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: 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: Don Gomez
Returned from: Iraq
Hometown: New York City
Milblog: Carrying The Gun
Email: dgomez@me.com
Twitter: @dongomezjr

Framed GOMEZ headed to Iraq
SGT Clark and me on the flight to Iraq.

Suddenly, people are interested in Iraq again.

Violence in Iraq has been steadily spiraling out of control for the past year, long before the black flags of al-Qaeda flew over Fallujah. 2013 was the worst year in Iraq in terms of violence since 2008, when US forces were at the tail end of the “surge.”

But the image of those flags has suddenly made Iraq relevant again, especially for American veterans who fought there. Symbols matter, and until Fallujah was decisively captured in November 2004, it stood as the chief symbol of resistance to US forces in Iraq.

There is something very selfish about watching the violence in Iraq and wondering how Iraq war veterans feel about it. It is the Iraqi people after all, who are suffering in this growing wave of violence, and it is the Iraqi military who will be charged with going ‘house-to-house’ this time. Having left Iraq in 2011, we have the luxury to wax nostalgically about Operation Phantom Fury and ‘what it all means.’

If history is any indicator, this sudden interest in Iraq will be short-lived, and as a country we will soon go back to ignoring it, along with that other war.

That is unfortunate. Whether we like it or not, whenever we hear the word ‘Iraq’ it will forever carry that same dull sting we feel when we hear the word ‘Vietnam.’ We will not be able to think of Iraq except through the lens of war. Our histories are cosmically intertwined. And instead of ignoring it, we should embrace it. Especially the men and women who served there.

Framed GOMEZ Ground Assault Convey to Samawah
Ground assault convoy to As Samawah, March 29, 2003.

Last year, as we approached the ten year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, I felt a strong need to get it all out. I deployed during the invasion and that experience of being a part of it and the subsequent occupation was formative and everlasting. I always imagined that when I came home, I would sit down at the kitchen table with my parents and lay out all of the pictures I took and explain to them how the whole experience went down. From start to finish. A long night of beer and emotion. Laying it all out, once and for all.

That never happened. Instead, the war dripped out, slowly, over years and only in short, meaningless anecdotes. Boasting at the bar with friends after a few drinks. In the field eating MREs with soldiers who weren’t there. At the mall with my wife, a familiar smell or sound jarring me into revealing a fading memory from Karbala or Baghdad as we lazily walked from store to store.

A few years ago, I was interviewing Iraqi veterans of the Iran-Iraq War for my dissertation. They confessed to me that they had never really spoken to anyone about their war experiences. Terrible, formative experiences -- bottled up and ignored for decades. I watched them and scribbled notes, realizing later that I was doing the same thing with my own war experiences.

Framed GOMEZ Whoosh
Listening to Nerf footballs whoosh overhead. As Samawah, March 30, 2003.

My sister served. My best friend served. But we never talked about it, not in a serious way. The research I did convinced me that the healthiest thing to do was share the experience in a serious manner.

The anniversary came, newspapers ran retrospective ‘ten years later’ pieces. I wrote about my perspective as a young soldier in Kuwait, learning that the war had begun from an overeager soldier who had learned it from the television in the chow tent.

I decided I would gather up all of my pictures and letters home and go through them and put them on my blog. I tried my best to time it right to get the relevant posts up exactly ten years later.

Framed GOMEZ letters home
My letters home, arranged by month.

The project became engrossing. What I initially imagined as a weekly post with a picture or excerpt from a letter became a time-intensive undertaking. I spent my weekends researching my own life, matching pictures to letters and talking with old friends to get details right. I woke up early on the weekends and wrote the posts for the week, scheduling them to go live at as close to the exact moment, ten years later, as I could.

Friends who served with me cheered me on, saying that I captured the way they felt back then, even though to me the war felt very personal. Their laudatory comments compelled me to treat even more seriously the events that held a special place in my experience. Like the Battle of As Samawah. Or the day we swam in Saddam’s pool. Or the week we spent at Baghdad Airport playing Halo.

Writing about Iraq every day forced me to relive things I’d long forgotten. It also forced me to pay closer attention to what’s happening there now. While I wrote about R&R in Qatar and Brazilian belly dancers in 2003, car bombs detonated in Baghdad in 2013. I wondered about the Iraqis in my pictures, children who are now young adults. I wondered if they would remember me, or if they are even still alive.

Framed GOMEZ Paratroopers resting after combat, As Samawah, 4-3-03
Paratroopers resting after combat. As Samawah, April 3, 2003.

