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

Northern Disclosure, by Toby James Nunn

 

(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: Andrew Kaufmann
Returned from: Iraq
Hometown: Montpelier, VA
Email: turtle@warriortalkradio.com

 

AUTUMN FALL

Inside the tree's movement
Of thought, it weaves new dreams
Like the spider spinning
A silken thread
From which he falls slowly in the wind

From high branches
The memories persist
Some good, some bad
But all intact - they conquer every space
Every synapse, every second

As the branches sway
So does the spider
His web, stretched from strain
Snaps and recoils from pressure

 

THE BAG

An ordinary object - longer and colored
It hopes to stay empty
For as long as possible

Unfortunately it gets filled
By a brother or sister
Who has fallen

You unzip it slowly to reveal the black
You may notice hair or lifeless eyes
You may not recognize any of the contents

Some are partially full
With parts in no particular order
A piece, a torso, a head, a hand
It's still your comrade

What's left leaves a mark
Not for them - but for you

As you close your eyes later
You see them as they are now
And try to see them as they were

It is hard - it is scary - it is reality

 

THE ROSE OF JERICHO

Rolled up in a tight little ball
I picked some - out of curiosity

It was odd to see
Life in a barren place

Nestled in a cropping of rocks
On the Syrian border

A tangled mess
Death it seemed
Had come to this

I left it on a shelf
And spilled some water on it

Almost as if by magic
She opened

And proved
That what may seem dead
Can always live again
Whether tangible or not

It brought a smile to my face
And reminded me that those gone
Will always live inside

 

SALAH

Just a boy
Innocent

Friends to all
Insistent

Smiles all day
Friendship

Reminds us of family
Far away

Deception from his family
He is gone

Death was his reward
A head in a box

Why did they do this?
Thrown at the gate

Why did he receive that terrible fate

Salah - you are remembered.

 

SAND FAR AND WIDE

Tasting the grit
Feeling the sting
Sand all around

Fast in a blur
Slow in the sun
Blistering to touch

Burning the eyes
Tears in the rain
Lips chapped and raw

There is no reprieve
From the tiniest grains
That invade every space

Sanctuaries are scarce
Arms cannot shield
Sand far and wide

 

The above poems are from the unpublished collection MINeD JOURNEY. Kaufmann (aka Turtle) and GI Jenn are co-hosts of the Warrior Talk Radio podcasts, and partners for "HEAR Our Veterans" on Facebook.

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: Robert
Returned from: Iraq
Email: robert_ca_sd@yahoo.com

There was a lull in the battle of Samarra and most of us retreated into the upstairs master bedroom of the safe house we were fighting from. Some threw their kevlars to the ground and sat on the floor panting and guzzling down water. I collapsed face first onto the bed. Covered in sweat, lying there exhausted, I could smell my feet through my boots. It had been days since my sniper team had gotten to Samarra and every day we fought in the blistering heat continually sweating. The sweating only stopped at night when we would then freeze in our wet uniforms as we sat on rooftops enforcing curfew through precision marksmanship.

As I lay there, battling off the after-shock of combat, a prayer call began. There was a window half open just above my head. It was a small window covered in hot dust, but still clear enough to see the city skyline from. As the prayer call continued, the city fell silent. For the first time in months, I began to feel a strong calmness in my soul. The calmness soothed my entire body as the old man in the mosque tower a few dusty streets away beautifully sang the prayer, and the warm September breeze blew onto my face from the dusty window. For this brief moment, I was at peace.  

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: 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: 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: Owen Powell (aka "Sgt. Roy Batty")
Returned from: Iraq
Hometown: New York City
Email: objective.rally.point@gmail.com

So, this is the end, my friend.

The Sandbox was good to me. It was a sanctuary from the insanity that reigned around me every day in Iraq, back in 2006-2007. I was a military police sergeant, deployed to FOB Rustimayah, FOB Shield, and Combat Outpost Callahan, on the east side of Baghdad.

I was writing under the pen name "SGT Roy Batty," thinking, falsely as it turned out, that it would stop me from getting into trouble with the Army. It didn’t, at least until my Company Commander, CPT Eric Tangeman, a really decent man, actually read my posts, and decided they were halfway readable and not an OPSEC issue.

So I would get back to the FOB after mission, go down to the hadji coffee shop, drink Saudi Arabian soda pop, and plug the day’s experience straight into The Sandbox.

It helped

but less so as things got more real

like when we started losing people.

Brad Shilling was first, from a NG infantry company I worked with, E Co, 1/125th INF.

Took an Explosively Formed Projectile through the door of his HMMWV.

I was on the QRF that responded to the scene, and I remember looking at the dark little hole in his door, and knowing that the wisecracking kid with the big smile was dead.

We moved to Combat Outpost Callahan, and life got more real, more focused,

personal.

Brandon Parr, Michael Peek, and Ashley Moyer were taken next;

500 lb IED underneath their truck

flipped it upside down, engulfed it in fire, and they all burned to death.

Then Karen Clifton,

her head gone from the RPG that came through her window and went out through the windshield.

All of them were under the age of 25.

And then there were the wounded,

here one day, and then gone the next, never to be seen again. From our perspective, It was almost the same as if they had been killed. Almost.

And then there were the dead Iraqis.

Burnt to a crisp in VBIED attacks, clothes blown off.

Or bound and executed, dumped in alleyways, draped in darkness.

Families flashed out of existence, stacked like long trash bags in IP pickup trucks.

The Worst Wake-Up Ever, when a bunch of 120 mm rockets, fired from a disguised van

100 meters away,

blew through the walls of our makeshift barracks.

The sniper round that tore through my Peltor headphones, and out through my ACH helmet

leaving me with not so much as a scratch, but a whopper of a headache.

The final attack on our IP station,

where I finally shot back

only to get reamed by Higher.

My platoon sergeant, who had been warped by Iraq from a semi-crazy but able leader

into a scared and abusive little tyrant of a man

told me "It is not MP tactics to put down suppressive fire while being attacked!"

which went against everything I had been taught, both in the Marines and the Army,

and who then vowed to make my life as miserable as possible, starting that night

as if it wasn’t enough already.

I went to kill him that night, pistol in my hand

and ended up, instead, turning the gun on myself.

Standing in the darkness in front of my squad leader

M9 charged, in my hand, at my temple,

“What the FUCK do you want me to do?!”

I was done, and was gone from Iraq with a quickness

after a quiet word with the BN Chaplain and Command Sergeant Major

which ultimately led to my platoon sergeant being kicked out of the Army.

Turns out he was sexually coercing and abusing his female soldiers

as well as terrorizing a whole slew of others.

My squad leader got busted in the process. I’m sorry for that, SSG J.

You were in over your head, in all regards,

but you didn’t deserve to go down with him.

So, I was back in Germany, with my wife and my dog,

but hating myself for leaving my Soldiers behind,

for being a non-hacker,

and the descent continued.

New duty station, Fort Hamilton, in NYC.

Garrison, chill, non-deployable.

Getting help from the VA was next to impossible

and I was angry and hating myself and charging as hard as I could away from it

throwing myself into training Soldiers, hoping it might save them

when they eventually would deploy.

Wife left after a year. Maxed the cards and took the car and one of the dogs.

The other one, Rocky, died shortly afterwards.

It was like a bad country song.

Two months later I was thrown into a mental hospital, after going after a smartass Soldier.

Took five DACP cops to take me down

but I had a good Commander and a great 1SG, who realized that something was seriously wrong inside SGT Powell, something that had to get fixed.

That helped a little bit

and I managed to squeak into retirement by the skin of my teeth.

Thanks, CPT Mouradjian, and 1SG Gonzalez. I am in your debt, forever.

But the descent continued.

Retirement was bewildering, like having your umbilical cord cut, in deep space.

I ran away from one overwhelmed girlfriend into family drama back home in Ohio,

punched out my stepfather in a stupid, heated argument,

landed up in jail,

and then blew up at my real father, who had bailed me out of jail, just two weeks later.

I was running, falling, and the ground was coming up fast.

Stayed for a couple of weeks in the basement of a good Army buddy, in Kentucky.

Thanks, Frank. You saved my life.

Regrouped. Got my shit together, a little bit.

During that time, I just happened to reconnect with an old flame over the Internet, and we decided to take a leap of faith together.

I drove 700 miles on my Harley, in 105-degree heat,

with my entire life strapped to the bike, back to NY.

Lizz calls it my "redemption ride."

We got  married four months ago

in a funny Tiki-style wedding that we put together ourselves,

complete with a Celtic blood vow, cutting our palms, and making our Oath together.

Blood binds people together

and it was the first step in putting my family back together.

Thank you, Lizz. You truly saved my life.

You were the only one that realized that I am just a traumatized Big Dog

and you will be my Lil Dog, forever.

Over the past year, I got into school, which I love in a way that I never fully appreciated before.

The VA, after almost two years, came through with my disability rating: 80%,

although they maintain that there is no proof that I have PTSD.

So here I am now. Doing okay. Maintaining.

Not looking at the railings of the bridges I ride over

thinking about how it would feel to go sailing over the edge,

with that long blue/black ribbon of water waiting below.

And this is where it gets weird.

Thirty-five days ago, around January 3rd,

I had what I can only describe as a massive consciousness change,

that got me thinking about life and consciousness and the Universe, from a fundamentally different perspective. That change brought about a Powerpoint presentation that described the

creation of the Universe in the Big Bang from the perspective of a raw Consciousness
and in describing that process, I guess I was really describing my own birth.

The strange thing is that the presentation was heavily centered around quantum mechanics, theoretical physics, and cosmology. I have been math-averse all my life, and can barely pass college algebra, and yet suddenly I was driven to learn about mathematics.

I gave the presentation to my Dad, who is both a retired USAF fighter pilot and a retired college math professor. Dad is the best quantum theorist I know (the only quantum theorist I know, but still…). He started bringing me up to speed on the math behind the theories, and Consciousness Theory evolved as he did so. 

If nothing else comes of this, just having the peace of mind from getting a piece of the Big Picture, and reconnecting joyously with my father, every day, this process has made me content and happy, for the first time in my entire life.

Dad urged me to put my thoughts into a book, which I did. This thing has been going on for over a month now, and the book is at 25,000 words, almost ready for submission to a publisher.

I copyrighted it three days ago. I even have a great editor -- David Stanford, who has so ably manned the helm, here at the Sandbox, all these years.

The book focuses on my awareness that the Universe is Consciousness, and we are part of that consciousness. The Universe is experiencing itself from the inside out, experiencing itself as you and me and the other seven billion souls on this planet.

The book is in the form of a Field Manual, a military FM, that gives enough information to get an idea of the scope of the operation, and then gives step-by-step instructions on how I raised my consciousness. 

Perhaps it will work for you too.

The funny thing is, as I became aware of this, I noticed that the people I came in contact with seemed to blossom and expand. Instead of people being afraid of me, people were the opposite: friendly, positive, supportive. Sometimes this happens with complete strangers, who appear out of the blue. It has been a revelation to me. I want that effect to continue, so I focus on actively projecting and radiating positive energy, from myself, all the time.

And the Universe is reacting to it.

If I am free to create my own reality, in union with the Consciousness around me, and all of the human consciousnesses on the planet, then I can make it as beautiful as possible, for as many people as possible, for as long as possible. 

We all can.

And in doing so, I can help to raise the consciousness of everyone around me, boosting all of us Higher, in a sympathetic Field. 

Teamwork.

Humanity is my fire team now.

And the related applications from that teamwork, and from Consciousness Theory, are impressive.

Like powering an Alcubierre Drive warp engine with directed consciousness energy.

If you are free to create your own reality, why not create it as B I G as possible?

Personally, I’m planning on being my own superhero.

At least within myself, I am looking at the stars

and all of you are welcome to come with me. 

If you feel like it. Of course, we have plenty of work to do right here at home, first.

Actually, the subtitle of the book is: How To Be Your Own Superhero In X Easy Steps.

I believe it is completely possible. 

So much so, that two days ago I had eleven tattoos cut into both sides of my hands and feet, as well as a couple of other places, like the fontanelle of my skull, and chakra locations on my chest and back.

Why? To focus creative energy, of course.

A superhero has to be able to focus his powers, right?

Pain instructs as much as pleasure. Often more than. 

Yep, here’s SGT Roy Batty, in all his glory.

 

Framed POWELL Rally Point
 

Or, as my Dad says, “You can never unsee that.”  Sorry.

So, here I am.

Either I am a

half-crazy, dope smoking, burnt-out combat veteran, sitting in my tiny NYC apartment,

writing hippy dippy science fiction stories as I slip deeper into psychosis

or

I’ve figured out how to be my own superhero.

Which reality would you choose?

Yep. I’m going the superhero route.

But whatever I’m going to do,

it will be with a couple of different outlooks.

The first of which is: peace.

Whenever possible, in all things. And it IS possible, 99.9% of the time.

The next of which is the Four Precepts, as I’ve written in the book.

Be open.

Be honest, with myself first. And then everyone I come into contact with.

Be positive, in all things.

And then verify. Check the shit out of everything I think or do, at all levels. 

Never stop learning. Never stop asking questions.

The world has some huge, highly complex problems to deal with.

Our nation has some huge, highly complex problems to deal with.

I feel that we’ve lost our way, and I think a lot of us are feeling that something

Big is coming down the line for us

and it’s up to us to make that Big thing something beautiful, rather than something horrific.

Too many of the old ways don’t work anymore

and we are fragmenting as a society because of the fear.

We have to find some new ways of looking at ourselves

and I am passing along the only thing that has worked for me.

The title of the book is

FM 33-4-5: Navigating Consciousness and the Space-Time Continuum.

If that resonates with you, check it out.

I’d love to have you on the Team

because we have some work to do

together.

 

Namaste.

 

P.S. And then there's this: Objective Rally Point.  

 

Owen Powell's numerous Sandbox posts include VBIEDS ALONG THE TIGRIS, THE TERMITE MOUND, GOT THEM IP BLUES, and MAY I HAVE THIS DANCE? 

 

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

THE LONE SURVIVOR, THE WORTH OF FALLUJAH, AND PTSD

With the news of Fallujah I can't shake a gnawing emotional agony from reflection. There are a lot of great articles coming out, most focusing on the Marines who fought there. But what's happened in Fallujah can be viewed as the high-profile early-bird precursor to the potential fate of every city across Iraq. I think the question resonates deeply with everyone who fought: Was it worth it?

On top of the Fallujah questions, I have seemingly more people than ever wanting to talk to me about my service because of the movie Lone Survivor. I have not seen it yet. I am by no means close to the caliber of the SEALs and SOAR aviators who fought and died in Operation Red Wings. Still, because of the current Veteran's place as "the other 1%", I am the closest thing most people know to compare to those stellar Soldiers. I don't know how to respond. I told my wife I wanted to see it, but I am honestly afraid of what my reaction will be, and that makes me want to see it more. (As a side note, if you have seen Lone Survivor and it is fucking you up, don't hesitate to reach out.)

Most days, if I get cocky, I think I have this PTSD shit licked. Then the real world interrupts, and the collision of these two public events has sent me back to Earth like an Airborne trooper with a cigarette roll. This past week I am mostly just pissed off and melancholy.

I find myself desperately searching for positives from my war. I turn and look to Vietnam and the similar history of a war both won and lost at the same time. I look to their subsequent actions and their activism to baseline where we have "progressed."  Should I even try to find a positive in such an evil thing as war? Is that the only way to make sense?

