was also at that time we lost contact with him, not hearing a word for over two days. I was beginning to get worried, as you might imagine. On the second day, I heard a car drive into our driveway, and a door open and close. This almost never happens where we live. We just don’t get unexpected visitors. I was sure it was a military chaplain coming to tell us that Ryan was dead. The certainty was absolute. I hurried to the door and opened it, only to find a man from the utility company had pulled into our driveway to read a meter. Ryan told me later that when the Marines had been killed, all outside communications was cut off until the families had been notified. Then I remembered that this same thing happened to us whenever anyone from Camp Phoenix had been killed. I had totally forgotten about this. 

Not only did I have a brief moment of mistaken certainty about my son’s death, I once had an entire day of certainty about my own impending death. It occurred on September 10th, 2006. At this point our deployment was still in its early stages, and Kabul was relatively safe. We traveled around in unarmored Toyota SUVs, and weren’t required to wear helmets or report our travels to anyone. Each day we traveled to local Afghan bases and worked with Afghan soldiers during the day, then traveled back to Camp Phoenix for the night. If there was any indication of heightened threat, we were told to stay at Camp Phoenix for the day. 

On the afternoon of September 10th, I arrived back at my hut to find one of my hut mates quite irate. He informed me that even though there was intel suggesting attacks would occur on Sept 11th (to celebrate the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks), we would still have to go out. People were, to put it mildly, concerned. Some were writing “death letters” -- the final letter to be mailed home by a friend should you die. It was pretty grim.

At this point I became convinced that I would die the next day. It was not logical, but it was a fact, at least in my mind. I had to decide how I would spend my last hours on earth. I did not write a death letter, nor did I call my wife and say my final goodbyes. I had enough sense to avoid that. If death came, it came. I was not going to spend my last evening writing a letter.

I’ve actually written and given, on numerous occasions, a sermon about this event. I call it Yes, There are Atheists in Foxholes. I had once been a very conservative, fundamentalist Christian, but was now an atheist, and my atheistic convictions were about to be put to the test. Would I return to my former belief in God, praying for protection, or would I remain firm in my belief that life was random, and if I died, no damnation awaited?         

I remember taking a walk that evening out on the running track that surrounded our helicopter landing/sports area (in reality a large flat expanse of hardened dirt and rock). I pondered the meaning of life, and wondered what it would feel like to die. Yet through it all, I remained firm in my convictions. I returned to my hut not to pray and repent, but to finish up an anime series I was watching on DVD. Might as well, since I’d be dead the next day.

Thankfully, I was wrong. The next day, though full of stress, passed uneventfully, and when we pulled in to Camp Phoenix, we all let out a huge sigh of relief. We had made it. Those death letters would not have to be mailed. I could order some more anime. Life would go on.

Framed TRAVERSAL Signing Off sons
My sons: Taylor and Ryan.


This event, inadequately described in a few paragraphs, was hugely transformational in my life. It showed me that convictions firmly held, arrived at through careful consideration, could survive the trauma of war and the certainty of death. After returning home, I discovered the Unitarian Universalist Church in our town, and learned that they welcomed atheists and agnostics, not only as members, but as ministers. So not only are there atheists in foxholes, there are atheists in pulpits too. But that’s another story for a different forum.

So that’s it, my final post. I’m glad I could share my stories with you, and I’m delighted to have been associated in some small way with the Doonesbury comic strip, which I started reading at age 13, and have loved ever since. Many thanks to Garry Trudeau, David Stanford, and the rest of the gang at The Sandbox for getting our stories out.

 

Doug Traversa's 30-some Sandbox contributions include Mongolian Jam Session, Han's History Lesson, The Most Colorful Things in Afghanistan, and The Great Wall. He often wrote about conversations with his translator, as in these posts:  Hamid, and  Bear, Hamid, Mike and Drew Ponder the Universe.

 

Name: Maj. Douglas D. Templeton
Returned from: Afghanistan
Returning to: Afghanistan, Fall 2014
Hometown: Kansas City, MO
Email: dtempleton14@yahoo.com

Traversa and hutmatesI recently was informed that I will be going back to Afghanistan after a several-year hiatus. Since I left there in 2007, I have been TDY* many other places but have so far managed to avoid going back into the sandbox. I have many mixed emotions about this trip, as does my family.

I did not truly understand the toll my deployment took on them until well after my return. My daughter was 13 when I left and was in the typical teenage phase of independence. Showing concern for her parents was not cool! She had grown up and out of overt showings of affection. But several months after I got back we were driving home one evening in the car and she started to cry and tell me how afraid she had been and how it was still affecting her.

It was a tough moment for me as I thought we had moved on and everything was back to normal. But clearly she had not been able to process the feelings she experienced. It took some time, but I think she found peace through communication and reflection. She’s 21 now and has a six-month-old, our first granddaughter, and I have to wonder how she will do with this next deployment. We have not talked much about it yet since it is still a few months away. But this time I know we have to have the conversation before I leave. Hopefully she will understand the risk and is better able to process her feelings now that she has matured.

Framed TEMPLETON Going Back 3
Tonya and me with our granddaughter.

My wife is probably the one who hides her feelings the best. She always has a positive attitude about it; however I know she has her moments. During my last deployment, we lived in base housing right around the corner from the Chaplin. As you may or may not know, when a service member is lost, the Commander, Chaplin, and Casualty Assistance Officer come to the door to give the family the news. One afternoon she looked out the window and saw the Chaplin’s car pull up in front of the house, and immediately assumed the worst. She told me she just sat on the floor and cried. After a few moments when no one knocked on the door she hesitantly looked back out the window and saw that the car had left. It was an immediate rollercoaster of emotions she was not prepared for. He had actually only pulled over to take a phone call. After she shared her story with his wife, he is now acutely aware of his actions and the perception of others.  

So far she has taken the news in stride and since I will be less at risk with this particular tasking (an old guy more rank kind of thing) I can still see apprehension in her eyes. But she is a trooper and will support me no matter what. She is the rock that keeps our family grounded. She has multiple degrees in psychology and certainly has taught us to cope with these situations over the years.

Many who knew me from my posts back then know that there were four of us (Doug Traversa, Mike Toomer, Drew Morton, and myself) who lived together in the same B-Hut, and at one point all of us had contributed to the Sandbox and three of us were in the book of the same name. Doug Traversa has since retired, Drew Morton decided to leave the Air force and get married, and Mike Toomer is now a JAG and still on active duty.

Framed Traversa Wall RatI had always heard from those who served during war that friendships struck in a combat zone are the strongest, and I would have to agree. These men have become my brothers, and I couldn’t imagine not being friends and keeping up with where we have gone since B-Hut R-5, Camp Phoenix, Afghanistan. Mike was back in Afghanistan a couple years ago and visited our old home and found it pretty much how we left it, including the cartoons I decorated the plywood walls with.   

I have mixed emotions about this particular trip. Part of me is actually looking forward to going back and possibly seeing some of the Afghans I worked with so many years ago. Part of me craves the thrill of being in a combat zone; the hyper vigilance required to reduce the risk. Also, knowing that my focus is narrowed and that my purpose is clear and all my effort is towards a singular goal. Distractions become limited and I have so much more control over my life.

The flip side is that in some ways I also have no control. The divine plan will play out and I will just be along for the ride. I have gotten older and hopefully wiser over the years, and I no longer fear what I cannot control. What’s the point? Why waste the energy? Don’t get me wrong, I am not talking crazy here and I do have a healthy love for my own existence, I’m just saying do what you can and don’t sweat the rest; use that energy towards your end game.

As I said earlier, I am more advanced in years now and this deployment will be less risky than last time. I will not be outside the wire nearly as much. War is a young man’s game and I am not as spry as I used to be. I am happy with a limited role. So once more, off I go into the breach. I can now say I have a better grasp of what I am getting into and a better understanding of the mission and my place in it. There are many who have made several trips, and I respect them for doing so. I have been lucky to have been needed elsewhere instead. We all have our parts to play and this time I only have a supporting role -- but there is an Oscar for that too.

 

* TDY: Temporary Duty

 

Maj. Templeton's previous Sandbox contributions include Oh Canada, Family Bonds, Driving in Afghanistan, and My Two Cents.

Name: Brandon Lingle
Returned from: Iraq and Afghanistan
Redeploying to: Afghanistan
Hometown: Lompoc, CA

Spring always brings me to Mesopotamia.

The Gulf War ended a few weeks before I turned 14. I remember the fuzzy green night vision video from CNN’s 24-hour coverage, yellow ribbons, and a springtime welcome home parade. Recently returned Airmen from nearby Vandenberg Air Force Base sported their desert camouflage, floppy hats, and dark sunglasses as they smiled and waved their way down “H” Street.

Twelve years later, Operation Iraqi Freedom kicked off just two days before my 26th birthday, and I wanted to be part of it. I was a lieutenant, a husband, and a new father. I didn’t know what I wanted. When I asked my boss, a major, about the chances for an Iraq war deployment he said, “You understand people are dying there?” Then, the classic “Be careful what you ask for.”    

And, three years ago right now, I was preparing for a deployment to Baghdad as Operation New Dawn wound down. By 2011, U.S. forces in Iraq were involved in a murky mix of diplomacy, advising, and weapons sales. And, as Americans worked to sell Iraq the F-16, people were still dying.

One story I heard, about an attack that occurred about 10 miles from where I was stationed, has stuck with me. Here it is: 

Just before dawn on June 6, 2011, a Shiite militiaman drove a faded yellow bongo truck loaded with lob bombs outside a small U.S. outpost in Sadr City on Baghdad’s east side. Someone paid the man $200 U.S. to light the fuse and walk away. They’d kill him or worse if he refused.

The man pulled the tarp and connected the wires as they instructed. Seconds later, the jerry-rigged rockets, each carrying 50 pounds of extra explosives, flew over the base walls. The trajectory of black smoke recalled some sort of catapult battle at castle walls. The contracted Ugandan security guards in the towers didn’t notice the suspect vehicle until it was too late, and the explosions came before the alarm. They fired their rusted and duct-taped AK-47s at the man as he turned the corner.