Back in August, I grew disgusted with the whole thing. Iraq was getting worse and no one seemed to care. I thought about stopping the project. I was exhausted and angry.

I hung in there and continued on into the boring last few months of the deployment.

And now I’m coming to the end. I came back from Iraq on January 23, 2004. My year long project is about to end. It was fun and interesting and now it’s done. I’ll go on and Iraq will still be there, smoldering.

It is peculiar to me that Iraq is suddenly interesting again. The headlines coming out of Iraq the past ten years have always been grim. Dead bodies and explosions. More killed there than other places. If I had to guess, people just expect that from Iraq. We have grown numb to it. It took the silly raising of a flag -- a symbolic gesture -- to wrestle the attention of a media saturated American public to care, if even for a moment.

I hope that people will pay more attention this time. I’m not holding my breath.

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

I am sitting and watching the television as I try to work. The images streaming on the news channels are familiar. I see them and I am reminded of my other senses. Sulfur, burnt hair, melted plastic. The attacks that have just struck our society again are unfortunately more common in other parts of the world. Ironically, if you find a Veteran of the past ten years, there is a good chance they are more familiar with this scenario than most Americans. Hell, most of my Facebook friends are well versed in this drill. I hope we can lead the country at large around the pitfalls of these types of attacks.

“Chaos” is a singularly accurate word to describe these scenes, but singular descriptions are inadequate. I have written about the aftermath before. As a nation, we are firmly entrenched in a review of details.

We will watch video and listen to interviews, but I am now paying keen attention to the emotions. The emotions that will pour out of the trauma that has now affected thousands of people will take a long while to unwind. The feelings of people who ran towards the blast, people who ran away, those who panicked, those who resolved to stay and help; anger, sadness and helplessness will feed many nights of sleeplessness.

The images are now seared into the minds of the EMTs, the Police, the First Responders and, through the television, the rest of America. Feelings of a lack of safety, and hopelessness, but also hope and resolution, all juxtaposed in a heap like the crowds immediately after the blast. They are battered, bloody and waiting for triage. And even without the help of the evening news, they will replay over in our minds. I feel confident about these statements because it is a glimpse into my mind's eye after a few key events in my service overseas.

In My Head

I am anxious, but not as anxious as I would have been three years ago. My wife came home to see me at my desk with the news on as I sifted through work emails.

“You know you shouldn’t watch that all night,” she gently told me.

“Yeah, I haven’t been watching long...” I lied.

I have lived through the aftermath of more than one car bomb. One of the most traumatic events I have ever lived through was dealing with triage for hours on end as a result of a massive car bomb in Tal’afar, Iraq. The lines of amputees and severely burned stretched to our gates.

I am now neatly preparing my mind for the next few hours and days. I am eliminating the “stuck points,” or in laymen’s terms, using “always” or “never” in my opinions or feelings. I am forcing myself to stare at the triggers. The pictures of blood-stained concrete are all too familiar. In staring at them I force myself to realize that these are low probability events. There were half a million people at the race today. Three killed and over a hundred wounded is not much more unsafe than driving and maybe safer than some parts of urban Detroit.

This is what terrorism tries to do. It tries to impact your emotions into forming unreasonable and illogical conclusions. It plays on safety and fear, and it is powerful. I think that had we known more about the treatment of emotions I would not have been hastened back into conflict so quickly. Today and here we do not have to rush anyone back to work.

Stiffen and Strengthen

One more resolution is to stiffen against these attacks. I can feel the callouses return. I think this is in our nature.

F**k me?

No.

F**k You!

We can now replace the Brooklynese with Southie. I have even looked at signing up for another marathon, so I can qualify for the next Boston.

The details will unfold, but more important than the details of the day are how the details make you feel. That will be much more telling about what is happening, and what is to come. If you are waning or lost, and you know a Vet, look to them and reach out.  Both sides will benefit.

Name: Brandon Lingle
Returned from: Iraq and Afghanistan
Hometown: Lompoc, CA
Milblog: USAF Seven Summits Challenge
Email: usaf7summits@gmail.com

Framed Lingle SWEAT McKinleyAir Force Senior Master Sgt. Rob Disney has climbed countless mountains, both real and metaphorical, and lately when he says he’s preparing to conquer his personal Mt. Everest, he means it.

The 35-year-old pararescueman, who’s survived a gunshot wound to the face, traumatic brain injury and a broken leg from helicopter falls, torn biceps and a broken arm from parachute mishaps, and a helicopter crash, is one of three  wounded or injured Airmen trekking to Mt. Everest Base Camp with the Air Force 7 Summits Challenge Team in April.