Did fewer people die in Iraq and Afghanistan than Vietnam? Statistically I think there is data to support that notion. Though it makes me sad to think of the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis dead because of our intervention, the advances in medical technology certainly saved more people on the battlefield and that can be seen as a positive, right? But despite my fondness for metrics, those numbers don't mean shit to me when the smell of blood and cordite still haunts me in my nightmares. The numbers now do not help the amputees. How many children are now parentless?

Is there strong enough causality to the change this war initiated back home? Equality got a boost because of this war. The men and women sacrificing while having their rights ignored pushed many debates into the open. Hypotheticals became actuals. There is a whole other blog post about just those effects alone. But was it worth it?

We suspected this would be the case. We told ourselves that what we did had meaning and lasting impact and would not be in vain. I remember one of my LT's pointedly questioning the Colonel about the history of "defeating" insurgencies. What made us so special? How were we different? His question echoes today.

Was it worth it?

I resort to the idea that anything anyone thought they went looking for or thought they went fighting for was erased with the first bullet fired in anger. All that was left were the men and women you went to hell with and doing what was asked to get them home. Unfortunately, there is only a small section of the United States who can and will ever understand the sacrifices made by a voluntary few. At this point in history, if I try to understand the value of worth of our efforts beyond that, my head explodes and I am left picking up the pieces.

Was it worth it? At this point, I don't know. I may never know. And that is part of the extreme mindscrew.

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

The Lobotomy Files

If you have not followed the Wall Street Journal’s “the Lobotomy Files” I highly recommend it to watch and read. The project chronicles the storied controversy over the use of lobotomies on Veteran Patients just after World War II in the VA system. In a flurry of trying anything to treat then-undiagnosed PTSD, over two thousand Veterans were lobotomized. The stories are both chilling and sad. What I find most troubling is that this is not just a look into the past, but also a glimpse into a report of our future. Tales of failed shock treatment, water treatment and finally a lobotomy depict a horrible life for a returned and committed Veteran with PTSD into the VA system.

Some of the more horrific outtakes:

Shock treatment then the lobotomy:

“Within a month, VA headquarters set guidelines. It ordered doctors to limit lobotomies to cases 'in which other types of treatment, including shock therapy, have failed' and to seek permission of the patient’s nearest relative.”

“At the VA, Dr. Freeman pushed the frontiers of ethically acceptable medicine. He said VA psychiatrists, untrained in surgery, should be allowed to perform lobotomies by hammering ice-pick-like tools through patients’ eye sockets. And he argued that, while their patients’ skulls were open anyway, VA surgeons should be permitted to remove samples of living brain for research purposes.”  

I wonder how many of us are lab rats for the latest batch of lobotomy drugs?

What’s in a Lobotomy?

When I came home from Iraq and got linked into the VA, like countless others, I was prescribed a cocktail of drugs. At any given time, I was on no less than two and at most six different drugs. They were the only alternative to the nightmares and mood swings, as well as the spiraling depression. They propped me up, but I eventually realized that their use was no long term solution. Looking back, I was a blunted shell of my former self. If I did not fight to get off of them, I could easily see myself similarly described as the Veterans in the Wall Street Journal articles.

I am not a doctor. I am not a psychologist. But I feel that these drugs over the long term are harmful. My opinion is they have a window of effectiveness before they become a harmful dependency. Unfortunately, the VA is not mindful of that window and instead hands out drugs like candy. The VA tries to help those that can muster the strength to kick them. These drugs effectively lobotomize a Veteran. At first the effects are temporary and really do help in giving a Veteran a fighting chance at staring down the issues. However, if over the long term, a Veteran with a lobotomy and a Veteran on a cocktail of drugs have the same net behavior, then the VA is still in the business of Lobotomies.

Getting Off the Drugs

I knew that I would not be able to live a normal life without addressing and managing the symptoms of PTSD. It became apparent through that process, that I couldn’t live a normal life with these drugs either. I developed a plan with my therapist to get off the drugs and it was not only a personal goal, but a goal of therapy as well.  Coming down off of my meds was horrible. I could hear my heartbeat in my ears. I was even more irritable than normal. When I found that I was coming down and I was having a hard time, I often ran right back to the medicine cabinet. Cold Turkey was painful, so I started cutting my pills. It was so bad and I was such a bastard, my wife could tell when I was coming down and would often ask.

Ultimately, I went through the full withdrawal by talking with my doctor and flat stopped ordering them from the VA. It was a harrowing month for everyone in my house. Headaches, nausea, the ringing in my ears, erratic heartbeat. Getting to sleep was hell. But, I am so glad now that I was able to kick them. Losing weight was easier. My concentration improved. My creativity returned. Instead of an emotionally blunted existence, I was able to feel deeply again.

The Substitute

The short and easy answer to a drug alternative is pretty simple: stay in therapy (I transitioned out of “one on one” and into group), exercise regularly, and eat right. All of those things make a difference. I was and am regimented about therapy, exercise, and food. When any of them slip, I feel off balance. Attack those three with vigor and you will be well on your way to kicking the meds and living a more fulfilled Post Traumatic life.

Please comment if you are a Veteran or family member and still under the influence of the VA meds or had a similar story. As always, please share, and thanks again for reading.

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

“I always won in my imagination. I always hit the game-winning shot, or I hit the free throw. Or if I missed, there was a lane violation, and I was given another one." -- Mike Krzyzewski

If you listen to athletes and coaches long enough you will invariably find a few talk about the importance of mental preparation. So many aspects of sinking a putt or making a free throw exists between our ears and in hours of preparation before the real competition begins. Athlete after athlete will comment about visualizing the medals placed around their necks, or throwing the game winning pass.

In combat, the preparation is similar, but just different enough to have side effects. As any good leader will tell you, being prepared is an imperative. I remember many a night before a mission reviewing battle drills or nine line medevac requests. I spent hours staring at maps of objectives and playing out the worst case scenarios. Thinking about your Soldiers getting shot or killed is no picnic. Unlike Coach K’s quote above, the luxury of relative inconsequence in sports is not afforded to a Soldier. We have to take exceptionally hard looks at negative paths to minimize their impacts.

One of the more difficult tasks as a leader is keeping a positive attitude while staring down everything that can go wrong. I fully believe that over time this task becomes harder and harder. When bad scenarios transform from mental preparation to real world experiences the validation of negative ideas are more difficult to explain away as outliers.

When I returned home I had enough reinforcement of traumatic experiences that these patterns of thinking were deeply entrenched. In mental health profession parlance they are “Stuck points." Contrary to an athlete who is mindful of scenarios but is focused on success as the prize, I don’t know if I ever really emphasized “winning” in combat. The reward for success was having to roll the dice again on another mission, and after more than a few close calls, that eventually didn’t really feel like a reward.

Goodness knows the consequences in my new profession are not nearly as dire as in combat. Still, the need to mentally prepare to face each day does not simply melt away with a job in civilian life and certainly should not be limited to athletes and Soldiers. In the early days of my therapy it took me a long time to work past the crippling effects of those negative patterns. A key to my early small successes was thinking about how I would tackle the next day. However, as my therapy better prepared me to handle each day my habits relaxed. When time is short and the family and work life stack up, making time to prepare is tough.

My milblog is my mental preparation, especially this time of year. It helps me listen to my inner dialogue and challenge being depressed or moody. I wind down thinking about how to handle tomorrow and it is critical to take one day at a time. I run through scenarios with one conscious change from combat: I think more about winning and success now. I don’t ignore potential problems, but I focus more attention on the positives than the negatives.

This past week I am forcing myself to prepare for the days to come. I know there are challenges ahead of me. Staying positive and thinking through the definition of success is even more important. I encourage you, no matter your profession, to take some time to mentally prepare for whatever it is you have coming up. Be mindful of scenarios, but be positive in your outlook. I believe it will pay dividends.

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

THE VET'S DAY HANGOVER, AND THREE EASY STEPS TO KICK THE NEXT SEVEN WEEKS IN THE ASS

Well, I’m glad that is over. Veteran’s Day is as emotional to me as Memorial Day. Generally speaking, my wife and I hunker down and drag ourselves through the day. This year we both took off from work and that brought its own set of challenges, especially when the Veteran’s Day Parade and ESPN wouldn’t let us avoid as much as we desired.

The best article I read far and away was in The Atlantic by Alex Horton. The title summarizes the sentiment and is worth the read: “Help Veterans by Taking them off the Pedestal”

“That’s the problem with viewing something on a pedestal: you can only see one side at a time, and rarely at depth. It produces extremes — the valiant hero or the downtrodden, unstable veteran.”

My general approach, which has been more refined as years pass, is talk less, do more. (Or, in a more monosyllabic and brute fashion: Get. Shit. Done.) I appreciate Alex’s frank reasoning to drop the self applied superhero label.

On Veteran’s Day I also had the privilege to participate in WOD for Warriors with Islip Crossfit. If you live on Long Island I highly recommend three Crossfit Boxes: Islip Crossfit, Crossfit Undivided and, of course, Crossfit Lindy. Erica Pollack, of Islip Crossfit asked me to say a few words, and those words, as my family will support, invariably turned to tears. But I think the message was well received, and the WOD was a burner. If you want to get involved, I highly recommend checking out Team Red White and Blue for year-round Veteran interaction and community building.

 

IslipCrossfit_WFW

 

ON TO THE ASS-KICKING

These next six weeks, as merry and bright as they are at times, are also peak for lots of heartache, stress and general self-inflicted misery.

I have formulated a simple plan that has helped me get through. It requires a little time set aside for introspection, but on the whole, if I have put in the work it has allowed me to sprint into the new year. You will need a piece of paper and a writing implement.

STEP 1: Visualize the optimized refreshed you of January 2nd, 2014. For me, this is a lighter stronger person. When I say lighter and stronger I am not just referring to physically, but mentally and spiritually too.

STEP 2: Pick three attributes that if you could fast forward to the new year you would want to manifest (poof -- like magic) and that can be tracked empirically. Certainly the tricky part of STEP 2 is assigning something that can be tracked to an empirical observation. “Happy” can be an attribute, but you have to link it to something that you can measure. For me, smiling is a good link to happiness. For an empirical tracker I would track smiles per day. “Lighter” and physical weight is my favorite for keeping away the holiday poundage.

Step 3: Write it down, sign it, keep it with you and look at it every day. The key to success for the three attributes is the ability to answer a yes or no question on January 2nd. For instance, “Lighter: I workout often and weigh less than I did on 15 November 2013 (192#)”. The question is “do I weigh less?” Hopefully in January, it is a resounding “Yes!”

Here are my other two:
“Happier: I think of my family everyday and smile.”
“Giving: I donate each week to my favorite charities and attend one fundraising event.”

See, three easy steps. When that line gets a little long, when the day drags, or traffic is a nightmare, when someone is snarky or mean, take out your little slip of paper, focus on those attributes and keep moving. Let me know if you take on this little task. Charge into the new year by kicking ass the next seven weeks!

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

 

Framed PIRO TrollA LONG TRIP

In a letter to my wife, I once wrote "When this war is over for us, I want to move far away, buy a small piece of land and live the rest of our days in peace."

I quickly found that returning from combat was a much longer trip than riding on a plane. The impacts of exposure to war, especially prolonged combat living under a constant threat of attack, deeply engrained in me experiences that are complex and tough to understand at many levels.  In most respects, the war is not over for those of us that have returned. The laws and morality of war differ enough from life at home that adjustment is problematic at best, impossible at worst. Talking with Veterans of other generations, I am not sure if the wars in our hearts and minds ever end.

THE TROLL

I can describe my combat self as a troll who thrives on stress, fear, grief and uncertainty.  He is the ugly and mean part of my soul. Like the trolls from myth, he feeds on flesh and tears. He is kept at by by sunlight and comes out at night when all is still to stalk and prey on the weak issues that linger in my mind. He takes refuge in my inability, despite my work, to understand fully or process my experiences. He digs up issues that I have tried to bury and lines the path to peace with bodies on pikes. He slips in and out, leaving horrific reminders that any effort to forget him will be punished. To him, trying to live in peace as a Veteran is dissent.

REMINDERS CLOSE TO HOME

December always brings the nightmares of dead children to haunt me. I keep my house cold to help me sleep, but my son is a restless sleeper--the blankets don't hold him. He somersaults in his sleep, thrashing covers as he rolls. When I go up to check on him, his foot is dangling out from the covers. His tiny digits mirror the dusty foot of an Iraqi boy blown from his shoes by a mortar. It is after midnight and I selfishly climb into my son's bed to hold him and cry. I clutch him tight as I try to reconcile the images of grief-stricken fathers holding the blankets that wrap their precious dolls robbed of life.  Avoidance is nearly impossible. The tiny foot of my own son is all it takes. I cannot hold him tight enough.

I believe the troll I mentioned lives in many people, and especially in combat Veterans. The geek in me likes to label him a troll because then I can hope to outsmart and conquer him someday. If I can ever claim victory, I think it will be in my ability to keep him from appearing often and when he does, in a smaller diffused role. Until then, I have further to travel. My destination is finding peace, and hopefully I will help others along the way as they have helped me.

FURTHER ALONG THE ROAD

All these years and I still struggle to live in peace. I have given up the pastimes of fighting and martial arts in favor of yoga and CrossFit.  I want to be non-violent, but I still cling to violence as an option. I aim to be calm but my boys will tell you there are times in frustration and weakness when I am anything but. I try to live in the moment, but my wife will tell you I am easily distant and distracted. If you compare my demeanor to other Veterans with PTSD, I believe this is typical. Discovering and learning more about these contradictions make the journey so important to me and my family. We need time, and space to explore, to find peace.

Name: Lisa Wright
Returned from: Iraq
Hometown: Iron River, MI
Email: kosklm15@baycollege.edu


I wrote this about when I deployed to Iraq in 2005:

Truth be told, I was terrified. Now I know what you’re thinking: “What kind of soldier admits they’re scared?” But what kind of person would I be if I didn’t?

I was nineteen years old, and the longest I’d ever been away from home previous to the Army was maybe two days. I still couldn’t tell you my exact reason for joining the military. I know I had many flourishing emotions throughout my contract. I also know the number one feeling I had next to pride was fear.

I’d say the fear started with the phone call, or the mobilization training that spanned over a month, but it didn’t. It didn’t start with the cushy commercial airplane ride, either. I was too tired and confused to know exactly how to feel. There was a spark of fear, but not nearly enough to really give it a name.

Unloading off the airplane to Camp Doha was when I first realized that maybe I had gotten myself into an unfavorable position. I was there with six other soldiers, and we would all have the same fate. We stayed about a week in Camp Doha. The smell in the air was putrid; it stunk of dead rotting fish and human waste, and it was thick, like you walked into a cloud of trash and fog. The ground was shades of ecru and khaki, and the only green in sight was grown in Dixie cups by American soldiers missing home. The sky always seemed to be grey and the sun never seemed to shine. I don’t understand how we didn’t see the sun because the heat was so intolerable it felt as if we were standing directly underneath it.It took us a while, but we adapted to the extreme climate change, the sweat evaporating off of our skin like steam.

We were there about a week before they rounded us into the cattle trucks with all our gear, driving us to a canvas tent, location unknown. There we sat, in metal folding chairs, with nothing to entertain ourselves but what we carried on our person.

There we sat, seven very different human beings, all with the same fate, unsure of what was to come. We waited there for what seemed like an eternity. I don’t know if it was 20 minutes or 20 hours. I didn’t have a watch and there wasn’t a clock on the makeshift canvas wall. Even if there had been it wouldn’t have mattered. Time wasn’t ours to contain anymore.