About this time, the sergeants in the base command post focused the surveillance cameras hanging from the soft underbelly of the whale-like blimp looming over the base. The sergeants shifted the cameras’ gaze from the launch site to the first impact site. About this time, battle staffs across the country started eyeballing the destruction. One major on FOB Union III in Baghdad’s International Zone, said “What the fuck!” and “We’re getting hammered,” between sips of coffee. A general in Saddam’s old hunting palace on Victory Base Complex stared speechless.

The captain was reading Hemingway when the lob bombs roared. His trailer shook from the shockwaves. The photo of his wife and kids fell from his small wooden table. He noted the green digital numbers on his digital clock, 5:14. He ran from his room and pounded on his soldiers’ doors with a hammer-fist punch. “Get the fuck to the bunker!” he yelled over and over again.

The disembodied voice of the alarm yelled, “Incoming! Incoming! Incoming! Take cover! Incoming! Incoming! Incoming!” between bursts of a siren. Explosions and scraps of screams rode the air.

The soldiers had just woken up. They ran from their rooms and latrines, carrying toothbrushes and razors, wearing flip flops and shorts. The captain noticed his soldiers’ wide eyes as they scrambled by. Some were shirtless, some wore half faces of shaving cream, some dropped their towels, and none spoke. One boy sprinted wearing nothing other than the white shampoo on his head. The white shampoo stood out against the backdrop of black smoke. The captain felt proud he hadn’t pissed his pants or cowered on the ground. He breathed the oily smoke and thought of his grandpa’s Caterpillar. The haze stung his eyes and tears streaked his face. One of his sergeants tripped at his feet, and he grabbed the man’s strong arm with the skull tattoo, hoisted him up and heaved him in the direction of the bunker.

The captain knew that the concrete bunker — a six-by-six-foot “C” turned on its side and lined with sandbags — offered the only way out of this mess. He remembered when the engineers added the additional bunkers a few months ago. The engineers in yellow hard hats used a crane to place the concrete lifesavers. He saw his sergeant perched in the two-foot-wide bunker entry waving others in.                 

 A year-long deployment and this bullshit takes us out with just two weeks to go?

The captain saw his last man disappear into the bunker, and he finally felt he could take a breath. He thought of his two-year-old daughter running across the grass at Fort Riley, Kansas. He saw the giant elm is his backyard lean in the breeze. He watched his wife plant wildflowers across the yard. He breathed the summer weeds, the dirt clumped from last-night’s thunderstorm, and a whisper of his wife’s shampoo. The captain ran faster toward his waving sergeant. The dusted gravel under his feet felt like grass. As he ran, he caught flashes of an overweight civilian woman in a scarf running toward the bunker; a Nepalese janitor in a blue-jump suit squatting with his head down and hands on his ears; a soldier running away from the bunker; and that damn white blimp hanging over the camp.

Just then, a rocket slammed the bunker entry gap. The captain was just twenty feet away when his world closed in. The waving sergeant and the concrete bunker with all his men faded as the concussion knocked him out.

He awoke seconds later and looked at himself, felt his arms, legs, and face — scanned for blood. The captain realized he was fine save for a small jagged tear on his uniform near his right shoulder. Then he looked to where the bunker was. So too, did the blimp cameras, and all the eyes of battle staffs throughout Iraq.

The captain couldn’t find his men, they were gone. He walked past the crater and continued walking straight. Twenty minutes after the attack, a first sergeant found the captain walking alone on the far side of the camp.

Five of the soldiers died instantly. Volunteers placed the bodies in bags and loaded them on the Blackhawk for the 10-minute ride to the Baghdad airport. The next day, crews laid the bodies in aluminum transfer cases. They checked the paperwork, loaded the transfer cases on the floor of a C-17, and covered them with American flags. An American flag hung limp from the plane’s ceiling. The pilot touched each case. His grey and green flight gloves contrasted with the red and white stripes. The pilot flew the giant grey plane to Dover AFB, Delaware. After a few days at the port mortuary, the cases made their way to airplanes bound for the soldiers’ hometowns. 

One soldier barely survived the attack. Medics rushed him to the waiting helicopter. Dozens of nurses, doctors, and surgeons treated him at the hospital at the Baghdad. Soon, he was stable enough for the flight to Germany. At Landstuhl, dozens more nurses, doctors, and surgeons worked to save the young man, but it wasn’t to be. He struggled for two more weeks before he died in the hospital halfway between home and war.

Name: Garrett Phillip Anderson
Returned from: Iraq and Afghanistan
Hometown: Portland, OR
Email: GarrettAnderson0311@gmail.com
Milblog: Iraq/Afghanistan and More

The memories manifest, gently blowing in my mind like curtains in a draft. I may find myself aboard the U.S.S. Harpers Ferry, floating back in time. Or I may find myself aboard the parking ticket mobile of my day job getting paid to write. In August 2004 the Marines of Alpha Company 1/3 (one­three) had been acclimating to being owned by the waves of two typhoons on our route out of Okinawa. I turned nineteen and it had been a year since I had traded home for boot­camp. The smaller troop transport would rock and whine; occasionally it felt like the naval vessel had struck a rock. Some Marines would get sick, or fall out of bed, dangerous if they were in an upper rack. We were supposed to be on a tour of the South Pacific, heading for Singapore and the Philippines.
 
 
Framed GARRETT Sbox 6
Harpers Ferry post-Iraq, 2005.

 

Sometimes looking back on it­­ I daydream that perhaps the storm spit us out in an alternate reality, because instead of some prostitute inhabited jungle sucking humidity trap, the ships offloaded us in Kuwait and we ended up in Fallujah, Iraq just in time for an urban battle.

 

Framed GARRETT Sbox 3

I was not aware of or concerned with our final destination when I began reading the collection of books my father had mailed. I read Dialogues of Plato, a translated version of the great ancient Greek philosopher Plato’s account of his teacher Socrates. Socrates was a Hoplite veteran of the Peloponnesian War fought between the Athenians and the Spartans. As I recall the story from almost a decade ago, Socrates made a name for himself because he would question everything. I now hypothesize this was a latent manifestation of combat trauma. Once you have spent enough time in a combat zone, it has been my experience that for a special belligerent subculture of the few, an old iron door to the room of many questions swings open.

I currently find myself twenty­eight­years­old in an Introduction to Western Civilization class at Portland Community College, learning about Socrates again and recalling what was deep shit for a ship ride in the ancient past of 2004. Fifty-one Marines including the attachments of 1/3 were killed from October 2004 to late January 2005. Many more were wounded. All brothers forever, some personal friends. The memory draft kicks up again and I am frozen in time. I am taking cover behind the Navy doc who bravely stands guard while Marines of third platoon (3rd herd) rest.
 
 
Framed GARRETT Sbox 7
Fallujah, Iraq, December 2004. (Photo by Matt Ranbarger)

 

In his famous book Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut wrote about becoming unstuck in time. Vonnegut had been an Army grunt who was taken prisoner and survived the firebombing of Dresden, Germany during the Second World War. I now hypothesize that becoming unstuck in time was a latent expression of combat trauma. That’s how it has felt to me waking up in different years preceding the war. Times before I ate the apple were something deeper than pleasure reading.

I was present when we were surfing the waves of aggression, or I am present when I study for this week’s exam, both occurring to me at the same time. Intensity pumping through the crevices of my mind like pressing the trigger down and holding; going cyclic with the memory machine­gun.
 
 
Framed GARRETT Sbox 4
Korengal, Afghanistan, May 2006. (Photo by Chavo)

 

When The Sandbox started running posts from my blog I was crawling out of the thick mist of crisis. After two hospitalizations for combat-related mental health issues I was disillusioned with my care, while at the same time putting heavy emphasis on a new attempt at assimilating. I began writing about war and transition because I had been fond of writing long before my Iraq experience and found it to be an effective outlet for exploring deep feelings of pain incurred during my active duty service. Fellow contributor Matt Gallagher came across my blog in early 2011 and put me in contact with the duty officer  of The Sandbox.

As I crawled out of the mist this terrific collaborative helped me feel accepted, which greatly enhanced my confidence after being too low for too long. Thank you Roy and thank you Bruce. Things started happening after that, I began networking with writing veterans and a community of supportive civilians. A team and I hit the road and filmed The November War, a documentary that captures the perspective of members of my platoon who fought alongside each other on November 22, 2004. The day I consider to be my source point of trauma.

Framed GARRETT Sbox 5

 

Framed GARRETT Sbox 8

The California-based crew on the road in North Carolina during the Cohen family’s interview.

Here is the trailer:

 

 

I married Katharine, the most important part of my coming-home experience, in October of 2012. We met shortly after my discharge from the Marines in October 2007.

 

Framed GARRETT Sbox 2

 

I recommend a significant other to those who are in crisis, if possible. The right one will understand.

I empathize with being in crisis without opportunity. I don’t mean to bring these two separate worlds too close, but if you can’t find a significant other find a pet. Good books have been written about the subject; pets will help a suffering person feel needed, which is an important step toward normal -- daily steps, in my experience.

 

Framed GARRETT Sbox 1
Me and Lucy hanging in our apartment, 2011.

 

I found myself deeply affected by combat when I returned home at 22. I could not wrap my head around losing friends and this country’s disconnection with the veterans sent to do the dirty work they are not willing to carry out themselves. The care that seemed confused, underfunded, and had me convinced those who had developed mental health issues in combat were being treated as lab rats for meds because the shrinks had no cure for what ailed us. The most helpful knowledge I have come across or gathered during my journey through these years of transition, writing with The Sandbox and filming my battle buddies who each walked their own path back from their combat experience, was best summarized in my opinion by our old corpsman, “Doc” Brian Lynch.

When Doc Lynch spoke his wisdom a lightning bolt went off in my head, and though cliched it has brought me peace: "Don’t let the bastards win." I mean that monstrous bureaucracy that is happy to shred your records because they are too lazy to truly advocate for our care, which is just a government paycheck to them.

If you can muster the strength, if you can still fight through pain, understand that as the war closes out so will public interest in our dispositions. Due to our minority status in American society we will not have enough veterans voting to represent our needs. This leaves us to the mercy of those in our society who will look away from what they don’t want to see. Every one of us is vital and those without purpose can find it in advocacy. A basic internet search will plug you in with various veterans organizations that provide a multitude of services and get you tapped in with a tribe that speaks to you.