Senior Master Sgt. Disney and his teammates will provide support for the 6 Airmen set to make history when they summit Mt. Everest and become the first U.S. military team to scale the mountain and the first military team in the world to successfully climb the seven summits.

More importantly, these Airmen battling trauma and adversity will exemplify resiliency by testing themselves in the wilderness on a 14-day, 75 mile trek, taking them from 9,000 feet to 17,590 feet above sea level. Driven by the deaths of friends in war, and fueled by personal goals, these Airmen are also motivated by the desire to raise awareness and help vets as well as families of the fallen.

“It's crucial to remember and support the many sets and family members affected by our wars,” said Maj. Rob Marshall, Air Force 7 Summits challenge leader and co-founder. “In these days of budget issues and other distractions, it's easy to focus on the negative.  Our mission is to show people that with some innovation and determination, tempered by an appropriate amount of risk management, they can accomplish any number of positive goals that naysayers deem unobtainable.”

“This trip is another example that there are no limits except those which we place on ourselves,” said Senior Master Sgt. Disney, currently assigned to Air Combat Command Headquarters at Langley Air Force Base, Va., “Dreams are the seeds of reality; the bigger we dream, the bigger our reality becomes. With the courage to let go of our inhibitions and assumptions, there is nothing we can’t achieve.”

The current Air Force 7 Summits Challenge members are:

Summit team

- Maj. Rob Marshall, 34, a CV-22 pilot, from Mercer Island, Wash., stationed in Amarillo, Tex.

- Capt. Andrew Ackles, 29, a TH-1N instructor pilot, from Ashland, Ore., stationed at Fort Rucker, Ala.

- Capt. Marshall Klitzke, 30, a KC-135R pilot from Lemmon, S.D., currently an instructor pilot at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo.

– Captain Kyle Martin, 29, a T-38A instructor pilot and mission commander from Manhattan, Kan., currently flying at Langley Air Force Base, Va.

- Capt. Colin Merrin, 28, a GPS satellite operations mission commander from Santee, Calif., stationed at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo.

- Staff Sgt. Nick Gibson, 36, a reserve pararescueman and physician-assistant student from Gulf Breeze, Fla., stationed at Patrick Air Force Base, Fla.

 Wounded or injured Everest Base Camp trekkers

- Capt. Augustin “Gus” Viani, 28, a Combat Rescue Officer, stationed at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz.
- Senior Master Sgt. Robert Disney, 35, a pararescueman, from Bethany, Ill., stationed at Air Combat Command Headquarters at Langley Air Force Base, Va.
- Master Sgt. Gino (last name and details withheld for operational security)

Other base camp trekkers

- Maj. Malcolm Scott Schongalla, 34, Air Guard LC-130 pilot, from Lebanon, N.H., serving at Stratton Air National Guard base, N.Y.

- Capt. Megan Harkins, 27, Multi-Mission Space Operations Center Ground Engineer, from San Ramon, Calif., stationed at Schriever Air Force Base, Colo.
- Capt. Heidi Kent, 31, Reserve Payload Systems Operator, from Conway, Mass., stationed at Schriever AFB, Colo.

- Dr. Edie Marshall, 38, veterinarian and public health expert from Davis, Calif.

Framed Lingle SWEAT Denali“I truly believe in the medicinal value of sweat and mountains," says Maj. Marshall. "These two things have probably saved my life. How cool would it be if doctors prescribed outdoor adventures just like they prescribe anti-depressants and other pills?”

The Air Force 7 Summits challenge is among several programs working to help vets through the outdoors, including Soldiers to Summits, a group “which helps disabled veterans shatter personal barriers and reclaim lives by using mountaineering.” The 2012 documentary High Ground chronicled a Soldiers to Summits expedition on Mt. Lobuche, Nepal.

Recently, the Sierra Club’s Military Families and Veterans Initiative linked up with Veterans Expeditions  to introduce a group of veterans to ice climbing in Montana’s Hyalite Canyon with renowned climber Conrad Anker.

And K2 Adventures is sponsoring a veterans’ climb of Mt. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania in November.

Notably, the Air Force 7 Summits challenge team is set to summit within days of the 50th anniversary of the U.S.’s first Mt. Everest expedition. In 1963, the history-making climbers returned home to “shrugs of indifference” reported the Associated Press in an article about a recent reunion. The leader of the expedition, Norm Dyhrenfurth, 94, said, "Americans, when I first raised it, they said, 'Well, Everest, it's been done. Why do it again?’”