Finally a man came into the tent. He told us we had five minutes to collect our gear and gather outside the tent. How long was five minutes? Time was unknown to us still. We just hurried and retrieved our items. We Velcroed together our IBAs*, we clipped our Kevlar straps taut under our chins, and we slung our weapons over our shoulders and grabbed our large green military issue duffle bags and scurried outside. We climbed on to the back of the truck and dutifully took a ride.

We arrived to the location of a C-130. I had never seen anything like it in my life. It was large with a subdued grey coloring to it. The propellers were working their way around and it was so loud we had to shout to one another. We handed our duffle bags over the guys waiting for us and we boarded the jet and waited to be strapped in. We were loaded right in with the supplies that needed to be delivered, as if we were nothing but expendable material objects.

The take-off was rough, but the ride was worse. I remember sitting in the plane with the others, and as they were talking they all winced in pain and struggled to hold a conversation of attempted sign language. There was nothing but a loud whistle and whir of the wind and the propellers spinning. We couldn’t hear a word out of anyone’s mouths, and at one point I remember fearing that my head was going to fold from pressure. I closed my eyes and didn’t think until it was over.

Once we landed safely, we all unloaded off the jet, stood in a circle, looked at each other, and didn’t say a word. It could have been because our heads felt concave, or it could have been because we were all scared. The men who transported us on the plane tossed our bags out onto the hard desert ground. The sky was black with a speckling of white stars, and there wasn’t a sound to be heard, not even a cricket in the distance. It felt like we were at the end of the earth looking out into space.

We waited for what seemed like an endless amount of time, until at last a dirty white bus pulled up to us, curtains drawn over all the windows. A man walked out of the bus, not in uniform, and not American. He spoke broken English, his skin was brown, his hair was very course and very black and my ethnocentrism led me into fear. I did not understand the world outside of what I was raised to know, and I did not know if this man was to be friend or foe. Another man stepped off the bus, dressed in DCUs, and a Kevlar helmet, carrying an M4, with his black First Sergeant E9 rank stitched onto his vest, and ordered us to grab our gear and load into the bus. Hurriedly, we jumped on.

The bus smelled like stale piss and fruity tobacco, and the ride in it wasn’t any better. We all sat in silence, staring at each other, afraid to look out the curtained windows, afraid of what could happen. Was there potential for gunfire? How about an IED or a mortar attack? Where was our final destination? Full of contemplation and anxiety, we sat, seven of us new to the country, and two men who had to know what was in our future. All that we could see of the strange land outside was the tawny ground from underneath the gap below the filthy curtain covering the missing door.

We reached a stop, and the two men got out of the bus. The next thing we saw were tan suede combat boots that blended well into the ground walking toward us. We all sat up, rigid, as if we were at the position of attention but still remained seated. On walked fellow comrades, a woman and a few men. Not dressed in full armor, they almost seemed naked. They only wore their cargo pants, combat boots and their burnt sienna tee shirts, stained dark with sweat. We all stood up and followed them off the bus, into yet another large canvas tent.

The tent was empty of any furniture besides a couple of metal folding chairs and a wooden desk. What was this place we were at? Was this my destination? We learned that it was just another rest stop in our journey. We were told to get comfortable but be ready to move at any second. How was this possible? I did what I could. I removed my helmet and laid it on the ground. I then opened up my IBA and propped it against my helmet, took my floppy-ass booney cap out of my pocket, and I laid down on my makeshift pillow and covered my eyes with my hat. If I was going to die, I wasn’t going to die scared.

 

* IBA : Interceptor Body Armor

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

I am fortunate that my service and continuing my blog has connected me with an extended group of supportive people. Recently, a particular article came across my Facebook feed and it is so impactful that I must send it forward.

Scot Spooner has done Veterans everywhere a great service. In many of the conversations I have with others about staying on track, I explain that the teachings of twelve-step recovery heavily influence my daily structure. Scot, as a recovering alcoholic before he entered the service, had to stare down a big life change once before. In reading his article, I’m sure he leaned on those experiences in combating PTSD.

So, I encourage you to read his article in its entirety (there's a link down below), but first let me share the gems that I personally found myself nodding up and down about:

The New Normal

“…post-WWII, they conducted a survey to find out who was affected (back then they called it shell shock) at a psychological level by mortal combat. Their findings were that 2% were unaffected. This 2% was made up of psychopaths. This means that to be affected, to have shell shock, soldier's heart or PTSD (call it what you will), is normal.”

On comparing experiences

My view: don’t. His view, more eloquent:

“My experience is real and it is mine alone, just as you have yours. It is not the amount of time on the ground, the number of buddies killed, the number of enemy killed, or any other 'score card' that matters. What I am here to talk about is that if you experienced mortal combat on the field of battle, you are forever changed, just as I am.  And no amount of score keeping can quantify individual effect on our mind body and soul. This issue is unique to each and every combat veteran and it is in relating to one another, not comparing, that we find common ground and share common solutions.”

Trace to the root, deal with the problem

“I had to realize that there was a reason for every single symptom that I was experiencing and until each one of these symptoms was traced to the root and dealt with through appropriate action, nothing was going to change. This bring up another point of discussion that will tie in my earlier correlation to how dealing with PTSD is very similar to dealing with addiction.”

On Suicide:

“Just like any other issue I have had in life, I will only take action when the pain level takes me to my knees. The scary part about this fact is that some take it to the extreme, which is why the veteran suicide rate is what it is. People believe that suicide is a coward’s way out, and I say to those who say that: 'You have no idea, and should keep your short sighted opinion to yourself.' Those who have committed suicide due to their inability to learn how to live with the 'new normal' were not and are not cowards. They are people that need relief. We are all creatures of comfort and will always seek comfort. Hell, that’s why we squirm around in a chair –- to get comfortable. These individuals end up in a place in life that is so painful that the only way to achieve any level of sanity or comfort is to end it all.  Unless you have ever been in so much pain that death looks like a good alternative to continuing to live in hell in this life, you have no right to judge a veteran that makes this sad yet too common choice. This is what we must strive to change!”

And finally, a great list, affectionately henceforth to be called:

Spooner’s 18:

1. Went to ART therapy to process traumatic memories.
2. Read and studied a book titled War And The Soul, by Dr. Edward Tick.
3. Researched the symptoms of PTSD in order to get some intel on the enemy.
4. Went to and continue to go to acupuncture and take natural herbs and supplements to support my vital organs and critical systems.
5. Do my best to stay on a solid PT regimen. I suck at this –- that’s why I joined the Army, so I could be made to work out!
6. Find a therapist that I am comfortable with and make the appointments count every time. Being honest and taking advice.
7. Telling my story to civilians in an effort to heal and to give them some of my burden.
8. Getting involved with non-profit ventures to try and give back.
9. Having the courage to admit my struggles with the world, especially when i didn’t want to (which is always).
10. Writing a daily journal entry in order to get what is inside of me outside of me.
11. Writing a daily gratitude list to remind myself of all that I have to be thankful.
12. Writing a Daily Design and schedule.
13. Mentoring other vets who are struggling.
14. NOT spending time telling war stories with other warriors for the sake of feeling the “old rush” or a good laugh.
15. Learning to be present wherever I am.
16. Removing negative people from my life.
17. Spending time with people that are living in the solution, not talking about the problem.
18. Maintaining a relationship with a power greater than myself whom I choose to call God.

The whole article is here.

So, read, share and huge thanks to Scot Spooner for staying in the fight.

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

My PTSD Google Alert brings through many interesting articles. The volume of disturbing articles seems to be increasing over time. This morning a link from Gawker was at the top of my news feed. I am not a huge fan of Gawker, but I felt compelled to read this article. I read it and was overwhelmed with the tragic stories that are still persisting and were presented there.

I have been avoiding the shit out of many things and unfortunately the pressure has built up too high. The bottom of the article had a link. So on a whim I penned a letter.

Dear Hamilton,

Reading the accounts of other Veterans is upsetting to me, but a story that needs to be told.

I exited the Army in 2006 after two tours in Iraq. They were in relatively close order and the ten month break in-between trips was not nearly enough time to readjust. The second trip was worse than the first and exposed me to new and different horrors of war. That deployment compounded what was most likely a case of PTSD from the first tour.

When I returned home I slogged through the VA benefits process with the help and support of my wife and family. For a while I lived away from my wife and newborn son. For a while my father drove me to and from work as the medications I was on rendered me unable to function as I was coming up from them.

Each week for the better part of six years I saw a therapist at the VA and chipped away at learning to deal with a new normal of persistent anxiety and depression. In that six years I fired two therapists and cannot speak highly enough of all the rest.

I quit drinking and all drugs but I am still addicted to work to keep my mind away from the negative patterns of thought that are ingrained from years of training and fighting. I finally got off the antidepressants about a year ago. Despite all that, some days I still break down and cry in the bathroom at work. I consider myself lucky to even have a job.

I wish I could say that after these six years I am an integrated happy member of society, but I am afraid that will not be true for many years, if ever. I can keep the wild and extreme thoughts at bay, but they still linger in the dark corners of my mind. One day seven years ago I took out my gun and considered getting some rest from those thoughts.

That day I doubled down on my family and my therapy and today I am able to survive and more often than not, flourish. I did not do it alone. We Veterans cannot do it alone.  It takes lots of hard work and discipline to maintain this steady state. My perspective coming through the other side of this is now valued by my coworkers and family, but only as I am able to present it currently. If it was any rougher or more graphic, I don’t think they could handle nor tolerate it.

I am now dedicated to see my two boys grow up and reach a ripe old age with my wife.

I write a blog about PTSD and my treatment. (My friends were harassing me about not having a post lately)...

Thanks again for raising awareness.

Sincerely Yours,

Michael “Mikey” Piro

It was liberating to write this little summary and confess how I feel. I am still deeply emotional about my experiences in war, but I have so much to celebrate and be thankful for. I am flourishing. These past 16 months have been the best since I came home and each month continues to be better. I could not have done it without you that are reading this right now and this convention of baring my soul into the internet. I am doing fine, thanks to you.

So here comes the ask: find a Veteran, give them a hug.  Accept them for who they are and give them an opportunity to flourish.

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: Matt Gallagher
Returned from: Iraq
Milblog: Kerplunk

What does America need to know about its new veterans? That we aren’t one voice, one experience, one memory, one preconceived notion fulfilled that can be stapled to our country’s heels like Peter Pan’s shadow? That we’re both varied and small? That 2.5 million of us have served in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001, a number that’s roughly the population of tiny, frozen Latvia, a number that only begins to hint at the separation between the postmodern empire and its legions?

Does history, the teacher of life according to Cicero, yield answers? How did a nation two generations removed from pushing back the onslaught of fascism get here? How did a society one generation removed from the great scar of Vietnam arrive here?

What happened to the America we woke up to on September 12, unified, defiant and proud?

Is it because in an all-volunteer force, it’s someone else’s sons and daughters who fight?

Shouldn’t supporting the troops also mean hiring them? Does the skittish corporal who managed $500,000 worth of equipment in a forgotten outpost of hell get hired, or just the officer with the plastic smile and business degree?

What’s the biggest divide between those who have served and those who haven’t? Other than getting shot at in strange lands? Recognizing that we’re as responsible for the divide as much as civilians are? That we know insulating ourselves in vet squads and platoons bridges nothing, but do it nonetheless?

That our own veterans’ movement has already splintered because of money and egos and a VA far too interested in public relations’ doublespeak and shooting messengers?

What of war’s end?

What of the future? Will our voices and experiences and memories mean anything when these questions arise yet again?

 

This essay originally appeared in Stars and Stripes as part of a column called "What do we need to know about veterans?"

Matt Gallaher's numerous contributions to The Sandbox during his deployment include RULES OF ENGAGEMENT, iWAR, A SOUNDTRACK TO WAR, and CRANK DAT IN IRAQ.

He is the author of Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War, and co-editor of Fire and Forget: Short Stories From the Long War.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What about the people at church?

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

"I guess I'll find out Sunday."

*****

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

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

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

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

Framed Piro SIMPSONIt has been eight years since SGT Jacob Simpson, my friend, former crew member, and Soldier died in Tal’Afar, Iraq. My memory is not so good anymore. There is a murky haze around the details, so when I jump around in this post or if you remember it differently, please forgive me.

When I first came home I would have described what I was doing in the third person. It would have had a deluge of Army-specific terms like “avenue of approach” or  BOLO (Be On the LOokout). I would have described these events tactically and clinically. It is easy to summarize events, even events that are horrific, when you avoid the emotions. As time has passed those terms are mothballed, but the feelings remain fresh. I write about my feelings a bunch but I have never verbalized this day eight years ago until today. It is too hard.

Up and Down

I was patrolling blocks away when “CONTACT!” burst over the radio.  That word, in that intonation, spikes your adrenaline. If you are outside the wire, it means FIGHT. If you are not near the fight, it means GO TO THE FIGHT.

It seemed like only moments before that high turned into a pit of despair. The highs and lows always seem to affect me still. This and other events linger as reasons. The voice on the radio, alarmed and excited seconds before, now reported to us with the solemn words that dropped us all:

“He’s dead.  Simpson’s dead.”

F##################CK!!!!

Why? Where? What?

The updates rolled in and my troop deflated. The enemy disappeared back into the population. The attack was so quick our response bore no gains.

We were providing security for Iraqis trying to receive treatment at the local hospital. There were gruesome reports of mistreatment along sectarian lines. Our presence stabilized a city resource and brought relative normalcy to a town where the mayor’s son had been killed and booby-trapped not months before.

None of that sh!t mattered now.

Memorial

The next few days are a blur. I remember wanting to cry at the Hero Flight but being so angry that I wouldn’t. That rage fueled us all for a while, but these days mine has given way more to sorrow. A Bradley Fighting Vehicle brought his body back to camp. As the track plodded along slowly towards the tarmac, the reality set in. Our Troopers bravely escorted him into the plane, painting an all too familiar picture of a Soldier draped in a flag en route to his final resting place.

My Commander and First Sergeant had the impossible task of eulogizing Jacob at the farewell ceremony. They nailed it. The images of boots, rifle, bayonet, Stetson and dog tags still give me pause. We crossed in front of it, gave our last salute, gently touched the dog tags and walked away hoping that those ritualized acts could seal the wound. They didn’t.

The day after the attack I remember talking with our Regimental Commander and telling him the good stories about Simpson. There were only good stories about Simpson.

This is what I remember.

I met Specialist Jacob Simpson the first day I arrived at my troop. I had a different Combat patch (4ID), a Combat Infantry Badge, and a screaming high and tight. I didn’t look, smell or act like a scout and Jacob could see that, so he started pinging me with questions. He had the look of a squared-away Soldier and was extremely attentive to my replies, so I immediately took note and liked him.

I had the further good fortune of getting Jacob on loan during gunnery before our deployment. Even though he was not officially assigned, he took his job with a seriousness that impressed me. It would have been easy to slack off or do the minimum. He did the opposite.

We had jumped around but settled outside of the dry-fire range one day. We had all of our crap just strewn in the back and it was annoying him. He wasn’t able to do his job as well, so he took out a wrench and started mounting straps on the outside of the track. Then he hung our stuff out there. He didn’t do it to win points, he did it so he was able to do his job better. He took initiative and just did it. Moreover, he did it with a smile. A little rock n roll on the radio, a little sun on his face, and this Specialist was happy to contribute in any way.

When it was our turn to shoot our Gunnery, he put us in a position to excel by counting rounds and keeping track of the firing scenarios. We could come in second in our Troop in large part from the teamwork he helped foster.

When he earned his Stripes I saw the pride and determination enter his face. Ready or not he displayed what all of our great NCOs showed us before and during that deployment: the NCO corps is the backbone of the Army. He was a professional and wanted to earn the respect of his peers, superiors and subordinates alike. He had great tough NCOs above him and while the learning curve was steep, he rose to the occasion.