We need to rise to the top. Use your GI Bill and represent yourself as an ambassador to those civilians who don’t get it. Nearly alone we bore the burden for well over a decade of war, and if the sacrifice of our fallen is to mean anything, make it mean forward momentum. If you fall short, remember falling short in service and the remedial action; get back up. We will need veteran politicians and media, business majors, foremen and scientists, writers like the grunts mentioned above, nurses and those with grave disabilities to articulate their needs.

Don’t count the years that have passed, please look forward for all of us. We have been held to the highest standard this country holds a citizen to, and those of us that are able need to maintain that standard and be an example. We also need to be studied carefully for the first time in the history of American warfare. if we were at least accounted for in status after discharge, research in the fields concerning veterans would be light years ahead of where we find ourselves today. They won’t count us after discharge because it would raise the “official” suicide statistics to a staggering number that can’t be stuffed into a paper­shredder.

I remain haunted but optimistic. My therapy is creativity, for better or worse. Bless you, readers, for being an active participant during that transitional period of my life. My deepest gratitude to David Stanford and Garry Trudeau (The Sandbox) for providing this forum of first hand expression and helping us archive our history.

 

Note: Garrett Phillip Anderson's numerous Sandbox posts include Some Things I Learned In Combat, Church Bells Sing Suicide, Semper Fi Mom, Mexican Marine, and Happy Marines Come From Connecticut.

Name: Ross Magee
Returned from: Afghanistan

Note: Ross Magee wrote often for The Sandbox during his deployment. His numerous posts include THE BIRDS, PYRAMID OF WOOL, SEVENTY THOUSAND A VERY KABUL CHRISTMAS, THE COMING OF A STORM, and THE DONKEY.

 

Framed MAGEE FallIt was fall when I came home; a year to the day from when I left. I stepped off the rotator and into the arms of my wife and it was as if I was suddenly awake, like I’d been asleep for a year. In my first weeks at home I staggered about, relearning, remembering and trying to find my place in my country, in my home, in my marriage, in my own head. I spent a lot of time thinking about last fall and trying very hard stitch together memories and create a fabric of what it meant to be at home. I kept coming up with an incoherent patchwork quilt that held pieces of me, pieces of Afghanistan and pieces of life at home. They fit together but the shape of the thing was unrecognizable to me.

I ran miles along the trail, past the secret persimmon trees where my wife and I collected fruit in the weeks before I left home. It seemed like a distant memory, like a dream from another life, another era. In a way I suppose it was. It was after all, Before Afghanistan. 

Everything in my life now falls into three categories which are unevenly weighted: the thirty-six years of my life Before Afghanistan, the one year of my life In Afghanistan and this new space where I now find myself. The present. The handful of weeks of my life that consist of the entirety of my life After Afghanistan. 

We gathered persimmons and made scones and a cheesecake. The warm deep yellow flesh of the fruit spoke to me of home, of fall, of this life. We drove west to the orchard where we picked apples last year. The familiar road settled me, reminded me that there are consistencies in this life, that things can be familiar if never the same again. The sun was warm and the day was bright. I helped the Old Dog out of the truck and he stood unsteady in the tall grass. He tottered around for a few minutes before collapsing and resting in the sun. We offered him water and he lapped enthusiastically at the bowl, his wide pink tongue sloshing the water out across my hands. Then I picked him up and put him back in the truck. I cracked the windows so that he might enjoy a bit of a breeze and we set off to collect our apples without him. Last year he wandered the orchard with us, exploring, sniffing, rolling in the discarded fermenting fruit and helping as only a dog can. This year it was all he could do to circle the truck. Much has changed.

Fall seemed to last forever. Perhaps that is because I was only offered a taste of it last year. The temperatures cooled and the days shortened. The leaves along the parkway began to fade from the lush green of summer into a bouquet of ocher, henna and gold. The American flag on our front porch swayed gently in the breeze, illuminated by the rarefied air and unobstructed sun. The sugar maple in the front yard turned into a brilliant yellow sun almost overnight. The crepe myrtle bronzed and then surrendered its leaves in the span of a few days. The Japanese maple clutched its foliage, slowly turning from burgundy to burning crimson, shining like the flame of fall’s truth in the morning sun, a torch of light marking the eternal passage of time.

The Old Dog rustled in the dark and I helped him to his feet and then opened the front door. He stood at the threshold and breathed deeply, peering into the dark before turning and staggering into the living room. I left the front door open and walked down the driveway to pick up the paper. When I turned back toward the house I heard the Old Dog skittering down the sidewalk towards me. He kept moving when he hit the grass, not strong enough to stop and stand still knowing that his only chance at remaining upright was to keep moving forward. I marveled at his determination, and then my heart sank when I thought about how painful his life had become. He slowed and walked an unsteady zig-zag across the front yard, gradually working his way down the hill as he relieved himself. He fell in a heap beneath the sugar maple, colorless in the dark, and looked back at me. I walked across the yard and sat next to him, pulling him between my legs and placing my hands on his body. We did not speak.

We sat together in the pre-dawn darkness and listened to the wind blow through the trees. The large leaves came off the oaks some sixty feet above the ground and tumbled through the grey sky in loops and circles backlit by the streetlamp like bats chasing moths on a summer night. Leaves swirled across the yard, spinning themselves into a tiny tornado that coursed across the street and back again before washing over us in a blast of leaves and grass clippings. The Old Dog lifted his nose towards the fading stars and breathed in deeply, distilling the coming day from the night wind. Entire herds of leaves migrated in waves down the street, pushed forth by the wind and a communal drive to move. The herd gathered more and more leaves into their company as they went plunging along with their rough edges and stems scratching at the pavement like the hooves of a thousand tiny animals on a migration as venerable as time itself. 

The Old Dog rested his chin on my leg and looked into the distance facing the dawn. The sky seemed to lighten fractionally and I felt the warmth of his body against my legs. I shivered and tucked my hands under him to warm them beneath his chest. He looked up at me and I could feel his old heart beating weakly.

My wife came looking for us and asked if we were okay.

“I think so. We’re just waiting,” I said, unsure of just what that meant.

She returned with a fleece and a cup of coffee for me and a blanket for the dog. He stirred like he wanted to get up but did not have the strength, and we resolved to rest a while longer. I wrapped him in a blanket and cradled my coffee in my cold hands. Our breath smoked, rising and disappearing into the sky. We watched silently as a lady unaware of our presence walked her dog down the street. A school bus rumbled past. The sky turned silver and I could begin to discern the color of leaves as the world moved from the starlit black of night to the brilliance of another autumn day.

Framed MAGEE Old DogI found myself wondering how many autumns the Old Dog had seen. Eight? Ten maybe? I hoped it was at least that many but knew that it was certainly not more than that. He surveyed the yard then looked up at me before resting his chin on my leg again. We waited for dawn. This would be his last fall and I wondered if he knew that. It was my first one home from Afghanistan, my first with him and it would be our last together.

A few weeks later I loaded the Old Dog in the truck and my wife and I drove down to the river’s edge. I carried him down to the bank where we all sat in the warm afternoon sun looking out across the water. It was impossible to not think of crossing the river. I wondered if the sun was warmer or the breeze sweeter on the other side, what the woods might smell like, if they might be free of pain. An hour later I carried the Old Dog back to the truck.

He died that afternoon. We sat with our hands on his chest and spoke his name to him as he took his last breath and made the crossing alone.

Name: Jeff Clement
Returned from: Afghanistan
Hometown: Cary, NC
Milblog: The Lieutenant Don't Know
Email: thelieutenantdontknow@gmail.com

Framed Clement with truck
With my armored MATV (a type of MRAP) May 2010.

After deploying, one of the reasons that it took so long to relax, to not be on edge, was that nothing in Afghanistan ever went according to plan. We always had to be ready for anything.

May 23, 2010 was supposed to be a routine day.

“Alright, guys, another recovery mission.Third Battalion, 7th Marines is up north of us. They hit a couple IEDs last night, but they’ve pulled the two trucks and one mineroller back to a relatively secure area.” A mineroller was a 9,000-pound sled with wheels that would be attached to the front of our trucks to limit the damage from IEDs — the IED would go off under the mineroller instead of under the truck with Marines inside.

I was five months into my deployment as a truck platoon commander with Combat Logistics Battalion 6, a Marine Logistics unit. We had the cranes, trailers, and wreckers needed to recover vehicles that were damaged by IED strikes.

I continued briefing. “The idea is that we’re going to move fast. This isn’t a resupply, so we’ve only got 15 trucks. We know that the insurgents will try to target us with IEDs on the Tabletop, this ridge in the middle of the route. So we are going to try to run up to the objective, load up and get back. Mission time, six to eight hours.”

I looked up. Calm, dirty faces stared back at me. Dirty was good. It meant they had spent time on maintenance. Calm was good too. They knew what they were doing.

My routine mission was disrupted right from the start. At the last minute, we had to bring some supplies up to 3/7, so we left about six hours late. 

Still, the trip up to the recovery site was smooth, and I thought we were back in a groove. I found the officer in charge and asked him where the equipment for us to recover was. “Alright, so we got three MRAPs,” he said, “and one mineroller.”

“Three?” I cut him off. “The request was only for two.” Another change.

“Can you show me where this mineroller is?” I asked

“Yeah,” he pointed to the map “it’s a ways down here by itself.”

“You left it?” I was incredulous.

“Well yeah. It’s pretty heavy,” he laughed. “I don’t think anybody can take it.”

“I’m not worried somebody could take it. I’m worried that somebody could booby-trap it!”

“Hadn’t thought of that. Well, can you still get it?”

“Don’t have a choice, do I?” The risk went up.

My driver drove in a circle around it with our mineroller. It would be much better for our mineroller to be destroyed by a booby-trap than to damage one of our wreckers, which were in very short supply.

“Bump that mineroller with ours. Don’t crash into it, but hit it hard enough that any hair triggers or pressure-release switches will trip.” No explosion, but my adrenaline was still pumping.

Once we got everything loaded up on the wreckers, we headed back down south.

WHUMP.

“IED!” my gunner called down. Our first vehicle had struck an IED. The Marines in the truck had concussions, but could go on.

The only mineroller left was on my truck. My platoon sergeant demanded that we switch places, that he ride in my truck since it would be in the front of the convoy.

“Sir, you shouldn’t be up front. You know that.” Our tactics didn’t allow platoon commanders in the first vehicle.

“You’re right, but I can’t switch trucks with you. It might be right by the textbook but how could I ask you to ride up front if I’m not willing to do it myself?”