Similar shrugs of indifference likely met the intensifying American involvement in Vietnam in 1963. As Life magazine's history of the war puts it: “Vietnam was on people’s radar, of course, but not as a constant, alarming blip. Military families were learning first-hand (before everyone else, as they always do) that this was no ‘police action.' But for millions of Americans, Vietnam was a mystery, a riddle that no doubt would be resolved and forgotten in time: a little place far away where inscrutable strangers were fighting over... something.’” 

Fifty years on, during the death-throes of America’s longest war, the Afghan odyssey, similar shrugs of indifference often meet veterans, military members, and their families, as the pain and suffering simmers in the background thousands of miles away.

With any luck, the Air Force 7 Summits 2013 Everest expedition will capture people’s imaginations with the potential for achieving greatness. The combat veterans who face this mountain are ready as they finalize their training across the country. Barry C. Bishop, the National Geographic photographer on the 1963 expedition wrote, “Everest is a harsh and hostile immensity. Whoever challenges it declares war. He must mount his assault with the skill and ruthlessness of a military operation. And when the battle ends, the mountain remains unvanquished. There are no true victors, only survivors.” 

With veteran survivors like Senior Master Sgt. Disney on their side, the sky is the limit for the warrior mountaineers of the Air Force 7 Summits team.

 ***

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force, Department of Defense or United States government.

Name: Colby Buzzell
Returned from: Iraq
Hometown: San Francisco, CA
Milblog: My War

When I graduated from high school in 1995, I flirted with the idea of enlisting in the military but decided against it. Why would I want to sign up, receive all that training, and end up sitting on a base somewhere just killing time. Instead, I skipped the training and worked a series of nothing jobs.

student reading

                                                                                                                           Nick Daly / Getty Images

Then 9/11 happened, and I started hearing that the U.S. military was now hiring—and pretty much anyone they could. So I signed up, and after graduating from basic training studied abroad, spending 2003 and 2004 in Iraq, where our battalion commander sent us outside the wire several times a day “to locate, capture, and kill all anti-Iraqi forces.” After that, college seemed like it would be a breeze, especially with the post-9/11 GI Bill meaning Uncle Sam would pick up the check.

There’s a scene in Forrest Gump where the title character enlists in the United States Army during the Vietnam War. While in basic training, Gump, who’s essentially autistic, is heralded as a goddamn genius by his drill instructors because he follows simple instruction. He does what he’s supposed to in the military: exactly what he’s told.

It took me a bit to figure this one out—like a lot of things in life after war—but college is the same thing, really. My teachers back in high school, where I graduated in the bottom 10 percent of my class, may not believe it, but once I applied what I learned while serving to school, it became easy. It doesn’t take a genius to receive an honorable discharge or get a diploma. You just got to suck it up and drive on. You’re handed a syllabus, given textbooks, told what to read, how to read it and when to read it, and tested to see if you’ve comprehended or at least memorized the material that’s assigned. If you have any questions, there are professors there to answer them.

I made the Dean’s List my first semester in community college in California. I applied to a university and was accepted and moved to the East Coast. I got there in the dead of winter, mid-school year, with no warm footwear other than the desert-tan combat boots I wore in Iraq, which I had to dig out from a storage box. My blood type was still inscribed on the side. I laced those on and bloused them the same exact way I did in the Army, and wore them through the snow to my first day of class.

I almost shed a tear when I realized that these boots had taken me to a university education, something that I’d never even dreamed about—and I doubt my family or friends had either—before joining the Army. It was the first time I remember feeling that my country was thanking me, taking care of me for my service—which made me thankful for my country. Now I’m here, and I’ve got to remain focused and graduate.

And yet—88 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans currently enrolled in school “will drop out by next summer,” according to David Wood. Student Veterans of America dismissed that number as “unfounded and simply not true”—noting that “no organization, including the federal government, is currently able to accurately track the national graduation rates of student veterans.” Which is itself quite depressing.

Woods’s Huffington Post article also contends that “student veterans are seven times more likely to attempt suicide than their civilian counterparts,” which does ring true. The American Psychological Association reports that “nearly half of college students who are U.S. military veterans reported thinking of suicide and 20 percent said they had planned to kill themselves.”