When the Troop shuffled the roster and he received his team members he continued the excitement and initiative that I witnessed months earlier. They followed him around and knew he was the big brother type who was going to show them the ropes. He moved with urgency and when he got excited he would stand on his tiptoes.

He wanted to go to Selection for the Special Forces. I had a number of friends that completed selection and I had been through a few other schools, so if he ever caught me with down time he peppered me with questions. I was happy to answer. I knew with time and more experience he would be a fine SF Soldier.

He was taken this day eight years ago. He was taken too soon. He died in service to this nation defending the defenseless.

As my commander eloquently pointed out at his eulogy, he is a hero and we will always miss him.

Until we meet again, my friend.

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

Framed PTSD WatermelonIf I am in a new group or environment and the topic of the Iraq war comes around I always keep my safe stories handy. If you are a Veteran, you know the type: anecdotal humor aimed at the lighter side of war. Some have more meaningful undertones than others, but those few safe stories that can break the ice and divert the conversation to mundane questions are invaluable for a readjusting Vet. (For the record: Yes, it is hot in Iraq. Yes, it is a dry heat. Yes, it still sucks.)

I highly recommend them, unless they become a crutch.

My Duty as a Soldier

I usually tell this story in the summer with friends at a BBQ. It is my safe story.

When I was a little more than half way through my second trip, my commander took mid-tour leave and I assumed command.

One of the more bizarre crises that developed arose from some Extra Soldiers who were shacking up on our camp and did not fully understand their environment.

We had an excellent perch atop a grain silo on the camp we controlled. The line of sight stretched well across the city, and it was adjacent to a Shia enclave that appreciated our presence. With thermal optics we could easily see a dog taking a crap a mile away.

The Shias in the town had been on the receiving end of some vicious attacks with car bombs and snipers. As such, they formed a heavily armed militia and barricaded their part of town.

The Extra Soldiers utilizing our facility were in a Sniper nest way up on the grain silo. I don’t know what their mindset was, or if they had been properly briefed. I kind of just assumed by rank and experience they knew where who were the good guys and bad guys. Bad assumption.

On a particularly hot afternoon, the Sniper team saw one of the militia raise a weapon seemingly aimed at a helicopter. Using a suppressed weapon, they shot him dead.

It must have been terrifying for the other militia men with the boy because he received a number of rounds in rapid succession that must have seemed to come out of nowhere. One minute screwing off on “guard duty," the next minute full of bullets and dead.

I was on patrol at the time and not at the silo. One of my Lieutenants called higher headquarters and briefed them on what happened. The concerned Shia group came over and inquired if we had killed one of their militia.

My Lieutenant, obviously having a slight lapse in upholding the Army values, told them the enemy must have done it. I wish I could have seen the instant he realized what a mistake that lie was.

As the words dribbled out of his mouth and through an interpreter, the Shia group immediately leapt into action. Cell phones started ringing across their compound. Someone was going pay, Death Squad style. They were going to drive across town and f#ck some Sunnis up.

My First Sergeant called me on the radio and requested I come back as an issue was brewing that required my attention. He didn’t want to discuss it over the radio.

“Great,” I thought. Radio discipline generally meant something messy.

I returned to camp and talked to my Lieutenant. I don’t remember the exact conversation we had that well, but I am pretty sure “What the f#ck ever possessed you to think this was a good idea?” came out in some way shape or form.

The sheik of the Shia group was a gnarly old leathery dude who looked like Splinter from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. He was a wily old man who knew how to play the US forces like a skilled musician.

The plan I scratched out in my mind was simple: I had to get to him fast, tell him the truth, and hope to avoid sectarian violence or blood revenge against US forces. The heat of the day was past, but it was still well over 100 degrees.

My crew and I mounted up. In a single Bradley, I took our senior interpreter, my Bradley crew, and a Radio Telephone Operator and drove into their compound.

The hive was busy getting weapons loaded into cars.  Men of all ages carrying RPGs, AKs and bandoliers scurried about, preparing for a fight. Everyone looked serious and pissed off.

As the ramp lowered and our interpreter and I looked around, we knew this was not going to be easy.

Quick aside: I am one of the apparently few Americans who despises watermelon. Taste, texture, and smell all make me nauseous. I wont even go near artificial shit. No watermelon lollipops for me. No sir. Please consider that while I finish this story out.

Did I mention the heat earlier? Oh yeah, the heat, a crammed stuffy room full of pissed-off Iraqis, me and my interpreter. One solitary fan twirled overhead and provided the equivalent effect of pissing on a 20-acre forest fire.

The Sheik’s lieutenants were all in the room with us. They knew that if I was there under these circumstances it was strictly business. I had to make them understand the gravity, so after a few minutes, I took off my armor and asked the Sheik to kick everyone out of the room.

He was a little surprised, but did as I asked. I was trying to tread carefully to observe courtesies and customs. I was delivering bad news, I did not want to make it worse.

Once everyone was out of the room, the Sheik decided it was time to eat.

You can see where this is going, right?

From another room a small boy with a large metal bowl walked into our meeting. The contents of the bowl was an obscene amount of the Iraqi equivalent of watermelon.

As boy placed the bowl in between the Sheik and I, the Sheik reached down with his gnarly hand into the warm bowl, picked up a slimy piece of the vile watermelon, and held it out.

I looked at my interpreter and asked, “What do I do?”  He knew the customs and he simply said, “You eat it. You don’t want to offend him.”

I glared at the interpreter and said, “You don’t understand, I can’t eat this.”

He just smiled.

So with that I reached out, took the fruit, and raised it to my mouth. I made an over-exaggerated “Mmmmm” sound as I choked back vomit.

Then I held that sweaty piece of melon and explained to the Sheik that we had actually killed his family member. The Lieutenant had been mistaken and we were to blame. There was no need to go across town. The Sunnis were not responsible for this one.

He thanked me for being honest. I thanked him for telling his men to stand down. We worked out another meeting to discuss a reparation payment for his family member.

I left the smoldering watermelon on the seat. We mounted back up and I went back to base, swearing off watermelon for the rest of my days.

Unsafe Stories

I have told that story without crying for years. It is safe. It doesn’t involve much death or gore or stress.  It is mildly comedic. I use to tell it to avoid the deeper emotional scars of Iraq.

A few weeks ago I spoke with a man I consider a friend at length about my time in Iraq. It has been years since I was there and yet when we talked the emotion of dealing with loss in Iraq made me weep. I could have told him the watermelon story cold, but that would be equivocal or dishonest. He asked hard questions and I tried my best to answer.

In one instance he asked me about the first time I lost a Soldier.

Ironically, next week marks seven years since we lost SGT Jacob Simpson. I still cannot talk about him or that day. I still think of him. I still mourn him. I cried when I tried to tell my friend about the loss.

One of the many realizations I have had over the past few weeks is that this is my new normal. I don’t think I will ever fully get over losing him. He is woven into me and in some ways I carry on because of him. I do not take for granted my gift of life. Though some days are harder than others, I remind myself that a piece of him is with me, and it is my duty to preserve and honor his memory.

I can rationalize all of this, yet I choke up when I try to articulate with the spoken word how he was a tremendous Soldier. I cannot help but weep at the crater of loss he left. I have dozens more stories where the grief of loss ties me up.

These are my unsafe stories. They stir emotion and are hard to get through. I made it a goal a while back to cry less and talk more, especially when caught off guard.  It is a work in progress, and I have a feeling it will be like that for a while. But the unsafe stories are where the real healing takes place. If you don’t have an unsafe story, I recommend you find someone, and get started.

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

The winners of "Boonie's Haiku Contest" are announced below. More than 50 entries were considered.

During judging, names were removed from entries. The judges looked first for strict adherence to the 17-syllable format specified in the contest rules (lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables), then moved on to consider questions of how the poems evoked nature and deployed military life. The best created a surprise of recognition.

***

First place goes to Mariecor Ruediger, who will receive a $200 boxed set of "China Beach," soon to be released for the first time on DVD. (Due to music rights issues, it was never released on VHS.) Here is the winning entry:

        One bare Huế tree
        Shields a tower position;
        Home is far away.

The judges said: "We liked how the reader is left to determine whether the tree shades the guard tower, provides cover for it, or potentially blocks its view. We also liked how the poem suggested Vietnam."

***

Second place goes to John Mittle, who will receive an autographed and personalized edition of David Abrams' 2012 novel Fobbit. Mittle is a contributor to The Duffel Blog.

        From dusk until dawn
        fighting from my cozy desk,
        Bronze Star on the way.

The judges said: "The 'on the way' cracked us up! So did the sudden idea of the Bronze Star as either wishing star or morning star."

***

Third place goes to Joseph Davidovski, who will receive a "Blue Falcon" coffee mug designed by Doctrine Man!

        Sandstorm blocks out sun
        Birds, vics, talibs stay quiet
        Still the slides march on

The judges said: "Anyone who has weathered the 'red air' of a no-fly situation will recognize how nature can stop everything but PowerPoint and a staff meeting."

***

One entry, from tgdrakes, practically created its own category, generated by the power of its laugh-out-loud gravitas. It will be appropriately (?!) recognized with a separate Doctrine Man! Blue Falcon coffee mug.

        Sh-- in the shower?
        Why in the f--- would someone
        Sh-- in the shower?

The judges said: "Profound. Profane. And, in many ways, a nearly perfect description of the challenges of FOB life."

 * * * * * * *

Honorable mentions included the following, presented here in random order:

By Mariecor Ruediger:

        Bleak like grim winter
        Combat makes me spring then fall:
        This ain't no picnic.

The judges said: "This one sneaks up on you, like old age and bad knees." 

***

By NavyOne:

        Sprint in a flightsuit
        Long tarmac, rip my crotch
        Warm Iraqi breezes

The judges said: "This is an effective reminder of why 'going commando' is never a good idea, even when wearing Nomex. It also makes us want to sing the theme to 'Born Free'!"

***

By Travis Martin, founding editor of The Journal of Military Experience:

        OD green stretches
        White salt stains: Chalk-lined soldiers
        Echo restless sleep.

The judges said: "Anyone who has spent a hot, sweaty night on a transient-tent Army cot will recognize the salty-shadowy outlines evoked by this writer."

***

By Nate Didier:

        COP Kalagush night
        Raining rockets again right?
        Commando will fight!

The judges said: "Rhymes and references to Red Bull territory downrange in 2010-2011 Afghanistan! In this case, 'Commando' is a 1st Battalion, 133rd Infantry Regiment call sign. 'Attack! Attack! Attack!'"

***

By mil-blogger America's SgtMaj:

        Silly pogue don't know
        Gunslingers don't drink lattes
        Macchiato sir?

The judges said: "Eskimos allegedly have 17 different words for snow. We imagine there are also 17 different ways to pronounce the 'sir' in this poem, each with its own unique flavor. And sprinkles of sarcasm."

***

By Tim Kindred:

        My mind thinks of home
        I'd love a beer and Maid-Rite
        Not an MRE

The judges said: "Bonus points for using juxtaposing an acronym and a much-beloved Midwestern brand!"

***

By Scott McDaniel:

        Where is the Kandak?
        Alone at the command post.
        Oh, it's Thursday night!

The judges said: "We think this lonely letter from an Embedded Training Team member is potentially the first time that 'Man-love Thursday' has been recorded in Western war-poetry!"

***

By Jim Keirsey:

        Eight deployments down
        most surreal thing I've seen is
        KAF's TGIF

The judges said: "This is the most adept use of acronyms we've seen! And it alludes to the carnival vibe some got from seeing a T.G.I. Fridays restaurant on a downrange boardwalk."

***

By Raj Bose:

        POWs
        Nodding a smile to the guards
        Through the barbed wire fence

The judges said: "This, like the Mona Lisa, was nicely ... enigmatic. And universal."

***

By "Dark Laughter" at The Duffel Blog:

        This summer sandstorm
        Couldn’t blind the first sergeant
        To my day-old shave.

The judges said: "This is beautiful! It places the reader in both time and place, and also feels a bit like a Burma-Shave ditty."

***

By Krystal Miga:

        Oh it’s you again
        Working, living, together
        It’s like we’re married

The judges said: "This writer found a memorable new way to evoke the ideas of 'Groundhog Day' and the 'downrange spouse.' If you have to ask what that means, don't ask."

***

Finally, a bonus quasi-entry from cp3002, commenting at Tom Ricks' The Best Defense blog:

        An empty Rip-It
        held to your ear in Helmand
        sounds like the ocean.

The judges said: "Marines love the sound of the sea!"

 

Note: This content regarding military writing is underwritten by Victor Ian LLC, a military media and gaming business. The business publishes Lanterloon, an eclectic lifestyle, technology, and military blog; has a physical retail storefront called "Dragons and Dragoons" located in Colorado Springs, Colo.; and hosts military-writing workshops and other events under the "Sangria Summit" brand name.

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

The night was June 30, 2007. The funny thing is that I don’t remember anything that happened earlier in the day. The first thing I remember is where this story will begin. It’s hard to write about. As I type these words I get a flood of emotions through my body. Anger, sadness, adrenaline, and excitement are bombarding me at this very moment. I have wanted to write about this night for a long time. I have been afraid to write about it, wanting to get it right. Too much happened for me to accurately capture everything, but this is my story. My take. What I remember.

It had been a while since our last scuffle with al Qaeda. Jimm Spannagel had recently talked with our whole platoon telling us that we were going to conduct “Steady State Operations,” as the sector was quiet and we had the place on lock-down. I was sitting outside playing some Texas Hold ’em with some of the guys. I was wearing my ACU pants, boots, and had taken off the top as it was still pushing mid 90s well after the sun had set. Spirits were high, talking trash as guys won hands with the Sneaky Sadiki, Impalla (6-4), The Hund (K-9), Dirty Trucker (10-4), Dinner for Two (6-9) and many more that I wish I remembered. Little did we know that the events later that night would change the lives of thousands of people; both good and bad.

“Tracer fire to the east,” came from the rooftop observation post. Nothing out of the ordinary, I thought.

“Lots of tracers to the east,” came a few seconds later.

Still nothing out of the ordinary. I continued to play cards. Celebratory fire was common.

“Saber 7, Red 7 is on the net, they are in contact” yelled my Command Post RTO as he ran towards the card table.

I immediately threw down my cards and ran to the Command Post. I snatched the radio. “Red 7, Saber 7, over,” I called.

“Saber 7, Red 7, we are in contact with 75-100 insurgents." I remember looking over at Jimm, who had rushed into the CP, or maybe he had been standing there the whole time, with a quizzical look on my face as if to say, “He can’t be serious!”

“Red 7, Saber 7, say again over?” was my next radio transmission, hoping he would respond with something else.

“THIS IS RED 7, WE ARE IN CONTACT WITH 75-100 INSURGENTS. WE ARE RUNNING BLACK ON AMMO, WE NEED IMMEDIATE RE-SUPPLY!” His reply left no room for interpretation as the steady sound of an M2 Heavy Barreled .50 Cal machine gun was rocking in the background, coupled with the reports of tracer fire from my OP, they were in the shit. Jimm looked at me and asked “What do you think?”

“Let’s roll."

By the time the decision was made to roll out, half our platoon was standing in the CP awaiting instructions. Jimm made the call to leave the JSS minimally manned with only a couple guys on the radio and the somewhat trusting Iraqi Police to pull security. Jimm pulled in the Squad leaders, Iraqi Police Chief, and began to come up with a hasty plan. Each truck was already loaded for bear, but each stopped by our Ammunition holding area to load up additional rounds for Red Platoon. They were four trucks with less than 20 Soldiers.