A few hundred meters after we started moving, the ground under us erupted.

WHUMP.

In slow motion, the air filled with brown moondust and the front of the truck was lifted off the ground.

“Lepinski!” I grabbed at the gunner’s leg. He had been in the turret, exposed to shrapnel.

“I’m okay!”


Umoren, my driver, was visibly in pain, but said he could continue. After the shock and adrenaline of the IED strike wore off, everyone in the truck had a splitting headache. A few of us had some torn muscles and damaged vertebrae (we later found), but nothing that seemed to warrant a MEDEVAC.  

We would have to push through. The convoy continued south.

Framed Clement rollover
An LVSR, a heavily armored cargo truck, upside down on top of the MATV it was carrying.

The radio crackled, “I think the truck in front of me just rolled over!”

I could see a pair of headlights off to the side of the path. They appeared to be about 15° from level. Well, that wasn’t too bad...We could just tip the truck back down and it’d be fine.

As we got closer, I realized that the headlights were 15° from level because the truck had slid down a ridge, rolling 195°. The Marines inside the truck were okay. But because it weighed over 100,000 pounds, we had nothing that could recover it.

I sent a request to higher asking for an M88 Tank Retriever.  We would have to wait until it arrived before we could flip the truck upright.  The 6-hour mission had stretched over 36. We couldn’t relax yet.

We set up security for the night...

 

Jeff Clement served two tours in Afghanistan as a US Marine Corps logistics officer. His first book, The Lieutenant Don’t Know, will be released in April.  Find him on the web (http://clementjd.com) or on Twitter (@jeffclement).

Name: Mikey Piro
Returned from: Iraq
Milblog: ptsdsurvivordaily
Email: mpiro45@gmail.com

Framed Piro SURVIVOR
Disclaimer up front, I am attempting to watch the Lone Survivor movie after consulting with many family, friends and confidants. I am not acting on a psychologist's advice, or warning, but instead dusting off my skills developed from Prolonged Exposure Therapy and Cognitive Processing Therapy. The idea is to engage in comprehensive preparation for watching movies with stressors and triggers. I expect the result that I am better prepared to watch Lone Survivor, and subsequently better prepared to handle life. I do not recommend this approach without the guidance of a therapist the first time. Let me say that again, go get a therapist for PET or CPT. (Here are some great therapy services). Do not just read a book or blog and do it yourself.

I am attempting this because I feel that, like many skills in life, the ones PET and CPT taught are perishable. I completed both courses and have used their techniques and coaching effectively for some time. Still, tools need maintenance. I do not doubt this will be an unpleasant experience. My first pass through Prolonged Exposure Therapy brought me up close to Restrepo. It was a very emotional experience. Both Prolonged Expose and Cognitive Processing therapy force you to stare down and confront the worst days. And while each day is getting better, part of gaining control over this is not avoiding everything with trigger potential like it is the plague.

A Quick Review of Prolonged Exposure Therapy

The flavor of Prolonged Exposure Therapy I undertook used the Subjective Unit of Distress (SUDs) level to measure progress. From the start, even though it was a subjective feeling, it was quantified and tracked. Over the course of many weeks, after I established my SUDs scale, my therapist and I would systematically tackle and monitor my distress level for my “homework."

We started at the bottom of the scale and worked our way up. The objective of each session was to address and unwind the spike in feelings and raw emotional memories that uncomfortable situations brought out. After enough exposure with positive outcomes, we were able to lower the barrier to gain a level of comfort.

For example, for a long while I would avoid at all costs a crowded place, especially the subway. Being around that many people made me extremely uncomfortable and put me on high alert. There were more than a few days in Iraq where a crowded market or labor line brought a bomb and chaos. We were trained to be on the lookout for anyone suspicious, and to disperse crowds. Well, Manhattan doesn’t care about my view of crowds or suspicious people. If I was forced to ride, I would come home exhausted for days.

So, as part of my homework, I had to ride the subway. For an hour. During the peak. No, this was not an intentional sadistic exercise. I went in with a plan and had a release valve to pull. The point of the exercise was to gain comfort with the SUDs level. The emotions behind my extreme discomfort were just that: emotions. Logic tells me that there is no reason I should not be able to ride a subway. I will admit, it was almost unbearable. But, after a few trips, I realized I could gain my composure more quickly and that the danger was in my mind.

My SUDs for the subway halved by the end of my therapy sessions. That was only part of the homework, but overall, as a follow on to CPT, Prolonged Exposure was the most challenging and rewarding therapy. The initial gains were exponential, though those skills are now a little creaky. It is time to stare them down. As one of my favorite Crossfit phrases puts it: “Get comfortable being uncomfortable.”

Bring On The War Movies

OK, here is the hits list of what I watched and am watching:

 

ActofValorblack_hawk_downSaving_Private_Ryan_posterZeroDarkThirty

Restrepo_poster

 

Act of Valor :  A Navy SEAL recruiting video. Fiction and SEAL chest-thumping, so a good safe start.

Blackhawk Down :  Here is the first of the true to-life stories. The sucky thing about all these movies is that we know going in how they end. I still have never watched Titanic due to one excuse (aside from Leonardo DiCaprio) -- that I know how it ends.

Zero Dark Thirty : There are intense scenes and it is, again, based on actual events. I think that makes these types harder for me to watch. The end definitely reminds me of a few raids where we walked or flew into the objective, though I am nowhere near the skill level of a Navy SEAL.

Saving Private Ryan : This movie always gets me. The beginning and end are gut-wrenching.

Restrepo :  This is the hardest for me to watch.  As part of my original homework, it took me days to watch this movie. The sounds, sights and action are raw. If Lone Survivor plays this way, I am in for a rough go.

 

Wish me luck, and thanks for following along.

 

Name: David Stanford, Duty Officer

Sandbox_CoverAt some point in the not-so-distant future we are going to stop posting new content on The Sandbox -- concluding with a final permanent intro that will explain what the site archive is, for those who may find their way to it in due course.

But before we get to that moment I would like to extend an (urgent) invitation to everyone who has posted on the site over the past seven years: If there is one more story you’ve been meaning to tell, one final reflection on your deployment, or your reintegration, or anything else -- please send it to me soon at themanagement@doonesbury.com .

I’m going to write directly to all Sandbox contributors to spread the word, but over the years many of the email addresses have gone bad, so I am posting this public invitation.

And if you are a deployed soldier, returned vet, caregiver, or family member, and you have been meaning to write something for The Sandbox; well, it’s not too late. But it will be soon...

 

Note: Everyone who has contributed a post to The Sandbox site should have received a Sandbox service patch and a copy of the anthology. But I suspect my record-keeping system is flawed; if you did not, please let me know!

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

Framed Sherpa COOKIESA couple of years ago, while preparing for deployment to Afghanistan with the Iowa National Guard's 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division, I wrote a few blog posts about tactical fortune cookies.

During breaks in pre-deployment training, the story went, my buddies and I would often lunch on Chinese food. Afterwards, we'd read aloud the predictions found in our complimentary fortune cookies, adding the words "on the deployment" to each. Hilarity ensued.

As I wrote at the time: "Yes, it's awfully similar to the sophomoric practice of adding the words '... in bed.' We have no problem with that."

Good jokes and old habits die hard. To this day, I continue to collect those little slips of fortune-filled paper.

As the pendulum begins to swing back from the regular overseas deployments of an Army at war, to the cut-budget, cut-throat, spit-and-polish chickensh--tery of an Army stuck at home, I thought I'd revisit our pre-deployment practice of quoting cookies. This time, however, with the words "in garrison."

I am pleased to report that the cookies continue to deliver worthwhile results.

Some messages, for example, sound like the comments snarky raters might write on job performance evaluations. Perhaps these should be filed under "damning with ambiguous praise"?

  • "You always find yourself at the center of attention ... in garrison."
  • "You have an active mind and a keen imagination ... in garrison."
  • "You are a bundle of energy, always on the go ... in garrison."
  • "You have the ability to do several things at one time and do them all well ... in garrison."
  • "You are sociable and entertaining ... in garrison."

Some sound more like philosophical (or maybe political?) advice:

  • "He who walks with wolves, learns to howl ... in garrison."
  • "What you plant now, you will harvest later ... in garrison."
  • "A modest man never talks to himself ... in garrison."
  • "Some folk want their luck buttered ... in garrison."
  • "At 20 years of age, the will reigns; at 30, the wit; at 40, the judgments ... in garrison."

Finally, there are those that sound full of doom and foreboding. Take these as warnings:

  • "You will attend a party where where strange customs prevail ... in garrison."
  • "That one is not sleeping, does not mean they are awake ... in garrison."
  • "People learn little from success, but much from failure ... in garrison."
  • "No man is free who is not master of himself ... in garrison."
  • "Heroism is endurance for one moment more ... in garrison."

Happy New Year! May you find contentment in your cantonment in the months to come!

As always, thanks for your readership of the Red Bull Rising blog! Best wishes for a happy, peaceful, and prosperous 2014!

Name: RN Clara Hart
Stationed in: a civilian military hospital in the U.S.
Email: clarahart2@yahoo.com

Two years ago I read a Washington Post story that really hit home. It spoke of two Marines, General John Kelly and his son, LT Robert Kelly. There was a short sentence that mentioned a nurse, and reading it I realized that nurse was me, and I saw how a small, seemingly insignificant act had turned into something with deeper meaning than I could have imagined.

The phones are always ringing in the ICU, and multiple times a day I answer. On one particular day I heard "Hello Ma'am. This is LT Kelly, calling from Afghanistan. I'm trying to reach LT ---, would it be possible to talk with him?"

There are no phones in the patient rooms in the ICU, cordless or otherwise. And there is an issue of keeping unstable/semi-stable patients attached to all the monitoring devices. However I knew this Marine wanted to talk with one of his guys and that he was calling from a combat zone, and I was going to do whatever it took to get a phone to this particular patient. 

After telling LT Kelly it might take me a few minutes and asking him to please not hang up, I proceeded to pull the phone off the nursing station counter as far as it would reach. I dragged a trash can into the middle of the hallway and placed the phone on top of the closed lid. I went into the patient's room and told him his buddy wanted to talk with him. Since the phone wouldn't reach all the way I had to do some rearranging. I released the brakes and rolled his bed as far as the monitoring wires would allow, turning it around so the patient's head was in the doorway, closer to the hallway and thus the phone. 