I often wonder if the college classroom experience for our current veterans is anything like what the members of the Greatest Generation sat through after they came home. Imagine the guys who fought in the Battle of the Bulge then finding themselves stuck in some college classroom surrounded by classmates who had never heard of war bonds, with a professor in a tweed coat going on:

“Japan, perhaps, but we should have never gone to Europe since they didn’t really attack us. And don’t even get me started on the atom bomb—do you know how many innocent civilians that killed? Oh, and Pearl Harbor? Inside job. Totally.”

It felt like that during the Bush years, but not so much anymore. Now I imagine the classrooms feel more like what Korean War veterans experienced when they came home: nearly forgotten, somewhere between out of place and simply invisible.

The students around me were in the fourth grade when President George W. Bush told the nation: “Good evening. Today, our fellow citizens, our way of life, our very freedom came under attack in a series of deliberate and deadly terrorist acts.” I remember where I was when that was said, and the life and career choice I made shortly after.

Many of the students I share a campus with view veterans, both on and off campus, as mostly too dumb to be in college to begin with, or brainwashed to the point where they’re all unable to think for themselves, or ticking time bombs one bad grade away from bringing an assault rifle to class. All of which—it should go without saying, but doesn’t—is usually the furthest thing from the truth.

But there are parts of college life that chafe in ways that are hard for those who haven’t experienced the military to imagine, weird little slights and big bureaucratic frustrations.

It’s not necessarily dodged bullets, IEDs that didn’t explode, or dead bodies that haunt or make me stop feeling the need to go on. No, it’s waiting on the phone for well over an hour just to have the person on the line say that the disability claim filed more than a year ago is still in the system but hasn’t been processed yet, and receiving no answers at all about when it’ll go through. It’s a letter in the mail saying the housing allowance from the GI Bill is being “readjusted” down a couple hundred dollars. Signing up for classes and expecting that housing allowance to be in an account on the day promised but discovering it’s not, and it may be a few weeks before it’s corrected—it’s hard to say when exactly.

It’s walking into the VA hospital in pretty bad shape, waiting for hours in the lobby, and asking for something for insomnia and anxiety attacks, and being told to cut down on coffee.

 

It’s the stranger who says “Thank you for your service,” waits a beat, and adds, mantralike, “I support the troops but not the war.”

The yellow ribbons and no-blood-for-oil bumper stickers while stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the way to fill up on five-dollar-a-gallon gasoline.

Fill-ups aside, money isn’t the issue for most veterans in school since even if we major in philosophy, the GI Bill means we won’t be grinding beans to pay down our debt.

But many of us joined the military after high school because we knew that either college wasn’t going to be a possibility, or even if it was it just wasn’t going to be our thing. That, and the realization that there has to be more to life than asking strangers: “Can I take your order?” Many of the men I served with were the kind of guys that would have been great at manufacturing work—but we know where those jobs have gone.

Not too long ago in Detroit I attended a job fair specifically for veterans. There were about 25,000 jobs nominally available, and far less than 5,000 vets there to fill them—every one of those men and women there hoping to hear: “You’re hired.” 

Instead, the refrain for every position that could possibly put someone into the middle class was “do you have an engineering degree?”

The remaining jobs offered—the ones that required some college, and those that didn’t—paid 10 or maybe 15 bucks an hour, with few or no benefits.

I walked away from that convention center feeling highly depressed, and I’ve found myself at least slightly depressed ever since.

“What am I going to do after I graduate with a history degree,” I started asking myself, and I began seriously thinking about dropping out. Thoughts that I’ve never had before—like what’s the point of it all?—started entering, unbidden, into my everyday thoughts.

I had similar thoughts midway through my tour in Iraq, where I wanted nothing more than to come home. I saw no light at the end of the tunnel, and I recall I just wanted it all to end. But then when I did come home I found myself at times strangely missing the war.

I wonder if college is the same thing. I try to remember: you just got to suck it up and drive on.

 

Colby Buzzell is the author of My War: Killing Time in Iraq and Lost In America: A Dead End Journey. He served as an infantryman in the United States Army during the Iraq War. Assigned to a Stryker Brigade Combat Team in 2003, Buzzell blogged from the front lines of Iraq as a replacement for his habitual journaling back in the states. In 2004 Buzzell was profiled in Esquire’s “Best and Brightest” issue and has since contributed frequently to the magazine. The Washington Post referred to his article “Digging a Hole All the Way to America” as “A Tour de Force Travelogue,” and his article “Down & Out In Fresno and San Francisco” was selected for The Best American Travel Writing 2010. His work has also appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle and on This American Life. He currently lives in West Virginia.


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


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