We needed to hurry. I loved my platoon for their ability to react quickly, but more for the fact that they were always hungry for a fight. The tracer fire to the east was visible as we conducted last minute radio checks, mounted gear, and threw on our night vision devices. We were headed east towards the river; nasty, rough terrain that was full of irrigation ditches that made navigation in a straight line impossible. This terrain also made “choke points” that were perfect places for the enemy to emplace IEDs.

The city had been quiet for a while. US forces had taken back control of Ramadi, the capitol of Al Anbar province -- a province that had been declared un-winnable by a Marine General. What we didn’t know that night was that al Qaeda was making one last desperate attempt to create havoc. Two 40-foot trailers loaded with IEDs and munitions were surrounded by 75-100 al Qaeda insurgents, most of whom were wearing suicide vests. Red Platoon from Charlie Company 1-77 Armor was conducting area reconnaissance in an area along the Euphrates River near Donkey Island, named for the donkeys that live on it. They surprised the insurgents, and may have surprised themselves running into such a large element. The fight was on.

We flew out the gate of the JSS and headed towards Red Platoon. Our platoon had already been hit by three IEDs and we were moving into territory that we didn’t spend much time in. We didn’t want to rush to failure. The threat of possible IEDs was high. We moved slow and deliberate. The amount of tracers that filled the air was surreal. I kept thinking “This looks like the laser light show at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry.” Red platoon kept calling on the radio asking for our position. We couldn’t move fast enough. Saber 1 was in the lead. The shitty terrain, lack of knowledge of the terrain, and threat of IEDs limited our speed.

By the time we arrived at Red Platoon's position, the fighting was at a lull. The enemy had hunkered down due to the superior night-fighting capabilities our weapons and equipment provided. We cross-leveled ammunition from our trucks to resupply Red platoon while Red 7 gave us the run-down of what had happened. Red platoon had put a smackdown on the enemy. After he was finished giving us the update I thought, “Well, Red kicked their ass, we won’t get much action.”

How wrong I was.

I have been asked more than a few times if I ever thought while serving in combat that I was going to die or thought death was imminent. The answer is “No.” However, on numerous occasions I had thought to myself, “If I am ever going to be killed, this would be a situation in which I might.” I was confident in my abilities. I was confident in the abilities of my platoon. If al Qaeda was going to get the jump on me, they were going to have to be the best, because my platoon was great, if not the best, and I believed in their abilities to wreak havoc. And it wasn’t because they were Cavalry Scouts. We had Commo guys and Medics that were part of the team. Your job in the military doesn’t matter; it’s what you do to benefit the team that counts. And they all kicked ass the night of June 30, 2007.

I mounted back up into my truck after cross-leveling ammunition to Red Platoon, and gave my crew a quick run-down. Jimm was on the radio giving orders to sections of trucks. Alpha Section would move south and orient their trucks to interdict movement south of the engagement area while another section was to move with the Company Commander that just so happened to be leaving to conduct a patrol himself. We effectively set a half moon cordon of vehicles around the engagement area with the Euphrates River to the backs of the enemy. Smack in the center were the two large semi-trucks.

With everyone set, Jimm made the call to assault through the objective towards the river to clear any remaining enemy. As our trucks crept toward the vehicles we received small arms fire from its vicinity and witnessed four enemy Soldiers bounding back to cover. Jimm ordered his gunner to engage the cab of the truck to destroy it, and the .50 Caliber Armor Piercing Incendiary rounds did just that and then some. The truck quickly caught fire. Munitions in the back of the trailer began to cook off. Mortar rounds, IEDs, and small arms began to explode and the fire, becoming increasingly larger, began to wash out our night vision. With the rounds cooking off and our inability to see, the call was made to move back a few hundred meters and wait for the fire to burn out. We backed up our trucks and waited.

By this time, two Apache gunships had arrived on station and conducted check-in. Jimm along with Red 7 were giving him situation reports on what was going on. One of the Apache Crews was conducting their last patrol; giving the new unit a tour of the area. They were soon headed back home to Texas after a long deployment. Chief Warrant Officer Kevin Purtee was one of the pilots with Chief Warrant Officer Allen Crist as the gunner, or what they call the “Front Seat-er.”

As we were sitting and watching the fire grow, I received the second worst radio transmission a leader can receive. “Saber 7, my gunner lost his rifle.” I wanted to flip out, but we had bigger fish to fry. I called back to the JSS and let them know what happened. They left one guy on the radio and took our two satellite operators and left the JSS on a dismounted patrol to find it. Luckily for the crew, the weapon was found at the first turn out of the JSS. The gunner had set it on top of the truck and in the hurry to leave the JSS, failed to secure it inside his truck as they left.

The fire began to intensify and the Apaches began to engage a few targets of opportunity. One of those “opportunities” happened to be about 50 meters from my truck. The 40mm High-Explosive rounds going off so close, without warning, startled the hell out of me and my gunner. The Apaches were reporting numerous hot-spots through their thermal vision but with the sheep, donkeys, exploding shrapnel from the trucks, and the enemy laying still, it was tough to determine what was what. And then the largest explosion I have ever witnessed happened. The two trucks went up in a ball of flame, so large and intense that it knocked the UAV’s thermal vision out of commission. With the fire now subsided by the explosion we assaulted east, and all hell broke loose.

We started receiving heavy small arms, RPG, and grenade fire from various distances. My gunner, “Boots” began to open up with his M240 machine gun. The irrigation ditches and terrain didn’t allow us to remain on line and forced us to follow each other “ducks in a row” to move east. “OVER THERE, OVER THERE, I SEE KNUCKLES!” yelled my medic that sits behind the driver.

“WHERE IS THERE?” came from my gunner.

An explosion rocked near the back of Jimm’s truck; an RPG had just missed him. Tracer fire everywhere as we continued our push. Boots was smoking the hell out of the enemy as we finally reached the bank of the river. I look back at Doc and ask him “What the hell is Knuckles?”

“You know, when a guy is running and pumping his fists as he runs --' I saw his knuckles.'” I placed this brief conversation into the memory bank to remember to re-train target designation.

We hit the bank of the river and moved south to clear buildings and tents. Our hope was to catch those that had possibly been injured or were seeking safe haven from some of the locals. As we began to clear the second building my element providing security outside came under heavy automatic fire. One of the basic rules when on patrol is if you hear the gun firing, you are not the target. However, if you hear the crack of the round as it breaks the sound barrier passing you, and THEN you hear the gun, take cover. I don’t remember hearing the machine gun, but I do remember us getting pelted with bullets and the hundreds of small sonic “Cracks” as the bullets flew past us. Everyone dove back into their trucks and we moved back towards the engagement area with everyone’s gunners, and the Apache Gunships, lighting up Donkey Island.

Pain 6, our Company Commander, along with Saber 9 and his section began their assault south to clear along the river bank from the northern side of the engagement area. The river level had dropped about eight feet from its levels during the winter. This created a perfect six-foot cliff along the road for the enemy to use as cover while the trucks moved south. Pain 6 and his dismounts would clear along the river bank as the mounted element moved in conjunction to provide mounted machine gun fire.

As Pain 6’s element cleared the river bank they became pinned down by the overwhelming enemy fire. The net was heavy with traffic as Red 7 and the Apaches were talking about targets. Through a break in the chaos on the net, I overheard Pain 6 say that he was pinned down and unable to move. I don’t think anyone but myself had heard it as conversations continued about what the Apache needed to be doing. “BREAK BREAK BREAK, this is Saber 7, we have a commander pinned down and unable to move. THAT needs to be our priority right now!” I yelled over the net. And what was said next, depending on who you ask, is up for debate, but I know what I heard.

“This is Saber 9, my gunner has been shot in the face, he’s done.” Everyone in my truck stopped and we all looked at each other.

“Did he just say Jamal is dead?” asked my driver.

“No, he’s shot, but not dead,” was my reply, but now that my driver had asked, I began to wonder. I wanted to feel bad, but had no time for it. I had to keep my guys focused. “He’s going to be fine, let’s move out.” My job as a Platoon Sergeant now changed from killing bad guys to Casualty Evacuation. I immediately grabbed Saber 1’s section and we maneuvered towards Pain 6’s location.

Pain 6’s element had taken some casualties and we were going to need more than my truck to evacuate the wounded. I got on the Task Force net and immediately requested a MEDIVAC helicopter to pick up Jamal. I was denied. The firefight was too intense, MEDIVAC wouldn’t risk a helicopter. I was livid. I think part of the reason I respect those that work in the Tactical Operations Center is that they have to put up with guys like me on the radio. I didn’t care who was on the other end -- I wasn’t afraid to tell them how pissed I was that a bird wasn’t coming.

Specialist Jamal was the gunner on a truck moving south along the river bank. As he was scanning he spotted an Insurgent engaging his truck from below, along the river bank. With the M240 in its mount, he was unable to depress the weapon far enough to fire back. He stood up, pulled the machine gun from its mount and fired while exposing himself from behind his ballistic shield. He killed the insurgent, but took a round in the face. The force of the bullet knocked him back inside his truck.

Near the same time that Jamal had been shot, the dismounted element began to take heavy casualties as well. Specialist T, Corporal A, Sergeant Nick, and Pain 6 had become casualties. SGT Nick took a round to the head but helped SPC T move to a little bit of cover. He then low-crawled back to the nearest truck which happened to be SSG N’s. “Get to the medic, I’ll get SPC T,” SSG N ordered.

SPC T had been shot multiple times and was pinned down on the river bank, unable to move under his own power. SSG N, under intense machine gun fire, low-crawled to SPC T and asked “Can you walk?”

“Does it look like I can walk?” was his reply. SPC T was full of bullet holes. SSG N then dragged SPC T back to safety, putting his own life at risk for that of another Soldier.

We arrived at the designated Casualty Collection Point (CCP) and began to load the wounded. I don’t remember if we were under fire or not, but I remember the amazing work of our Medics and my Senior Scout as they were cool, calm, and tending to the wounded.

SGT Nick conducted self aid and wrapped his head wound up. He was going to drive one of the trucks back to Camp Ramadi with one of the wounded. I loaded up CPL A into the back of my truck while Saber 1 loaded up SPC Jamal. We had numerous wounded and we needed to get them back to the Level 2 Aid Station as soon as possible, especially SPC Jamal. He was covered in blood, and barely able to walk, but alive. Each of the trucks we were using for evacuation had problems. Flat tires, power steering pumps inoperative due to bullet holes, or windows that could barely be seen out of due to spiderwebs that were created by bullets. That wasn’t all...

We again had problems with the terrain. We were in an area that we had only been in a few times, and then it had been during daylight. This time it was pitch black out. It seemed every turn we took led us into a square 100-meter field with no exit. It was like a giant maze that we were trying to find the exit to, only this time lives were at stake. We turned into a field and slammed into an embankment that sent my gunner flying into his weapon. The force was so hard that his feet came up off the ground and hit the windshield. Groans from CPL A in the back were constant. He was holding up, but the rough terrain and bumpy ride were killing the bullet wounds that had broken his ankle.

The net had been silent for a while. Not normal...

One look at my radios and I noticed that they had overheated. Great! Another thing to shit the bed. First the weapon, next was wounded Soldiers, no MEDIVAC bird, now my radios go out? What else could go wrong? I will tell you: my transmission takes a shit. It was like the truck wouldn’t go fully into gear, like a clutch was slipping. We had no power to move over any rough terrain. Any small hill needed a running start.

The frustration could be heard in my driver’s voice as I would yell commands at him. I had to calm down; yelling wasn’t helping anything. I was starting to get light headed. We had been going hard for a few hours and I needed some water but our truck didn’t have any; we had thrown out the cooler full of water to make room for the casualties. Time was running out for SPC Jamal. Something needed to be done. I was starting to feel a little overwhelmed. That’s when two bad ass National Guardsmen took a chance.

The aviation unit was from Texas and was conducting their final flight over the city of Ramadi.  They had no idea what was in store for them that night.

After receiving updates from Red 7 and Jimm, they started rocket and gun runs along Donkey Island.  They were monitoring our Task Force net and could hear my anger-filled pleas for a MEDIVAC helicopter. Having heard stories about Soldiers dying due to the lack of a MEDIVAC bird, they weren’t going to let it happen this time. That’s when they decided to do something that had never been done in combat (and done only twice since). Fully understanding the risk, they landed their Apache helicopter after Saber 1 established a Hasty Landing Zone. Chief Warrant Officer Crist got out of the front seat to allow room for a critically wounded Soldier. SPC Jamal was loaded into the Apache’s front seat. They had two choices.  The first was for CW2 Crist to stay on the ground while CW4 Purtee flew back to camp Ramadi. The second, and the one they chose, was for CW2 Crist to strap himself to the outside of the Apache and sit on the small wing for the ride back. The bird took off and made its way back to safety.  

We still weren’t out of the maze of irrigation ditches yet. Frustration was at an all time high. I kept talking to CPL A, trying to keep him calm, but in all honesty I think it helped me stay calm as well. Pain 6, who was suffering from heat exhaustion and a bullet wound, was in one of the vehicles headed back to Camp Ramadi. Somewhere along the route he gained consciousness and ordered his driver to turn around and take him back to the fight. He refused to leave his troops on the battlefield.  

After what seemed like an eternity, we finally made it out of the maze and were on familiar terrain. My radios were working again and Task Force HQ was getting minute by minute updates as we made our way back. I wanted them to ensure that the Entry Control Point would be open and let us through without having to stop. I think this was about the third or fourth time I was entering the FOB with wounded, and it never failed; the ECP wasn’t expecting us. The Armored Personnel Carrier was blocking the road and nobody was around to move it. I flipped out, screaming at the poor kid pulling guard; so hard in fact that I about passed out. I was maxed out on adrenaline, dehydrated, and frustrated.

After the vehicle was moved out of the way we flew to the Aid station to unload the wounded. The medical team was waiting for us by the entrance to unload the wounded. The medics had it down to a science in Ramadi; they had seen their fair share of casualties. The Level 2 facility, or “Charlie Med” as they called it, was located across from the chow hall. For the first few months that we lived there, you couldn’t eat a meal without a medic running in and calling out a blood type. “O Positive!” they would yell, and anyone with that blood type would get up and rush over to Charlie Med to give blood to a wounded Soldier in need. 

Rule one when dropping off casualties was to stay out of the way; the medics were in charge. Standing behind the large concrete barriers was my Battalion Operations Officer, 1SG, and Brigade Command Sergeant Major Stanley. Word had spread quickly on the intense firefight and everyone and their brother was standing by to get a firsthand account of what was going on.    

“You all right, Sergeant G? What’s going on out there?” asked my Operations Officer Major J. 

I looked at him square in the eyes “It’s a fucking laser light show, sir. They were everywhere. I need water.”  My 1SG, or a Medic, I can’t remember, brought be a 1-liter bottle of water and I downed it.  I began to explain what was going on, and I must have been speaking a thousand miles an hour. CSM Stanley grabbed me by the flack-vest and yanked me really close so our noses were about two inches apart.

CSM Stanley was a big dude that stood well over 6 feet, weighed easily 240, but was always really cool with me.  But you could tell that he could get into some ass if needed. He would frequently stop down at our JSS to drop off some care packages and shoot the breeze. We would walk out on the front entrance of the JSS, fire up a couple of Newports, and just talk. He didn’t come down to bust our balls, or get in our ass about anything; he came down to show us he cared. He knew our living conditions were terrible, and our mission wasn’t the easiest.  