Running back to the phone I picked it up off hold and said, "Are you still here?" 

"Yes Ma'am."

"Ok, I'm bringing the phone to him right now, don't hang up."

"I won't."

Stretching the receiver cord as far as I could I held the phone out to the patient. "Hello?...Hello?" he asked repeatedly, phone up to his ear. Then he looked at me, handed the phone back and said, "There's no one there." The call had been disconnected.

Argh! All that maneuvering for naught. Back went the bed into proper placement, the phone came off the trash can and back to the nursing station. Just as I was sitting down the phone rang. Picking it up I once again heard, "Hello Ma'am, this is LT Kelly calling from Afghanistan, I was trying to reach..."

"It's me, the nurse who you talked to before," I said

"Sorry Ma'am, the phone cut out here and I lost the call."

"No problem, hang on, I'll get LT ---." Running back to the patient's room I told him LT Kelly was on the phone again and once again proceeded with the maneuvering necessary to get these two Marines connected. As he answered his call and identified himself I watched the smallest glimmer of a smile appear on this critically injured Marine's face. Walking by in the hallway my coworkers took it all in -- the phone, the backwards bed in the doorway, and a Marine talking with his battle buddy thousands of miles away.

Shortly the call was over and the patient handed me the phone.

"Hello?" I said.

"Thanks for letting me talk with him, I really appreciate it. It means a lot to know he's doing okay," said LT Kelly.

"No problem, we're taking good care of him."

"I know you are. Can you please tell him my dad and sister will be up to visit him? They're gonna be checking on him."

"No worries, I'll pass it on. You and your Marines be careful there and stay safe."

"We will. Thanks a lot Ma'am."

Nine days later LT Robert Kelly was killed in action. It was the last time his friend would ever speak with him.

General Kelly, we've never met and I only briefly spoke with your son. However, he left a lasting impression on me as a Marine who cared deeply for his men. I am sorry for your loss. I will not forget him and all the others like him who have made the ultimate sacrifice.

Name: Derek Eland
Returned from: Afghanistan
Hometown: Carlisle, UK
Website: In Our Own Words
Email: derekeland@hotmail.co.uk

I have mounted an Indegogo campaign in order to raise funds to publish In Our Own Words, a book of extraordinary handwritten stories written by people on the front lines in Afghanistan. The book tells their stories, it is their self portrait.

I'm an artist, based in the UK, and in 2011 I volunteered to go to Afghanistan as a war artist. I spent a month on the front lines and wanted to find a way to get inside the heads of the people I met: soldiers and civilians, Afghan and Western.

I asked everyone I met to write their unique story or a poem on a postcard, and collated these stories in a series of Diary Rooms. Here is one of the postcards:

In my time in Afghanistan I was shot at and was with a patrol that was targeted by an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) as I went to remote areas to collect the stories. Hundreds of people wrote their stories to form a unique self portrait of what it's like to be human in a war zone: men and women, soldiers and civilians. The people who wrote their stories revealed extraordinary things about themselves, their lives, their losses and their hopes and fears.

What was the end result? The Diary Room walls filled up, hundreds of stories were written, mostly on the coloured cards, but sometimes on scraps of paper, on cardboard ripped from ration boxes or scribbled on blank medical forms. One soldier took an empty packet of semolina and wrote ‘Yummy’ on the side. A female medic wrote what it was like to treat her first casualties and save their lives; a chef described cooking and distributing Christmas dinner to hundreds of soldiers scattered about the front line; a bomb disposal expert described what it felt like to go to Afghanistan as a battle casualty replacement for someone who had been injured. Some of those who wrote stories went on to be killed or seriously wounded.

Overall, the response I got was staggering and included excerpts such as:

"Your mind clicks into a gear that you never knew you had, and you bark orders like your life depends on it … and GUESS WHAT: IT DOES!"

"My abiding memory of Afghanistan? … it will be a humble local farmer who one day took me by surprise by asking after my family. ‘You are far from home. You must miss you family very much. We are very grateful.'"

"The young soldier was brought to me following an IED blast…I didn’t need to ask more questions – his eyes told the whole story. As wide as possible and conveying such a sense of bewilderment, uncertainty and terror that I shall never forget them."

"I’m going to write about the day to day struggle of being away … what your girlfriend was wearing last time you saw her, what she did, said, what she smelt like, what she will look like and if anything will have changed while you have been away and if you will put up with the changes when you get back … if you are close to someone that is away out here know that you will always be in their minds because there are two wars being fought, one which is publicised and one which goes on in a soldiers head when everything goes quiet…."

These extraordinary stories describe the war which goes on in a soldier's head when the fighting stops, as in this excerpt below:

THE BOOK  

This campaign is to help produce and publish the book In Our Own Words, containing these powerful stories, poems and some of the photographs I took whilst I was in Afghanistan. I am determined to make this book happen, to help tell the stories of those who wrote.

 

It's important that these stories are published and seen by people because they tell the human spirit in war. These dusty handwritten postcards, written there and then on the front lines, provide an insight into this and other conflicts never before seen. All of the people who wrote their stories had a strong need to write about what it felt like to be there.

  Readers of this book will be moved by the stories and poems and what they reveal about the human spirit. It will also challenge and perhaps change perceptions about war, soldiers and the conflict in Afghanistan.

The project has already been described by the international press as 'groundbreaking', for more information please read these selected press reviews:

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/the-helmand-project-2361391.html

http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2012/10/12/soldiers-stories-afghanistan-derekland_n_1960550.html

http://blog.frieze.com/afghanistan-a-war-artists-blog/

 

GETTING THE BOOK PUBLISHED

We need to raise £17,500 to get this unique book published in time for a book launch and exhibition of the original art work in November 2014 at the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art in the UK, at: http://www.visitmima.com

 

 

I volunteered to go to Afghanistan on a not for profit basis and the book has a charitable link where proceeds from it's sale will go to the British charity Combat Stress, The Veterans's Mental Health Charity, at: http://www.combatstress.org.uk

 

Funds raised will go into the physical production of a high quality book which will include the images of the handwritten postcards, photographs I took, and essays. I'm working on the book design with Ned Hoste at the fantastic 2H Design in the UK, at: http://www.nedof2h.net

We plan to publish an immediate 1000 physical copies of this book for distribution in the UK, with an ebook being available globally. In our second run we plan for a second UK print run and a physical book in the US.

THIS BOOK IS ABOUT BEING HUMAN

2014 is the year when British troops will be withdrawn from Afghanistan. It is also the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War.

 

In Our Own Words will add considerably to the global public's view of war and conflict and what it is like to be involved. These handwritten postcards are vital and essential in a digital age and need to be read. There is nothing more honest and revealing than a person's own handwriting, written at a time of stress in a war zone. Readers will be enormously touched and at times shocked by these extraordinary stories, as in this excerpt:

 

 

OTHER WAYS YOU COULD HELP

Please help by sharing this story using the Indiegogo share tools.  Many thanks!

 

If you want more information about me please visit www.derekeland.com or drop me an email at  derekeland@hotmail.co.uk if you have any questions.

Many thanks for reading, I'm very grateful if you can help, and please spread the word!

 

 

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

Members of the Iowa National Guard's 833rd Engineer Company (833rd Eng. Co.) this week returned from clearing mines in Afghanistan, while 40 members of Bravo Company, 248th Aviation Support Battalion (248th A.S.B.) are heading out to Kosovo.

Framed Sherpa PRAYER 1It is a time of thanksgiving and prayer. In his annual Thanksgiving letter, Army Maj. Gen. Timothy Orr, the adjutant general of the Iowa National Guard, put it this way:

In the first time in 12 years, the Iowa National Guard does not have units currently deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, but we we do have individual deployers in the Central Command theater and one unit preparing at their mobilization station for deployment to Kosovo. It is a time to pause, to reflect, and to remember those who have sacrificed so much to insure liberty for all of us.

I've always held "Iowa's Engineers" in high regard. Back in the day, I was a member of the 833rd Eng. Co.'s higher headquarters. The Hawkeye patch they wear echoes the Mexican-water-jug shape of the 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division patch.

During one field exercise with the Engineers, I found myself selected to fill-in for the chaplain for the evening prayer. I always like to say that I can be spontaneous, but I usually need to plan ahead. While the commander was speaking in front of the formation, I jotted down a few words.

In the years that have followed, I've thought about those words often. I wish I could find that notecard now, but have tried to re-create the sentiment and spirt of the thing here. I think it still works as an all-purpose prayer of thanksgiving, and offer it here:

Dear Lord,

Help us clear the obstacles we create for ourselves, and protect us from our enemies' actions. Provide us strength, wisdom, forgiveness, and humor.

In your name and example, let us try to be better leaders, and followers, and friends to each other.

Keep our buddies close, our spirits up, and our rucksacks full. Most of all, keep our homes and families safe.

Thank you for our many blessings, and the opportunity to serve.

Essayons ... and amen.

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

Name: Matt Gallagher
Returned from: Iraq
Milblog: Kerplunk

“I’ve done a lot of horrible things in my life,” the author Thomas McGuane once said, “but I never taught creative writing.”

Words to consider, for writing students and teachers alike. Love them or hate them, writing workshops are entrenched in the culture of contemporary writing, be it formally in the halls of academia or informally in living rooms across the country. With increasing frequency, the workshop model has penetrated the veterans community, where a still-rising number of young men and women are returning home with stories to tell and meaning to seek.

But not all writing workshops for veterans are created equal.

Since returning from Iraq in 2009, I’ve attended (and taught) a variety of veteran-centric writing workshops. Some focused on the veteran-as-artist transition. Others were more interested in the cathartic benefits of writing. Some had the institutional support of wealthy donors and involved administrators, while others, well, didn’t. Widely seen as the pre-eminent new writing workshop for veterans, the New York University Veterans Writing Workshop was where I personally found a group and an environment worth coming back to, week after week, to hone my craft with like-minded souls.

There was one common refrain at all these workshops, though: civilians couldn’t attend. To gain entrance as a student, one had to present his veteran credentials at the door.