With a half cocked smile he said, “Gib, I can see it in your eyes, you got a lot of adrenaline pumping through you right now. You need to take a few deep breaths and c-a-l-m  d-o-w-n.”  I took a deep breath, another, then yanked myself away from him and threw up all over the concrete barrier. Serious adrenaline dump…

By this time, all of the wounded had been taken inside and a medic was standing beside me wanting to take me in as well. “You're dehydrated, you need an IV, get inside,” he instructed. 

I wasn’t having it though. I needed to get back out to Donkey Island to get back with my Soldiers. “Not going to happen Doc,” I replied. 

CSM Stanley piped in: “Doc, it’s a lost cause, he aint going inside.” He looked at me and finished his sentence: “He wants and needs to get back with his boys.”

I walked inside Charlie Med and received a roll-up of all the wounded and proceeded to the Company Command Post to radio back to our boys in the fight. I knew that hearing that everyone had made it back safely would ease their minds. I began to rattle off the names and the wounds they received and even managed to throw in some humor when I described SGT Nick’s. “And SGT Nick, Gunshot wound to the head, through and through, walking wounded.”  It is still one of the most bizarre wounds I have ever seen. He was shot in the head, just above his ear. The bullet pierced his skin, but not the skull. The bullet wrapped around his head, exited the skin at the back of his head, and then blew a hole through his Kevlar helmet. God was looking out for him that night.

I left the CP and headed over to our maintenance area and the mechanics were going a hundred miles an hour fixing our trucks. The warm hue of the fluorescent lights lit up the motor stables. Our vehicles were jacked up, full of bullet holes, and needed some serious work. The Motor Sergeant was barking orders, mechanics swapping parts, and not a single complaint could be heard. It was the first time that I was completely satisfied with our mechanics. It seemed like any other time we needed something done it was done slow, with complaints, and grudgingly. I remember wondering why they couldn’t work like this all the time... I guess it takes some of our Soldiers being shot for them to show some urgency.

After a few hours at maintenance, around eight hours after the initial firefight, Saber 1’s section and I were headed back out. It still wasn’t over. The intensity of the firefight had subsided, but the worst of the event was yet to come. 

The sun had started to rise over the Iraqi desert. I had been monitoring the radio while the mechanics worked feverishly on our trucks, and I was tracking on what was going on out in sector. With our trucks fixed, we headed out the gate to link back up with the platoon and the rest of the element that had showed up.

I met Staff Sergeant Michael L. Ruoff Jr. after I returned from the Master Gunner Academy back in 2000. He and his wife Tracey had just PCS’d to Germany. He was high speed, and a “Gear-do." Everything about him was Army. He quickly gained the nick-name “Ranger Ruoff” and fit right in with C Company, House of Pain. While most of us Tankers liked to keep our distance from the Infantry side of the house, Ranger Ruoff gladly cammo’ed up and played Grunt.

One of my favorite stories involving Ranger Ruoff was when we were shooting Tank Table 8, our annual Tank qualification. The Battalion Commander wouldn’t let anyone sit in the Battle Positions while another crew went down range to qualify. This didn’t allow any crews the ability to “G2” the range prior to the qualification run. This didn’t stop Ranger Ruoff. Armed with some cammo, a radio, binoculars, and a range sector card, he and a fellow crew member snuck through the woods behind the range tower and did some “Recon” of their own. They fired up the radio to listen to the tower prompts and watched as tanks went down range and qualified. After a few runs, he had the order of the targets, target locations, and anything you needed to know for each of the lanes.

SFC Raymond R. Buchan was a burley Infantry Noncommissioned officer in the Infantry company that was attached to our Battalion. During the first few months of the deployment, myself and my Scouts were itching to get into the City of Ramdi and fight. We were afforded the opportunity on a few occasions to work with SFC Buchan’s platoon. He loved to talk shit about me being a tanker and being on the ground kicking in doors. With a big ear to ear grin he would look down from the turret of his Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle and yell “You able to keep up, old man?”

Both of these fine Soldiers were taken from us the morning of 1 July, 2007. As vehicles continued to clear the objective of Donkey Island, many bodies on the ground were discovered to be wearing Suicide Vests. The decision was made to establish a hasty defensive position and wait for EOD to clear the vests. By the time I had arrived back to my Scouts, a Platoon of Infantry and the Battalion Commander with his Personal Security Detachment had showed up. One of the Brads had engaged some enemy running into a tent; SFC Buchan and SSG Ruoff were conducting Battle Damage Assessment inside the tent. They walked outside and were gunned down by an insurgent that was behind some bushes.

That’s the crazy thing about combat. In one fraction of a moment, everything can come crashing down. Immediately the Navy SEALS that had arrived conducted first aid and sped them back to Camp Ramadi, but were unable to save their lives.

At some point later that morning, we Scouts were ordered back to the JSS to bolster security and continue operations. I headed back, upset about the loss of a friend. I then received a radio call that the Iraqi Police that were tasked with getting rid of the dead insurgents were acting like fools on the Objective. Each of the insurgents had a back-pack that was full of ammo, ID card, a $100 bill, and a cell phone. The Iraqi Police were all fighting over the back-packs instead of clearing the dead bodies. I lost my mind. After the most stress-filled night of my life, losing two of my buddies, and then the IP’s acting like idiots, I couldn’t take it anymore.

I got word that one of the IP trucks was entering the JSS. I flew outside and flipped out on the IP Commander. I kicked the door of the IP truck and pushed back all the IPs as they attempted to grab a back-pack. “Burn them all” was my order. My poor Soldiers having to deal with me -- I lost my mind. I really believe that they could have admitted me into the loony-bin that morning. I took all the bags, threw them in a pile, covered them in gas, and was about to light them on fire when one of my Soldiers stopped me. The bags had some machine gun rounds in them. Good catch...

And that’s the last thing I remember about the event.

I haven’t wanted to write about this night because there is so much that I didn’t cover or missed. The events that Saber 9 and his section took part in, the Company Commander and his actions, and the actions of my Platoon Leader Jimm are so numerous that I plan to interview each of them prior to writing my book about our deployment to Ramadi. The JSS and limited amount of security they had and their actions. So much happened that night that still needs to come out, and will at a later time. Many awards were given out that night for Valorous actions:

Two Distinguished Flying Crosses.
Two Silver Stars.
Bronze Stars with V for Valor (two that I know for sure, but think it could be four).
Army Commendation Medals with V for Valor (four that I know of but could be more).
Purple Hearts (too many).

Thirty-five confirmed enemy killed (that is just the bodies that were recovered on the main land, not counting those that were swept away by the river or were on Donkey Island).

Sergeant First Class Raymond R. Buchan – KIA
Staff Sergeant Michael L. Ruoff Jr. – KIA

Rest in Peace, Buchan and Ruoff. We will meet again at the Fiddlers Green.

 

Name: Ginger Star Peterman
Returned from: Iraq
Hometown: Milwaukee, WI
Email: gsgunnip@yahoo.com

Day fades. Darkness prevails and the weeks quickly melt. I lack sleep. I refuse to feel. I avoid that which I cannot change, but is real. I must choose to face it; reestablish control. He took it from me, about 260 weeks ago, and I need it back. I must say it, out loud. Let the world hear my voice.  

His job is to heal wounded soldiers, Doc Lemieux. I should have stayed outside his CHU, in mid-day Kirkuk, with the summer-sun beaming down upon the empty gravel. A CHU, containerized housing unit, is what the more fortunate soldiers live in. Others share 30-man tents with cots, if they are lucky, and have hot showers with toilets. If not, the lowest ranking personnel are put on shit-burning detail involving a 50-gallon metal drum cut short enough to squat over, JP8 diesel fuel, matches, and a stick for stirring. Soldiers go to FOB Warrior for mini-vacations, resupply missions, and healthcare. I’m here for an x-ray. Doc Lemieux is my NCOIC, non-commissioned officer in charge.       

I am a wounded soldier. My ankle throbs with no respite. My wrists are sore, from maneuvering crutches through gravel and balancing on one foot. The rubber pads are warped and scratched from the jagged, hot rocks. Everywhere there were rocks stretching miles wide, and likely deep, into the nothingness below. The rocks sink down into the powdered dirt they called “sand” after soldiers march it forcefully into the forsaken ground. The heated rocks soften our rubber soles.   

It was the first in a series of bad days. I glare up at the harsh sun. No amount of daily sunscreen can protect my Ginger skin from the UV rays on this side of the globe. He insists I go into his CHU. I have no choice. I don’t know where I am or where else I can go. There are three awkward steps leading us up into the aluminum box.  

I complain, “My wrists hurt from these stupid crutches."

Invading my space, he smiles: “Let me take a look at them.”

“Why?  There is nothing to see,” I say, laughing with reservation.

He insists and grabs my aching wrists one at a time, without even looking at them. He glares into my eyes and throws me at his bed. I bounce up, utterly confused.

“Ouch! Why would you do that? I just told you I was in pain. You twisted my bad ankle, too!” 

He doesn’t acknowledge my plea. He throws me back down again, laughing like it’s a game; he is winning. He doesn’t let me bounce back this time. Now I am trapped between him, the bed, and the four walls inside this tiny container in Northern Iraq. The CHU is centered within a matrix of many rows and columns of lifeless CHUs. He is strong and I am weak. The more I fight, the more he gets off.

“You like this,” he demands. “You’re a dirty girl.”

I close my eyes and see his, pervading evil within. The image of his nametape is branded onto my inner eyelids, reinforcing the memory: his intent to violate my pride, to take my life, and to force his body onto me. The neuronal synapses of my subconscious established a direct route through the maze my conscience built to avoid such thoughts. Yet he is steadily there, a constant, revisited daily. The side effects are what doctors call post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD, as a result of military sexual trauma, MST: irritability, hyper-vigilance, anxiety. 

Avoidance is like pouring JP8 on PTSD. I stay at home and cry. PTSD gets off even more when I can’t enjoy sex with my own husband. He leaves me for a woman who actually enjoys sex with my husband.  

My marriage failed. 

Who to trust? How to survive? Is it even possible to get my life back? Suicide is an option.

Right?

No.

Fight!

Many veterans are suffering from PTSD. We are staying “safe" in our homes, drinking, playing video games, watching TV, self-medicating, attempting suicide, avoiding our potentials, and letting PTSD win.  We are not alone in this fight. I know that transformation doesn’t happen overnight, but the possibility of achieving control of PTSD is real. 

He can no longer harness the power I give him. I must get it back. I must achieve my potential to the precise maximum. I am an American soldier. I’ve been to Hell, and I’m not going back. 

Name: Roy Scranton
Returned from: Iraq
Hometown: Salem, Oregon
Milblog: Fire and Forget

Framed Scranton FILE AND FORGET coverMy friend Jake came back from Afghanistan a few months ago. When he first got back, we got drinks to talk about a project we were working on together, Fire and Forget, and I asked him how his tour was. “The end of war is a funny time,” he growled, then brushed the question off the bar with a deft flick. Then he turned, hunched over his Dewar’s, and went into some seriously deep thoughts about literary immortality — not in history but in the words, like, the transcendental arrangement of verbs and nouns in a sentence. From there, he led into Nabokov, and we danced around some philosophy before striking deep into “the modern condition,” modern meaning contemporary, twenty-first century America. Our buddy Phil showed up and pulled us back from the brink, and we left the problem on the bar, soaking in spilled scotch, and found ourselves a table in the back where we could really get talking.

I still haven’t heard any details about Jake’s tour. He hasn’t told me, and I haven’t asked. It’s an unwritten rule among vets that you don’t pry into another guy’s time. If you meet somebody who was in the same country as you, you can ask where they were, or who they were with, maybe their MOS*, but that’s the limit. You don’t ask what they did, or how much they saw. You don’t ask if they had any close calls. You sure as hell don’t ask if they killed anybody. Maybe you ask how the chow was. Even with Jake, who I consider a close friend, any probing would have felt like a violation. Partly because I know he’ll tell me what he needs to, whenever he feels ready. Partly because I don’t trust my own curiosity.

I spent thirteen months downrange myself, 2003 to 2004, driving a Humvee around Baghdad. I know what it’s like to come back and have people avid at your elbow, thirsty for a little blood. They want to know what it’s like, they say, what it’s really like, they want to know all kinds of things.

But really what they want is a good story. They want some excitement, a bit of thrill, a little suffering and redemption, something human and real. It’s not a new impulse, and — despite how shamefully, queasily pleasing it felt, at first, to be subject to that avidity — it’s not a bad impulse. Humans love stories. We love stories about other humans. We love real stories, made-up stories, stories about outer space, the distant past, and impossible futures, stories about rich and poor, stories about foreigners, stories about our neighbors, stories about people who turn into animals, and stories about people who fall in love. We even love stories about war. Narrative gives us a way to learn about the world, to think about the world, and even to change it. After all, if you tell a good enough story well, enough times, people will come to believe in it. Whether it’s factual or not won’t even matter.

Every vet knows what it’s like to be asked for their best stories by total strangers. But we’re less apt to admit to the fact that we know as well what it’s like to want to ask. Thankfully for me, I won’t have to ask Jake, because he’s a writer. He won’t have to ask me, either, because I am too. We actually met in a writing group for veterans, put together by New York University, which is where we both met Phil Klay, who was a Marine PAO* in Iraq, Perry O’Brien, who was an airborne medic in Afghanistan, and Matt Gallagher, who was a cavalry lieutenant in Iraq.

We don’t just tell stories, which is itself a time-honored military pastime, we write them. We’ve been writing them for a few years now. Not just memoirs, not just reportage, but the kind of story that pierces through to a human truth deeper than just events. We wanted to see more fiction, the kinds of things we wrote, not just because we loved good fiction ourselves, but because we all believed that there’s something a novel or short story can do that nothing else really can. What that is, exactly, is hard to put your finger on, but it has something to do with possibility: On the one hand, being limited to universal human possibility, to what would happen. On the other, being able to imagine wholly new human possibilities — being free to create what could happen. Somewhere in there, between would and could, between the universal and the individual, we make fiction to tell the truth.

In 2010, we decided there weren’t enough of the kinds of stories we wanted to read, and that other people told us they wanted to read, so we got together over some beers at the White Horse Tavern and decided to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. Now, three years later, after a lot of heated discussion and not a few moments of despair, Fire and Forget is on shelves. It features stories from Jake Siegel, Phil Klay, Perry O’Brien, Matt Gallagher, and myself, and also Colby Buzzell, David Abrams, Brian Turner, Mariette Kalinowski, Gavin Ford Kovite, Brian Van Reet, Roman Skaskiw, Andrew Slater, and Ted Janis, all veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. We’re lucky enough to have the home front represented as well, by crack storyteller Siobhan Fallon, whose collection You Know When the Men Are Gone describes life on an Army post with a fine, discerning eye.

Fire and Forget may not solve the problem of the “modern condition,” it may not tell you everything you want to know about what happened to your buddy downrange, and I make no claims to literary immortality. But I know Jake was right when he said “the end of war is a funny time,” and I know he nailed a deep truth when he wrote “Smile, There Are IEDs Everywhere," which tells the story of one vet’s efforts to connect the strange world downrange with the strange world back in the USA. Jake wrote the story after his first tour, in Iraq, and while it doesn’t tell you everything about what happened to him there, it gets at something a hundred hours over scotch couldn’t. And I’m proud to have Jake’s story taking point in the collection.

Fire and Forget brings together fifteen voices as sharp and distinct as Jake’s, all of them telling stories about people who fought and struggled in Iraq, Afghanistan, and back home: fifteen short stories about the long war, fifteen fictions that go deep for truth.    