While perhaps not intentional, this admittance policy reinforced an ugly undercurrent of thought in military writing – that one shouldn’t write about war unless one participated in it as a combatant or otherwise survived its destruction. Constructive criticism offered by civilian instructors was all too often met with a “Well, that’s the way it happened” reply, as if that made up for the lack of character development or cohesive narrative in submitted pieces. Even nonfiction pieces more journalistic in nature than creative require strong writing and heavy reworking – “That’s the way it happened” is best saved for the version told at bars.

For veteran writing workshops to flourish, I found, they needed to stress the writing part over the veteran part, and they needed to focus on improving students’ work over making students feel good about themselves. Like anyone else, battle-hardened Iraq and Afghanistan veterans appreciate positive reinforcement, but in a society with a civilian-military divide as wide as ours, blanket positivity can often come across as condescending. Further, even vets at workshops predominantly for healing purposes sought to improve their work. Sometimes that required a suggestion to pick up classics like Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry. Other times it required a quick lesson on the importance of active verbs. And still other times it required a frank discussion about rising above tired military tropes and clichés, or not including confusing details in order to “stay true to life,” as if writing itself wasn’t already artifice.

Such lessons happened in a dynamic atmosphere with multiple perspectives and worldviews represented – perspectives and worldviews not just veteran, but civilian, too. But unless these veteran workshops came packaged with a confident and vocal instructor, engaged civilian voices weren’t represented. We were lucky to have that at the New York University workshop when I attended it. Such didn’t always happen elsewhere.

Concurrently, I returned to graduate school for a degree in creative writing. During my two years in M.F.A.-Land, I was exposed to civilian voices and views I hadn’t encountered much since my pre-service days. These voices and views proved critical in improving my creative work, even when I ultimately disagreed with their feedback, because they made me consider why I was doing so in a way that transcended the reflexive “They weren’t there, they don’t know what they’re talking about.” It was my duty as a writer to make sure they knew what they were talking about, and if they weren’t getting there after reading a submission about Iraq or about military life, it was because I’d failed them, not the other way around.

I workshopped with Hasidic Jews from Brooklyn and with hipsters from Turkey, while studying under Pulitzer Prize winners and sharp-eyed magazine editors. I learned from all of them, and hope they learned from me too, because of our differences in background, perspectives and approaches to craft, not in spite of them. While some of my experiences at veteran-only workshops were similarly meaningful in these ways, some had not been. What to do then, to more accurately replicate the grad school feel in veteran writing workshops?

Though my experiences are anecdotal, there is wider evidence to suggest veteran-only classrooms are often well-intended missteps. According to “An Ethical Obligation: Promising Practices for Student Veterans in College Writing Classrooms,” a 2013 study of post-9/11 veterans returning to college, written by D. Alexis Hart and Roger Thompson, there are a variety of drawbacks to “veteran-designated classes,” from isolating vet-students from the larger campus culture to the veterans themselves subcategorizing between branches and combat experience. While Hart and Thompson caution that investigating these classes wasn’t the primary focus of their study, their findings do point toward assimilation being a far more useful goal for both the administrators and students.

I finished my M.F.A. coursework in May, spending my summer in coffee shops furiously finishing a war novel that doubled as my thesis. Between bouts with lattes and trite writerly angst, an old friend, Brandon Willitts, approached me about serving as a writing instructor for his new nonprofit, Words After War. I hemmed and hawed until Brandon said he didn’t just want to talk about bridging the civilian-military divide, he wanted to actually do it by bringing interested, smart civilians into the classroom with vet-writers. And why not? If these wars truly are all of society’s and not a separate warrior caste’s, why should veterans be the only ones turning to literature about war and conflict in classrooms and workshops?

Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, especially veteran-writers of Iraq and Afghanistan, love to pontificate about the civilian-military divide – myself included. It is real and it is immense and unfortunately, nothing short of conscription seems likely to eliminate it. That doesn’t mean we stop trying to bridge it, of course, but it’ll take both sides reaching out to do so. If we’re serious about these wars and their aftermaths belonging to the entire American citizenry, it’s our responsibility as vets not to harangue anyone who didn’t go abroad with us. We need to let them speak, too, and let them speak about what the wars looked like from a distance. Their perspective matters just as much as ours does, something the veteran community would be wise to remember if we’re going to be able to effectively affect the future for the better.

That’s what we’re putting in place at Words After War. One didn’t need to have to carry a gun in a foreign land to study and contemplate war and conflict literature. Take Katherine Anne Porter, for example. She never served in combat. But a few paragraphs of her work will show any reasonable mind she understands the terrible depths of conflict and loss.

Here’s the haunting last paragraph of Pale Horse, Pale Rider: “No more war, no more plague, only the dazed silence that follows the ceasing of the heavy guns; noiseless houses with the shades drawn, empty streets, the dead cold light of tomorrow. Now there would be time for everything.”

For readers of more contemporary literature, consider Ben Fountain. He wrote the finest Iraq war novel to date, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, without having served in the military. Yet the dissociation his characters experience upon returning to American soil is pitch-perfect, and remarkably so – only accomplished because Fountain researched, wrote and rewrote for it to be that way.

We’ll be studying Porter’s stories and Fountain’s novel in our workshop, among many other works, written by vets and civilians alike.

Just as there’s no panacea for bad writing, there’s no panacea for veteran writing workshops. I have no doubt other veteran writing workshops across the country have their own lessons learned, and are establishing their own best practices accordingly. That said, the history of the arts tends to be one of fighting for inclusion, especially to involve talented, driven people. We at Words After War look forward to being a small part of that tradition. I hope some of you can join us.

 

Matt Gallagher grew up in Nevada and was educated at Wake Forest and Columbia. A former Army captain, he is the author of the Iraq war memoir “Kaboom” and a co-editor of and contributor to “Fire and Forget: Short Stories From the Long War,” both published by Da Capo Press.

This essay original appeared on the New York Times blog At War.


Name: Gabriel Russell
Returned from: JSOTF-P
Hometown: Seattle
Blog: Hard Stripes
Email: gabriel.russell@takoubasesecurity.com

Framed RUSSELL SafewayPerspective. Got stuck in the lone checkout line at Safeway behind a woman buying groceries with her EBT card (food stamps). She had her teenaged son with her and a huge stack of coupons. I’ve been having a frustrating week. I was wearing coat and tie and probably had a grumpy look on my face when I arrived. The woman working the register kept looking at me apologetically as time went on and the line grew.

The shopper had a coupon for almost every item. She went through that stack of coupons four times slowly because she was missing one. I think she had coupons for apples, soup, pasta, rice, beans, and bread. She was missing a 60 cent coupon for her two cartons of almond milk. She had a list and had calculated to the penny what she could buy, had $70 on her EBT card and $20 or so on a check she had written but she was $1.20 short to finalize the purchase.

I was tempted to pass the woman two bucks but she was already starting to radiate with awkward embarrassment. Her son stood behind her and stared at the floor. Finally the shopper asked the register worker if there was any way she could look through the weekly flier and find the coupon she needed and the worker started paging through it for her.

My irritation dissipated the longer I stood there. Its been a long time since I agonized over $1.20 for food. I’ve never had to do it with a crowd behind me. I could see the time and care she had put into her shopping trip, calculating the cost, clipping coupons, buying cheap healthy food.

I relaxed. I smiled. The coupon was finally found and the sale made. The register worker kept thanking me for my patience. I suppose these days most folks expect a certain amount of eye-rolling and grimacing when a customer is inconvenienced for a few minutes. We’re very busy people.

By Monday, the shutdown will have cost me enough from a plane ticket change fee and a lost weekend of National Guard wages that it will sting. But I won’t miss a meal, or even skimp. I won’t miss a mortgage payment. I won’t fear for my phone or electricity being shut off. I have friends that may. I’m grateful for all that America has given me. I’m glad my wife has a good-paying job.

Not everyone is so lucky. We have young National Guard soldiers here in Washington State that rely on their drill pay for food and lodging and on military tuition assistance to pay for college. They won’t be getting either due to the shutdown. Each of them volunteered to serve in their nation’s military during time of war, uncertain of the cost.

This will likely, hopefully, be resolved before my young soldiers or friends in federal service even have time to apply for food stamps or unemployment. But not, perhaps, before a few missed payments, missed meals, and sleepless nights. It bothers me to see them treated this way.

The legislative branch of our government has its work cut out for it. I’d like to see them take up that task with the same zeal, teamwork and selfless sense of service to nation and community I see in the young soldiers and law-enforcement officers that work for me. I’d like that a great deal.

All I did. The best I did today, was to stand patiently in line behind someone less fortunate than myself and not act like a complete ass. The woman at the register seemed appreciative. Almost like she expected me to be annoyed. Is this what we’ve come to? Is this what people expect?

Patience. Compassion. Persistence. Teamwork. I expect these attributes of my most junior employees.

I expect them of myself.

I expect them of my government.

Name: Stephen Canty
Returned from: Afghanistan
Hometown: Charlottesville, VA
Email: stephen.a.canty@gmail.com

Once a Marine is a documentary about two war veterans, one a filmmaker, the other a heroin addict, traveling across the country to interview the men they fought beside in search of a deeper answer to the question of what it’s like to come home from a battlefield.

Our Director, Canty on the right and Doss, the producer on the left.  We were both 18 then on our first deployment.
Canty (director, on left) and Doss (producer, on right). We were both 18 then, on our first deployment.

America has been at war for twelve years. Countless infantrymen have fought on the frontlines in two conflicts. There have been hundreds, if not thousands of stories about war and PTSD, but none have been told entirely by the men who participated. Our entire crew served together on multiple deployments to Afghanistan. When we interview someone, they are willing to be honest and open because we have earned their trust. In almost every other documentary, when a combat veteran talks to an outsider, they speak from behind a mask.

 

This documentary is important because it will help us heal by allowing us to talk to the men that were there. This is the first documentary about the transition to civilian life where everyone involved -- our producer, director, and sound man -- all fought alongside one another and have learned to depend on each other. This is our story and your donation will give us a voice.

After getting out of the military many veterans struggle with depression, loss of purpose, and suicidal ideation. The effects of PTSD have been well publicized, but for the men with the diagnosis, the symptoms they suffer are part of a much larger experience that changed them forever, for good and for bad. No matter how successful combat veterans end up "transitioning" back to the civilian world, war was the most formative and, to date, most significant part of their lives.

Framed Canty Poppy Field
Casualty evacuation in a poppy field.