*
MOS : Military Occupational Specialty

PAO : Public Affairs Officer

 

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

Happy Marines could be found throughout the battle of Fallujah. They would usually start at it early in the morning when their dirty faces could get away with it, a smile and a laugh, usually at some other Marine’s expense. The energy was strong in the morning, and everyone could only be happy before an operation. After that the smiles appeared only in brief short bursts, behind the gunfire and fire, the smoke that choked the young men with their black lungs. I met Paul Stewgots during his first day assigned to our Infantry unit; he had transferred over from security forces and the Marine Corps’ elite fleet anti-terrorism force (Fast Company). I was mopping the floor in the Alpha Company office.

I had been in the infantry a long three weeks and even to “the field”, our slang for the real infantry training I participated in the week before. I had been around the block and I wanted to make sure that Paul was on his game after he arrived. I introduced myself and told him that we would be in the same platoon; he was waiting in our reception room before being introduced to our Captain. Paul noticed that I was as new as his fresh socks but kindly humored my advice anyway. He asked me to program his watch to make up for his time change and once again I found myself frustrated that even the new guy was telling me what to do. I programmed the watch and babbled on all about the things necessary for “the field” which I had become an expert in and we would be leaving again for shortly.

Most transfers from security forces would have spent their previous two years guarding nukes, or the president, and others came from the historic drill team based in Washington D.C., therefore I assumed that Paul had either been standing in front of a missile or marching smartly. Our infantry unit was preparing for a deployment to the Philippines that we would never sail to aboard our Navy ships, which changed direction and headed for the Middle East. The only Marines in our unit that had been to Iraq were the older enlisted Marines, who deployed to Desert Storm thirteen years before. A strange thing had happened while my class was in the school of Infantry in January 2004, our instructors were replaced later in the cycle with instructors who had returned from recent deployments in Iraq. Like in a cheesy war movie, the eighteen-year-old me was pretty sure the war in Iraq would be over with soon, but in hindsight the instructor switch should have rung a loud bell.

Paul sat in his chair, a naturally quiet man. What he did not say was, “Shut your boot mouth kid, I just got back from Iraq.” He would be the only Marine in our platoon who had been to combat in less than a decade. Paul was a weapons expert and a professional Marine. I assured Paul the word that had been handed down to me, not to worry about that Iraq shit. Hawaii Marines go to the Philippines. When we made it to those ships that kept sailing everything changed as we crossed into waters known as the straits of Hormuz, off of the coast of Iran and the gateway into the Middle East.

Our platoon was tasked to provide security along the perimeter of the ship. I stood next to Paul, loaded up with live rounds and curiosity. Small Iranian speed boats constantly flirted with our ship’s standoff distance; their small vessels would speed toward our ship and quickly break away before we started our two warnings and a sunken speedboat policy. They were testing us, and Paul stated that matter of fact when I asked him what the deal was with the speedboats. We stared at the boats and coast of Iran for hours. Any time before I would have been water-skiing off of the back of a speedboa. In air so hot, the water was emerald and would glow at night. Paul was preparing for round two.
   
During the first full-fledged firefight I found myself involved in, a squad of Marines were caught in a gunfight with thirty enemy fighters in the house next door to us. Nathan Douglass recalled from the perspective of our third squad, that Paul Stewgots sent a hail of grenade launcher fire down the street. The launcher requires the operator to load one round at a time and Paul was getting a hand cramp, but Douglass explained it was a sight to behold. Paul Stewgots just knew what to do; he was a real-life war machine. Some of this would have come from his advanced training in the elite FAST Company but most of it came from a warrior finding his place in the world. I was naturally clumsy, very young, and my operating looked a world opposite of Paul’s.

Paul’s squad was blown up inside of a corner house later in the battle. Paul and his best friend Donnie were guarding a stairwell outside of the house when they heard the explosion followed by the moaning of wounded Marines. Today Donnie and Paul live close to each other in Connecticut; I went fishing with them this summer. Paul recalled that as he entered the house he asked his squad leader to help him pull bodies out of the house. His squad leader rasped “I’ve been shot,” and collapsed. Donnie and Pauley began dragging Marines out of the house that was also engulfed in flames. One Marine was lying on a stairwell and was too badly wounded to crawl out. The smoke grew thicker by the moment and when Donnie and Paul found the injured Marine, they had a hard time moving him. Donnie recalled that they looked at each other and Donnie said, “We are going to die in here.” Paul recalled, “But it was like we were all going to leave this house or none of us were.”

Donnie and Paul were always a funny sight for tired eyes. They could make anything fun and the two were the heart of the platoon. They both received medals for valor that should have been higher. I talked to Paul about that last night. He had also been hit by shrapnel but never put in for a purple heart. I remember Paul and Donnie laughing in the desert; it's seared into my brain. Pauley Stewgots said to me last night that he recalled a flag waving on the back of the vehicle we exited to enter the battle, and how he thought that this was not the reason he was fighting, for a piece of cloth. The Marine he pulled out of the burning house is breathing today.

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

Framed GRISHAM Unwelcome ChristmasI recently got an announcement from Fort Hood public affairs about the death of a Soldier. Usually, these announcements are necessitated after a Soldier is killed in a traffic fatality or serious illness. Unfortunately, this one was an announcement that we had lost an NCO to suicide. Officially, the incident is under investigation.

Suicide is the uglier product of going to combat. SGT Jose Joaquin Suarez had just returned from a yearlong deployment to Afghanistan last month with his fellow MPs (Suarez was not an MP) of the 720th Military Police Company, 89th Military Police Brigade. They are scheduled to go through the resiliency program I work with next month. He just couldn’t hold on that long. These are the invisible casualties of an Army at war.

Christmas time is a difficult time for many troops that have served in combat. It’s a confusing and anxiety-inducing time in which we are expected to be be sociable and amiable. However, we often find it difficult to let go of the experiences and pretend that everything is okay the way our civilian counterparts and family members can. For many of us, there still burns within us the demons that have declared war on our minds. It’s even harder when the holidays come so soon after returning home.

When troops return from a deployment, there is a process to helping them integrate back into the norms of society. There is a lot of training, briefings from various agencies, and paperwork that must be done. There is a major focus on resiliency and coping skills that we can hopefully rely upon. I would imagine that SGT Suarez was looking forward to the holidays much like the rest of the unit. These briefings became nothing more than a hurdle to some much-needed time off.

Listen, I understand the desire to hit the ground running after a deployment. No one is immune from it. But we NCOs really need to work hard to set aside our own overwhelming desires to get on with our lives and care for those around us, even other NCOs.

No one knows what happened to SGT Suarez or why he decided his life wasn’t worth continuing. I’m sure he leaves behind many questions in the minds of those with whom he worked. Much like the casualties suffered on the battlefield that result in stirring tribute and somber ceremony, suicide is a casualty for which there is seldom real closure.

I can’t emphasize enough to whomever will listen that the suicide solution is no solution at all. There is always somewhere we can go or someone to whom we can speak. Not only should we be willing to pick up the phone when we’d rather pick up a gun or a bottle of pills, we should be willing to answer it as well. That one phone call may be the one that saves a life. It doesn’t matter who you call, just call someone you can trust. If you don’t feel like you trust anyone, call someone anyway; the first person that pops into your head.

When you decide to make that phone call, don’t make it an “all-or-nothing” endeavor. In other words, don’t treat this phone call as the one thing that will save your life. I learned the hard way that balancing a life or death decision on whether or not a phone is picked up is 1) too much pressure to put on the other person and 2) gambling needlessly with a worthy life. I went one step further and didn’t even pick up the phone. My survival hinged on whether someone was reading their email after 10pm at night. It was a foolish experiment I didn’t recognize at the time.

If you find yourself at the end of your rope and contemplating making a fatal decision, try this instead:

Go to the next room or house and bang on the door. If they don’t answer, keep going until you get someone. Tell them you need help NOW. Let them help you, even if they don’t know you. Be honest and sincere and tell them exactly what you plan to do. Tell them to take you to the hospital or your leader’s house.

Pick up the phone and call Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK. They are always there. I wish there was an easier number to remember, like 1-800-YOU-TALK or something like that. But, 273-TALK isn’t that hard to remember either. Even if you’re the happiest person in the world and will most likely never need to use that number, memorize that number in case you ever need it. You don’t have to have any answers and don’t need to know what to say. Just be there for that person and dial the number for them. You can also visit the Suicide Prevention Lifeline website at http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org. Both places are available 24/7.

Fort Hood is a big base, but these suicides affect everyone -- as they should. We really can’t be lethargic in dealing with this issue or pretending it doesn’t affect us. NCOs have got to check up on their troops often. We must visit their homes, on and off base. We cannot afford to just go about our lives pretending that our duties and responsibilities end at Retreat. Engagement. Attentiveness. Caring. Follow through. These are the components of a successful mission to reduce or end suicides in the force. It takes more than Big Army programs, fancy handouts, and boring briefings. It takes you.

Army leaders can access current health promotion guidance in newly revised Army Regulation 600-63 (Health Promotion) at: http://www.army.mil/usapa/epubs/pdf/r600_63.pdf and Army Pamphlet 600-24 (Health Promotion, Risk Reduction and Suicide Prevention) at http://www.army.mil/usapa/epubs/pdf/p600_24.pdf.

The Army’s comprehensive list of Suicide Prevention Program information is located at http://www.preventsuicide.army.mil.

Suicide prevention training resources for Army families can be accessed at http://www.armyg1.army.mil/hr/suicide/training_sub.asp?sub_cat=20 (requires Army Knowledge Online access to download materials).

Information about Military OneSource is located at http://www.militaryonesource.com or by dialing the toll-free number 1-800-342-9647 for those residing in the continental United States. Overseas personnel should refer to the Military OneSource website for dialing instructions for their specific location.

Information about the Army’s Comprehensive Soldier Fitness Program is located at http://www.army.mil/csf/ .

The Defense Center for Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury (DCoE) Outreach Center can be contacted at 1-866-966-1020, via electronic mail at Resources@DCoEOutreach.org and at http://www.dcoe.health.mil.

The website for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention is http://www.afsp.org/ and the Suicide Prevention Resource Council site is found at http://www.sprc.org/index.asp.

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

Framed Sherpa TOY TERRAIN TEAMBeing a parent and uncle to a couple of grade-schoolers, I make regular patrols through toy stores, monitoring trends and prices, and maintaining a target list of potential birthday and holiday presents. Between Key Leader Engagements (K.L.E.) with Ken and Barbie, I also keep eyes out for new superhero gear and die-cast cars. I'm like a one-man Toy Terrain Team (T.T.T.).

It's not all fun and games. The toys we make and buy for our children are part of our national narrative. When new military tools and technologies show up in miniature on our toy department shelves—Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (U.A.V.), for example, or bomb-proof trucks—it says as much about our society's present-day values as it does our military tactics. To repurpose the old Army truism about training: "We play like we fight, and fight like we play."

Toys are also likely points of entry to conversations with children about war and service. "Your dad used to ride in that kind of truck when he was in the Army," I've heard myself saying, or "Your papa used to fly in a plane like that when he was in the Air Force ..." Afghanistan and Vietnam are big abstractions, but toys can help young heads and hands understand some of the basics. Even if the only lesson they walk away with for now is "Dad was in the Army, Papa was in the Air Force."

Matchbox has recently released a 1:64-scale version of the Oshkosh M-A.T.V. The word is an acronym within an acronym. Unpacked, it means "Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected All-Terrain Vehicle." The real-world vehicle is manufactured by Oshkosh Corp., Oshkosh, Wis.

See also these previous blog-posts: "The Arsenal of Fun and Freedom"
and "The Boys Get More Toys"
The M-ATV is my probably second-favorite Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected ("M-RAP") truck in the U.S. Army inventory. I've spent more time in the MaxxPro, manufactured by Navistar International. That's probably because the M-ATV design seats four, while the MaxxPro seats up to seven. Like some sort of military-grade mini-van, it's easier to throw the kids, embedded journalists, and other strap-hangers in the back of a MaxxPro.

By comparison, the M-ATV is a sedan. It's hard to see out from the back seats, too, which makes it less fun for us rubber-neckers.

The 2012 Matchbox version of the M-ATV comes in dark forest green with a billboard-high graphic "M-ATV" decal on each side: Hip-hop camouflage for hot-rodding through the bomb-ridden swamp. It also appears to be "licensed" design, which means the toy's manufacturers have permission to make the scaled-down version look like the real thing.

It's part of the Matchbox "Jungle" series, which includes a "Jungle Crawler,""Jeep Willys," and "Land Rover Defender 100." If you're traveling through marshy terrain, each of these other vehicles is probably more survivable than the 27.5-ton M-ATV.

The M-ATV is lighter and more maneuverable than other M-RAP variants, after all, but it's not going to float. It's going to sink like a plate-armored rock.

According to the packaging, rather than protecting occupants from Improved Explosive Devices (I.E.D.), the toy version is more likely intended to keep the crocodiles at bay:
You've got to be extra tough to survive the Jungle! These off-road and 4WD vehicles are built to handle the most hostile terrain imaginable. Rugged safety vehicles scramble through the dense foliage protecting passengers from the fierce wildlife and extreme conditions!
At least the exterior paint job is arguably military in nature. In 2011, the first Matchbox versions of a Matchbox "SWAT Truck," apparently inspired by the MaxxPro silhouette, were first available in either black-and-white or powder-blue law-enforcement livery. No camouflage in sight. The MaxxPro-like design also appeared later in fire-engine red, as part of an Matchbox "MBX Airport" series.

I still say: If you need an M-RAP truck to carry your baggage, you're flying out of the wrong airports.

Some of the doubt and debate about U.S. military acquisitions strategy involves whether or not M-RAP trucks were good investments. Some people argue that M-RAP trucks may or may not have saved lives. Or that they pushed troops into a hunkered-and-bunkered mindset that was contrary to counterinsurgency ("COIN") and advise-and-assist practices. In terms of sharing risks and hardships, or developing face-to-face relationships, after all, it's hard to get Afghan civilians and soldiers to take you seriously if you're sitting in a bomb-proof truck.

Still, no other U.S. weapon design better exemplifies my era's ground conflict in Afghanistan than the M-ATV. I may not be able to put an M-RAP in my garage, but I can sock one away in my war-toy chest.

In fact, I bought three. Because it's never too early to teach your kids about good convoy operations. It's a jungle out there.

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

Through heavily accented Spanglish the first thing he ever said to me was, “I am your Corporal and I do not like the dick sucking.” I would come to later find that he had a robot black heart tattooed over his real heart. I was eighteen years old and standing at the position of attention. I replied, “I do like the dick sucking but to each his own, Corporal.”  My roommate was also new to the unit and had Mexican heritage, he bit his lip in fear, but I was confident that the Corporal would not comprehend my translation.

The Corporal was a light-skinned Mexican, he was built of lean muscle, he ran Iron Man competitions for fun, and he was my first real squad leader. I was at home. Somewhere in the not-too-distant future both of the men standing with me in that room would be shot full of bullets in their legs, the squad leader’s leg almost blown in half and my roommate’s calves would look like a shark took a snack as he stumbled into our overpowered house with his finger laying down full automatic survival.
 
Later the squad leader was moved to point-man, after the rest of the unit returned from advanced training. He loved the job and was good at it because he moved like a panther and was born lethal. I asked our point man “Bandito” how he came to America and he told me about walking through the border after several attempts as a teenager. His brother had taught him how to knife fight and he would teach me. He spoke of bandits in the streets of Mexico as a youth and how these bandits knew not to fuck with his knife-fighting brother. During a training operation our unit participated in Okinawa the Bandito’s team was wiped out as he fought through the bottom story of a mock hotel with paint bullets. He called over the radio to inform us that he was carrying on. By himself the Bandito killed every member of the opposing force in the hotel working from the bottom floor to the rooftop. I was glad his service was in the US Marines.