My name is Stephen Canty and three years ago I was a Marine infantryman fighting in Marjah Afghanistan, a place that was called at the time "the last Taliban stronghold" Now, as a civilian I am trying to make a documentary about the Marines I fought alongside in Afghanistan and their struggle to return to civilian life.

Combat is indescribable. It is humanity at both its best and worse. I never felt more alive than when I was that close to death. But when we started to lose marines from our company, I found I had to get comfortable with the idea of not coming home to deal with the realities of war. Six months after my second deployment to Afghanistan, I was out of the military and back in my hometown.

I joined the Marines in 2007 at just seventeen years old. Technically, I was still a high-school senior. At the time I was enrolled in the best courses my high-school had to offer, pursuing all those things middle class kids do to look good for college admissions officers. But I felt I needed to prove something to myself. So I dis-enrolled from all my smart kid classes and graduated early in order to go to boot-camp in the middle of my senior year. My teachers said I was throwing away my education. Little did they know, hell I didn't even know, what kind of education I was about to get.

I didn't plan much before I got out. I just wanted to be done. I got a job, went to college and tried to move on. I was doing well by all accounts, but still felt numb towards life. I couldn't maintain personal relationships, started drinking and doing drugs, and struggled to find a purpose. One day I bought a camera and started filming everything around me.

I started looking at film schools and thought a short documentary about the transition from combat to civilian life would be unique enough to get me in. I called some of the guys I was in with to see if they'd be willing to talk. Many of us hadn't spoken since we'd gotten out of the Marines. I'd assumed everyone was doing better than I was. We'd only spoken on Facebook and never about anything important. I called a few guys up and our phone calls lasted for hours. As it turned out, we were all in the same boat.

After talking with just three of them, I realized that they all mentioned the same issues; depression, lack of purpose, bitterness, and difficulties that they had in dealing with the loss of friends. We thought about Afghanistan all the time. The budding film-maker in me realized there was a story here.

I couldn't film much besides interviews; I didn't have the budget to stay in any location for more than a weekend or the equipment to make any handheld shooting look more than amateur video. But I cut a trailer and people started to take notice of what I had. They saw that these guys were willing to talk with me openly and honestly because I was one of their own and they had at one point trusted me to watch their backs.

 

Marines I served with messaged me on Facebook tell me, "I'm glad to know I'm not the only one that feels this way." Marines I hadn't served with told me they were glad someone was finally telling our story.

A few weeks after posting the trailer, one of my closest friends from the Marine Corps, Doss, came down on a train from Schenectady, New York to spend the weekend with me. He paid for the ticket himself because I couldn't afford it. He'd kicked the heroin habit he'd developed shortly after getting out of the Marines and wanted to sit down for an interview. Doss got out three months before me. I used to call him just to hear how awesome it would be when I got out.

Doss during our interview.Doss during our interview.

 

By the time I got out, Doss had less positive things to say about being a civilian. In the first few months after getting out, many of us had tried calling him but he started answering less and less. In the Marine Corps, Doss was always comic relief. He wasn't so funny as heroin took over his life.

 

Doss showing off his tats and tracks.Doss showing off his tats and tracks.

 

After our interview, he volunteered to help with the film in any way he could and really meant it. He said, "Dude, I don't have a job, I don't have shit to do, I'm down to travel with you, carry stuff, set up cameras, whatever you need."

I'd fought beside him in combat and regardless of his struggles with heroin, I knew I could trust him with my life. I knew he could handle tasks and that I could rely on him so I told him he'd have to learn to be a producer. Now I had a crew.

I realized that this was something greater than making a short documentary for film school. I was telling a story that had never been told. Up until now, I had been using spare curtains as a backdrop and mismatched cameras to shoot with.

I decided that I had to do this project right, the first time, because I feel like it's the only chance I have before people will no longer care. The novelty will be gone. And this is where you come in.

I need to raise $50K to buy equipment and travel the country to conduct interviews with the men we fought alongside who are now scattered across America. If you help fund our Kickstarter campaign, your money will help tell a story you’ve never heard before, straight from the horse’s mouth it will cover equipment, legal fees, website development, insurance, post-production, and all the little bits and pieces necessary to make a film and get it to an audience.

Here's our Kickstarter video:

 

And here is a complete breakdown of our budget:

EQUIPMENT

CAMERA: $3,900
Canon 5d MK III with 24-105 mm lens. This camera matches up with the one I have and will allow me to cut between cameras with no noticeable picture change. The lens has image stabilization, which helps with run and gun shooting.

CAMERA ACCESSORIES: $4,200
Tripod, batteries, memory cards, shoulder rig with follow focus, and external monitor. These are all the nuts and bolts required to shoot all day, power the camera, and move with the camera. I'd like to shoot more than just static interviews and show these Marines in the civilian world. Up until now, I haven't because I don't have enough equipment.

LAPTOP AND DRIVES: $4,000
This is the cost of a Macbook Pro and a bunch of external drives to store and back-up any footage I shoot. I plan on using the travel time to start editing the film together and with just five interviews the documentary already takes up close to a terabyte of space. I'll need a powerful machine and a ton of storage.

LIGHTING: $3,100
Kino-Flo 4 Bank 2 Light kit and bulbs. The lights I use now are very hot and usually become a distraction at some point during the interview. These lights are expensive but don't get anywhere near as hot as the tungsten lights I use now. I'll be able to interview subjects longer before they get uncomfortable.

AUDIO: $1,500
A Rode NTG-2 Shotgun microphone, blimp, boompole, and audio recorder.

DESKTOP COMPUTER FOR FINAL EDIT: $3,000
The first thing I did when I got back from Afghanistan the second time was build a computer. that was over three years ago. I didn't build it with video editing in mind and it shows. I had a major hard-drive failure over the summer and almost lost everything I was working on. Having a powerful desktop computer will cut down on my editing time and ensure a great finished product.

TRAVEL: $6,000
Two months on the road, $50 a day per fiem per person. This is for food, any hygiene supplies, and whatever else we need.

GAS AND TOLLS: $1,000
New York to Florida is roughly 1,300 miles one-way. This should cover all of our road costs.

AIRFARE: $2,000
this will cover any additional travel expenses such as hotels we may need to stay at (in case someone can't put us up) or car problems.

SURPLUS: $2,000
This will cover any additional travel expenses such as hotels we may need to stay at (in case someone can't put us up) or car problems.

That leaves about $15,000 after Kickstarter gets their cut. this will cover legal fees, Kickstarter rewards fulfillment, film festival submissions, and the final edit for the rilm.

Doss and I will be driving up and down the East coast from New York to Florida making stops as we go to visit our brothers-in-arms. When someone has spare time and wants to come along, we'll find a place for them on our crew as a boom operator. After we shoot those interviews we'll fly to Nevada to visit a Marine who re-joined after five years of civilian life! Then we'll head to Alaska to give one of our furthest-flung friends an opportunity to speak.

I've alread spent a year getting to this point. Ths is the only thing I've done since being back that has any meaning. And I know it's helping the guys by giving them a voice.

  Framed Canty Sunset on Marjah

Sunset on Marjah.

Please help make Once a Marine a reality by making a contriubution to the project on our Kickstarter page.

 

 

Name: 1SGT (retired) Troy Steward
Returned from: Afghanistan  
Milblog: Bouhammer's Afghan and Military Blog

Framed Steward OUTLAW coverSean Parnell's book Outlaw Platoon: Heroes, Renegades, Infidels, and the Brotherhood of War in Afghanistan is a must-read if you want a first-hand account of what combat was like at a time when there was only one Army Combat Brigade in all of the country trying to bring the fight to the enemy.

I was there at the same time, in the same place and doing the same things that Sean and his platoon were doing. That is what made this book so personal to me, and I can tell you there is no embellishment in this book, and the stories, actions and experiences are valid and true. This book will open your eyes to the things America’s sons went through without her ever knowing it. During that time we who were there felt we were in "the forgotten war," and we were right. The US media focused purely on Iraq, and forgot there was a war going on in Afghanistan.

Sean talks about that first day on Bermel, and carrying a little dying girl in his arms, and how he had to lock that away as his troops arrived over the following days. He takes you into monotony of everyday life in a combat area. You get an idea of what life is like living in the B-huts of a remote FOB, the guys who are “heroes” back home, but are less than stellar soldiers in the field and are truly not contributing to the greater good of the mission.

Sean will also walk you though some of the darkest and most horrific events that our young men and women have to experience. It is one thing to see bodies blown apart and have death all around you; as soldiers we tend to build a callous around our heart for such things. However there is pure evil in our enemies and Sean will show you an example of that in a young boy and what the enemy did to him. I consider myself able to handle about anything. I have seen, smelled, and held some of the grossest things on this planet with no problem. Yet it was difficult and disturbing to imagine what he and his men went through when they found this young boy stumbling down the road.

I think you will be surprised to learn about what they went through, battle after battle, in and around that little place called Bermel. I remember being on operations and hearing Sean’s company and platoon being in contact. When I would hear their calls for air support and medvacs I remember thinking “Wow, those guys are getting shit on today." I remember seeing their blown-up and shot-up Humvees back at the Battalion maintenance area and saying a prayer that hopefully everyone made it out alive.

Sean will also take the reader on a journey into his own tribulations, and not dying when he easily should have. Many men have quickly died from the proximity of explosives and shrapnel that Sean experienced, and that he lived through it is truly a miracle. Couple that with how he should have sought and been given aid, but refused and what he went through after that, and I am sure you will have a great respect for this man. Lastly you will see not only the exterior battles that our warfighters go through in fighting with the enemy, but also the interior threats they have to deal with when the people they are forced to trust turn on them.

I have tried to whet your appetite as much as I can in order to entice you to read this book, but at the same time not give everything away. If you truly care about what our troops went through in Afghanistan at the start of the resurgence of a deadly and determined enemy, then this is a book for you.

Many say they honor and are proud of our fighting men and women, but I don’t think much of America really knows what they should be proud for. This book will help you understand a little more of how awesome they are and the level of fortitude, sacrifice, courage and guts they display every day on the battlefield.

Below is the second part of the three-part Patriot Profiles series on OUTLAW PLATOON series, presented by Smith and Wesson.. If you haven’t read the book yet, I hope this video (along with the first and the third parts, which are available online) will convince you to go out and get a copy of the book right away. Once you start reading you won’t be able to put it down.

In 2006 Lt. Sean Parnell and the men of Third Platoon had deployed to one of the most dangerous area of Afghanistan, less than 10 miles from the Pakistani border. Their mission was to seek out enemy positions and thwart the movement of insurgent forces, into and out of the save haven of Pakistan. And was to disrupt and destroy this network at all costs. On the tenth of June, they were under a fierce assault by the Taliban and enemy insurgents. RPGs and Mortars rained down on them, and machine gun fire seemed to come at them from all directions. The number of casualties for third platoon was getting high, as their ammo was running low. If they didn’t get help soon, the outcome looked grim for Sean Parnell and the men under his leadership, known as the Outlaw Platoon.

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.

DSC_4875

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.

DSC_4874

Beside that, another painting.

DSC_4895

Bedside that, on the far wall, another painting.

DSC_4894

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

DSC_4893

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.

DSC_4927

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…

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”!

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.

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.

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

Criteria for the Purple Heart medal seems straightforward: “any action against an enemy of the United States” in which a service member is “wounded or killed” merits the award. But in practice granting of the award is a contentious issue among combat veterans and a charged field for both the wounded and those who judge the wounds.

Purple Heart

Pablo Martinez Monsivais, Pool/AP

In Afghanistan, I knew soldiers who earned Purple Hearts for very minor wounds sustained in combat. Bruises and small lacerations that required no stitches were technically eligible, and soldiers who received them were rightly issued the medal. But technical criteria aside, most soldiers look down on awards given for minor injuries, arguing that doing so cheapens the Purple Heart’s significance for those who were killed or more gravely wounded.

Today, even while the Department of Defense wages a full-scale campaign to educate service members on the legitimacy of mental health injuries caused by war, many veterans are still discouraged from seeking treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) by a fear of being stigmatized. Current DoD policy, though a step in the right direction, has not been enough to change a culture, both in and outside the military, that still views PTSD as somehow less real than physical traumas.

Given these DoD attempts to promote understanding within the ranks that PTSD is a legitimate product of war, the question before us is this: should PTSD meet the criteria for the Purple Heart?

When I posed this question to a wide range of veterans from Vietnam to Afghanistan they universally answered “NO,” PTSD does not merit the Purple Heart. I myself shared their opinion, until I began to investigate the issue more closely and found that the reasons cited for denying Purple Hearts for PTSD were fundamentally flawed and inconsistent with other military award practices.

The first issue of contention with PTSD is whether it’s a real “wound”, but the answer to this is obvious and well documented by the fact that more combat veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan die from suicide related to wartime service and mental health issues, than from enemy bullets and bombs. That should offer grave and definitive proof that PTSD is very real and that its consequences can be as deadly as an IED.

Another false premise used to undermine awarding the Purple Heart for PTSD is that the mental disorder causes no physical damage nor changes to the structure of the body. But the regulation for the Purple Heart never makes any distinction between internal wounds or external wounds. The precedent for awarding the Purple Heart for an internal mental wound is in the case of traumatic brain injuries (TBIs), which cause no visible disfigurement but still qualify for the Purple Heart. Finally, it is important to note that although PTSD isn’t detectable from the surface, the disorder does have a physiological signature and can be detected in brain scans that show changes to the brain’s structures and wiring, much like with TBIs.

Then there is the argument that there is no clear chain of evidence linking an enemy action to the onset of PTSD. The disorder can take months or years to fully manifest and may be caused by more than one incident, including traumas other than wartime service. Again, this objection is moot given that the same argument can be made about TBIs, which can also be cumulative and triggered by multiple causes that may have occurred prior to war.  No distinction is made for a wound that is initially precipitated by falling off a bike as a child and later aggravated during an IED explosion that culminates in a TBI when issuing the Purple Heart to affected service members.

Finally, the most frequent and emotionally charged objection to awarding the Purple Heart for PTSD is the fear that people will fake symptoms to earn the award. Sadly, fakery can occur in any military award and that is why the current award system requires multiple witness statements to corroborate the award narrative. The same stringent review would be required for service members being submitted for PTSD related Purple Hearts: corroborating witness statements documenting combat exposure, as well as statements from professional mental health clinicians.

The case for reconsidering PTSD and the Purple Heart might be made best by turning from argument to the story of one of my combat veteran friends from Afghanistan.  My buddy, I’ll call him Ralph, was by my side in combat many times, and in the course of these violent and harrowing events he had a series of wounds inflicted on him. The first occurred when a pebble-sized fragment of shrapnel ricocheted off his machine gun shield and hit him in the fleshy part of his earlobe. There was minor bleeding but within days the wound had healed. In accordance with the regulations he was correctly and rightly awarded the Purple Heart because the wound was incurred during combat and clearly caused by enemy action. Some hardliners may scoff at this, but had the shrapnel hit two inches to the right it could have taken out his eye and lodged in his brain.

Months after receiving the Purple Heart for the wound to his ear, Ralph suffered a far more grievous injury that put him in the hospital for months, mostly in a coma, where he was expected to die from the head injuries he had suffered. After being released from the hospital he was deemed unemployable for life and granted 100% disability status by the Veterans Administration. Ralph now walks with a cane, is riddled with scars and dependent on a wide range of medications to survive and manage his pain. Yet for this second wound, by any measure more severe than the wound he suffered to his earlobe, there will never be any Purple Heart, because this second wound was PTSD.

Upon returning home from war, Ralph was haunted by the comrades he lost and the enemies he killed. In an attempt to escape his pain and grief Ralph turned to drinking and long periods of solitary confinement, barricaded in a small room in his father’s house. Some days when he felt especially hopeless he would get behind the wheel of his car and drive fast in an effort to flee and find relief. On one such day, craving the adrenaline rush of combat, and fueled by rage and alcohol, he drove his car right into a telephone pole and suffered the injuries that caused his coma and continue to limit his mobility and physical health today.

Ralph’s experience, taken together with the large and growing body of clinical literature on PTSD, ought to be enough to finally dispel any lingering notions that PTSD is any less legitimate or serious than other battlefield wounds. A serious consideration should be given to revising the award criteria to make those with mental and psychological injuries caused by direct combat exposure eligible for the Purple Heart.

Granting the Purple Heart is just the first step in fully legitimizing and addressing PTSD. We also need systemic reform of the VA and a better system for providing the long term clinical treatment that its casualties deserve. But awarding the medal in cases of PTSD will accomplish one essential goal: giving the respect and acknowledgement to those who are suffering from invisible wounds that we already bestow on those with scars we can see. By doing this, we would acknowledge that the anxiety, rage, depression and disrupted emotional and social lives that veterans with PTSD experience are a result of war, and not some personal defect. By honoring them like we honor those scarred by bullets and IEDs we may be able to alleviate some of the shame and fear that have led so many to suicide.

 

This piece originally appeared on The Daily Beast.

Benjamin Tupper is an infantry officer currently serving in the Army National Guard, a graduate student at Syracuse University, and the author of two books on his experiences in the Afghan war: Greetings From Afghanistan: Send More Ammo and Dudes of War.

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


 

Through Kickstarter, two U.S. Army veterans are currently crowd-funding a hardcover collection of Iraq and Afghanistan war memoirs, each delivered in punchy six-word shot groups.

I wish I'd thought of that!

West Point classmates Mike Neman and Shaun Wainwright are seeking $4,900 through a fund-raising campaign that ends Aug. 30, 2013. Neman is also an author of humorous parenting books, and has previously conducted two other Kickstarter projects.

At the time of this writing, the pair have raised more than $4,000 toward their objective. Donors of $20 or more can receive a copy of the book. An accompanying video further describes the project:

"Six-Word War" is the first-ever crowd-sourced war memoir. It will give you unique perspective on our nation's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead of a traditional war memoir that may give you just one person's perspective, this book will give you hundreds, hopefully thousands, of short stories from soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines.
Previously submitted entries range from pissy and punny, to provoking and poignant. Here are a couple of examples:
Simple people – complex problems – harsh terrain
— OEF IV 12-month deployment with 2-27 Infantry out of 25th Infantry Division.

PowerPoint Storyboard. Or it didn't happen
— Bobby Ragsdale
Running over soccer balls creates terrorists
— Nate Nahm

News stories must contain no downers
— Posted all over our 4ID office in Tikrit, per General Odierno
Where is your reflective belt, you?
— Will F.

Hearts and minds are only targets
— Anonymous
Veterans and military family members can submit their own six-word memoirs through a project website: www.sixwordwar.com.

For more information on the fund-raising campaign, click here.

There is also a Facebook page here.

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. 

 

 

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. 

 

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."

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.

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

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.

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.

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!

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!

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


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. 

 

 

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.

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:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Music was our escape.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Framed ABF CHEMTAL 4 five


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

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

Framed ABF CHEMTAL 4 pickup


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Framed ABF CHEMTAL 4 donkey


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

Framed ABF CHEMTAL truck


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Framed ABF CHEMTAL 4 KLE


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

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

Framed ABF CHEMTAL 4 KLE 2

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

Framed ABF CHEMTAL rider



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Framed ABF CHEMTAL 4 shade truck

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

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

Framed ABF CHEMTAL 4 old friends


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

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

Framed ABF CHEMTAL 4 going in



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

Framed ABF CHEMTAL 4 hall


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

Framed ABF CHEMTAL at work


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

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

Framed ABF CHEMTAL 4 maps


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

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

Framed ABF CHEMTAL 4 MSG and COL


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

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

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

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

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

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

Framed ABF CHEMTAL 2 ceiling


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

Framed ABF CHEMTAL 2 gun

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

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

Framed ABF CHEMTAL 2 bed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Framed ABF CHEMTAL 2 meal

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

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

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

Framed ABF CHEMTAL 2 morsels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Framed ABF CHEMTAL dishes

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

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

Everyone settled back into their positions within the circles.

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

Framed ABF CHEMTAL conversation

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

Framed ABF CHEMTAL tres

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

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

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

Framed ABF CHEMTAL group

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

Framed ABF CHEMTAL three

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

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

To be continued...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Framed AFB CHEMTAL 2-1 city

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued...

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

Not everything about combat is glorious.

The communications black-out has finally been lifted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Framed Afghan Fox CHEMTAL 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Framed Afghan Fox CHEMTAL plains

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(to be continued)


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