I was his student. In Kuwait in late 2004 he introduced me to a Sergeant Peralta in 1st platoon. The Bandito explained to me and the Sergeant his outlook on the impending Battle of Fallujah. He said, “I am here for the glory, nothing else. A million bullets can rain down and if Mary wants to take me it will be my time, if not it won’t.” I objected to this non-scientific approach and Sergeant Peralta laughed at my interpretation. Sergeant Peralta would later be nominated for a still-pending Medal of Honor when, after being terribly wounded, he pulled an enemy hand grenade under his life-filled body, absorbing the lethal impact, thus saving the lives of the Marines in the room with him. Regular guys who come from Mexico, the Mexican Marine Corps, and an untold story of sacrifice by Mexican immigrants lives to this day in our military, which has always been filled with immigrants, who yesteryear were white, giving generations of Americans a good excuse to avoid service.
 
This machinery is necessary to the American framework, it is not cruel, and tomorrow the Latino immigrants who served become politicians and can serve their non-serving white counterparts with a record that can’t be challenged.  This is the real America, and a new wave of demographic will be our integrated future, like it or not. The truth is, domesticated suburbanite teenagers like I was can’t be killing effective without the hard hand of the immigrant Corporal, who is hard through experience and a representative of every immigrant Corporal from every country to come to America, pick up a gun and fight in a foreign land.
 
After the wounded had been extracted, I picked up the Bandito’s helmet. I looked to a full moon and wondered if there was any significance in this. My hero had been killed and my teacher was off to the hospital. I reached into his helmet and picked out a Spanish prayer card he had tucked into the webbing. I stuck it into the webbing of my helmet and left the war an untouched atheist. I will visit the Bandito in Mexico next month for the first time since we were Marines, where he is fighting for his country in the drug war. He is my last interview for the film.

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.

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

Trained as a member of a U.S. Army rocket-artillery crew, Jason Poudrier once helped rearrange large swathes of terrain with high-explosives blasts. Now, he quietly crafts words and memories with a sharpshooter's precision. The 29-year-old veteran and Purple Heart recipient is now a high-school teacher of advanced-placement English in Lawton, Okla., a coach of cross-country and track teams, and a published poet who regularly explores and engages with military themes.

Poudrier's work is full of darkness, heart, and humor. Reviewers often comment on his occasional references, for example, to Bugs Bunny cartoons. In one poem, he observes "I flipped a switch: / The rocket launched / and landed with an / Acme cartoon cloud." In other, a character muses that he should've taken that left turn in Albuquerque. He's not necessarily making light of his experiences as a soldier, but he is making light with them.

"I realized that not all war poetry has to be involved these stark-death-dark images. I wouldn't want to read a book that was all that," he says. "There is inspiration in the military, too. Not to mention moments of great joy, more pure than anything else you'll ever experience. I want to do something with those moments, too."

While some aspire to be poets, others have poetry thrust upon them. Having graduated from an Oregon high school in 2001, Poudrier joined the U.S. Army for the bonus and to see the world. He first trained and then was stationed in Oklahoma. From there, he deployed to Iraq in time to race toward Baghdad with Charlie Battery, 3rd Battalion, 13th Artillery Regiment.

"As weird as it sounds, I feel lucky to have been there when I was," Poudrier says. "There was a clear enemy. We knew who were shooting at, and they were shooting at us." Artillery units that deployed later to Iraq, he notes, were often assigned non-artillery missions. He got to fire rockets.

The Multiple Launch Rocket System (M.L.R.S.) on which Poudrier was a crew member is a long-armed weapon. In some cases, he says, they even had to drive away from Baghdad and back toward Kuwait, to get the minimum 7-mile distance their weapons system needed to breathe. The system can reach targets out to 190 miles.

During Operation Iraqi Freedom, the crew jumped nearly every day in the desert, and slept on their trucks and tracks.

Then, they got blown up.

Poudrier lost both friends and flesh in the attack. Adding insult to injury months later, he would learn the attack was the result of friendly fire. A U.S. Air Force pilot had allegedly thought their missile launcher was an enemy anti-aircraft system.

Poudrier had come back injured and angry, although unwilling or unable to realize the extent of his hurt. He had begun to think of they Army as a potential 20-year career, but found that his self-referral to mental health services had blocked a second deployment with this unit. A mentor helped get him lined up for a "Green to Gold" program, which would have resulted in a 4-year degree and an officer's commission, but that fell through, too. Poudrier decided that, if we wasn't able to go shoot rockets with this buddies, or continue his education while in the Army, he needed to fight for a medical discharge.

"It's not what I wanted, but it was probably the best thing for me," he says. "There was a higher power looking over me. Because, the way I look at it, if I try to make something happen and it doesn't, then it was supposed to be something else. I was doing everything I could to stay in, and it wasn't happening."

First enrolled as a business major, Poudrier found himself gravitating toward creative-writing classes in the English department. He struggled and sweated with military themes in longer-form prose, but found a useful and efficient tool in poetry. "Take a brief moment. Get as precise as you can on the details-the actions, the emotions, the smells," he says. "Suddenly, instead of this huge timeframe in narrative that I'd have with fiction or non-fiction, I just have this brief moment. I can work on it, and play with it, and stop working on it, and go back to it. It worked for me."

Earlier this year, Poudrier published a collection of poems titled "Red Fields: Poems from Iraq." He also presented seminars at the inaugural "Military Experience and the Arts Symposium" at Eastern Kentucky University, Kent. On Nov. 11 in Indianapolis, he read as part of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library's "Veterans Reclaim Armistice Day: Healing through the Humanities."

His work also appears in these recently published anthologies:
A sampler of three of Poudrier's poems — "Red Fields," "Bagdhad International," and "Fort Sill's New Housing Division" — also appear on the "Sugar Mule" literary magazine here.

While everyone is different, Poudrier has found the writing of poetry useful in reconciling and resolving painful memories.

"Part of PTSD is intrusive memories. You don't have control of them," he says. "You have a flashback, and all of a sudden it's coming in. You were driving down the road, now you're somewhere else and you have no idea how you got there."

"To me, it was almost as if the memory were saying 'I do not want to be forgotten. I am something important that happened in your life.' The way I look at it is, if a poem is supposed this precise image -- that's exactly what this intrusive memory is. I'm going to write that out — as is, not trying to put any poetic devices on it. I'm going to capture that image," he says.

"I'm going to cognitively pull up that image that is being intrusive. Now, it's on a piece of paper. And I can choose to look at it when I chose. I'm not going to forget that memory. It has been recorded. But, now, instead of an intrusive memory, I have control of it."

In Poudrier's opinion, there can be as much benefit in sharing and publishing a poem as in writing it. "One of the most healing moments is when ["Red Fields"] was selected to be published. What I think a lot of military writers don't get, particularly when they're writing but they're not seeing the therapeutic side of it, is writing itself is just half the process. The other half of the process is that it needs to be read by somebody. It needs to be communicated."

*****

Note: This Red Bull Rising content regarding military writing is underwritten by Victor Ian LLC, a military media and gaming business. The business publishes Lanterloon, an eclectic lifestyle, technology, and military blog; has a physical retail storefront called "Dragons and Dragoons" located in Colorado Springs, Colo.; and hosts military-writing workshops and other events under the "Sangria Summit" brand name.

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

In my documentary And Then They Came Home I ask Marines that I served with the same thirty questions, so that I can gauge patterns in their responses eight years after our shared point of trauma. One of my questions is, “Do you think a warrior ever comes home?” I am now preparing to film my own interview, which will leave only one Marine in Mexico to be filmed when I return from my wedding.

I meditate on my own response. My life-long hometown friend Antonio has been sleeping on my couch for the past few weeks, stringing filmed pieces together so that editing will not be a hassle and we will be able to make our December deadline for the film.

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Location shoot for And Then They Came Home. Indiana, 2012.

Photo by C.J. Maddox.

Does a warrior ever really come home? I couldn’t tell you, because deep in the beat-up wallet I bought after my 2006 deployment to Afghanistan is a National Guard ID tucked behind my plastic cards and license. In April of 2010 I wrote my Guard unit a letter of resignation and have not had to put my uniform on since. I am contracted until December 2013.
 
I don’t know what it is like to come home, I haven’t been there since I watched my southern California suburbia youth haven disappear in the rearview mirror of my recruiter’s SUV, bound for Los Angeles to catch a bus for San Diego three weeks after I turned eighteen in August 2003. You are now leaving childhood, Palmdale California 1986-2003.

I survived two combat deployments, serving in the Marine Corps from August 2003 to August 2007 as an infantryman. A historian might note that those were the most violent years of the war.

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Breaking locks and burning blocks; Fallujah. Iraq. November 2004.

Photo by Garrett Anderson.

One day I found myself honorably discharged from the Marine Corps. I left my home base of Hawaii changed and bound for southern California. I spent a month at home, went to work for my Uncle for a month, and caught a train to Portland Oregon to visit my best friend.

Signs of trouble were seemingly slow to come, I was still drinking like a Marine, which can be compared to twice that of a frat boy, one less than a vagrant, and the nights had been bothering me for some time. There is still a hole in my best friend’s apartment where I threw a hunting knife into his wall.

In November I returned to California to start a business with my friend Antonio after coming into a family inheritance. We purchased film equipment and started to film television commercials and court depositions in California’s Antelope Valley. We were the youngest members of our Chamber of Commerce and I found that clients were receptive to a former Marine; my service would be brought up on the first interview and was absolutely an asset. I had no formal training in running a business, but Antonio and I seemed to be doing alright during the days, and at night I would return to my father’s house, drink like a Marine and watch endless videos of Fallujah on Youtube.

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A-Co. clears Fallujah, Iraq. November, 2004.

 Photo by Garrett Anderson.

I was in the second battle of Fallujah in 2004, and if you knew me in late 2007 you knew I fought there; it was all I ever wanted to talk about. I had felt zero emotional connection to friends and family since I returned home and I wondered if I had ever felt anything in the first place. I was sure however that I had been doing a good job at faking it, and I would think to myself that the connection would probably come naturally soon.

Sleep was so infrequent that all I could remember about it was that I didn’t hold it as a priority at the time and could go for a couple of days on a few hours. I was standing on my porch smoking a cigarette drunk one night when I announced to my father that I was thinking about joining the National Guard unit that I had read in the local paper was getting ready to deploy to Iraq in 2008. My father had this way he would look at me every now and again back then, a sort of deep baffle with a nod of understanding.

In December 2007 I joined the National Guard, I signed a contract to become a tanker -- a soldier who rides in a tank. My father had been the same thing when he was in the Army, and after working with tanks in 2004 I was convinced that this would be the most enjoyable way to return to Iraq.

I signed the contract and swore in over the phone on the same day. After I had sworn in it occurred to me, through the haze of the previous night’s hangover, that I was not clear on an important part of the contract. I asked the recruiter how long the contract I had just signed was for. He looked embarrassed and quickly said, “You wanted the bonus right?” I replied that I did, and he told me, “It’s six years.”

I was stunned, but thought to myself I guess I’ll just keep doing this for the next six years; I had knocked out four in the Marines and I knew once I had sworn in there was not much that could be done to reverse it. When I got to my new unit I was informed that their status had changed from tankers into infantry, because more National Guard tanks weren't needed in Iraq. I had joined to return to Iraq in an armored death chariot. I found myself back out in the open and on my feet. This made me uncomfortable.

I liked the people in my National Guard unit, and was able to make friends with my new platoon as I figured out how the National Guard was different from the Marines. I was surprised and excited by the professionalism of the unit; most of the soldiers had done prior active duty service like myself and joined the Guard after. There were even a handful of Marines in the unit. We would show up to train one weekend a month and the rest of the time we would work at our civilian day jobs.

I prepared for Iraq and went back to cutting commercials and drinking at night, not sleeping and with a new weight on my shoulders: the next deployment. Some nights I would open my father’s bedroom door and babble drunkenly until he was awake and shut his door. One night my father came over to the computer to tell me good night. I suddenly began to cry and I told him that I had been thinking of shooting myself with the shotgun upstairs. He was baffled again, and I was sure I would have to answer for that slip after we got home from work the next day.

The next day came and I did not go to work. I drank and told my friend Antonio that I wanted to go to the open microphone stand-up comedy night at a club in Hollywood. By the time we got there I was tanked and quickly sank into an incoherent mess. I don’t remember my routine, but I am sure it was nonsensical. After it was over we left the club and Antonio and a friend wanted to get something to eat. I told them to leave me in the SUV and they left. I remember some of what happened next, and the other parts Antonio filled in for me later. When they found me I was trying to kick out the back window of my vehicle. Antonio let me out, terribly confused, and then I disappeared.

I left my friends and found myself drunk and walking through alleys and Hollywood streets. The writer’s strike was going on and screenwriters waved signs in front of one of the production studios. I checked myself into a hotel room and visited a liquor store to pick up a forty of fine malt liquor. I pounded the forty and sat in the hotel room. I didn’t want to go home because I didn’t want to face my father, and I didn’t want to return home to an empty house where I might shoot myself. I remember that in the drunkenness I tried to hang myself, but the knot I had tied with the towel came undone on the shower rod and I found myself on my ass wondering why that thing didn’t hold. And then something hit me. I was trying to kill myself. I had been acting strangely and something I had been in denial about was very real. The things I had heard on the news and radio ads were true, and something had happened to me in combat that was killing me back home.

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With a member of the former Iraqi National Guard, Camp Fallujah, 2004.

Photo by Garrett Anderson.

I called my mother, who came to pick me up from the hotel, and the next day I found myself a twenty-two-year-old combat veteran in a mental hospital. Antonio had spent the night searching for me, along with my step-brother, and I was able to explain things when he came to visit me in the hospital. The initial intake and my first twenty-four hours was spent being evaluated alongside people with severe mental issues, some criminals, and this setting I found to be completely insane and counter-productive to my care.

I spent the rest of March 2008 in the hospital. When I returned, my unit had deployed to Iraq without me and I began going to Guard weekends as a member of the “rear detachment,” comprised of soldiers who had medical conditions that did not allow them to deploy. I had left Antonio and our business behind and went to work for my mother while I attended aftercare in the hospital. The economy was tanking and I wanted to get on my feet a regular way, so I moved into my sister’s apartment and found a job at an aerospace factory. I worked on the factory floor with Vietnamese immigrants, some of whom were Vietnam combat veterans. We would tell war stories, and they would slap me on the back on the Fridays that I had to dress in my Army uniform to go to a Guard weekend.

After the first hospitalization I began to notice that I would become nauseous before reporting to my unit, a nervousness that would cause me to vomit. As the factory became a victim of the economy I decided at the end of 2008 that I wanted to move to Portland Oregon, so I put in my two-week notice with my job and showed up to my last Guard weekend in California. The acting unit commander wished me well and told me that that weekend he wanted me to watch over a soldier who had been experiencing similar issues. I agreed to watch the soldier. I knew him well and he had told me a bit about his issues. I had started to worry about him during the previous Guard weekend; he had been prior active duty Army and had returned from a deployment to Iraq.

I stepped outside with him and we stacked our gear next to each other. I informed the soldier I would be watching him during the weekend and he was alright with that. We lit up cigarettes and I asked him if he thought he would be alright to train over the Guard weekend? He said yes and I believed him. A moment later he was crying and told me, “I don’t know why I am crying. Anderson.”  I understood why he was crying and told him that I thought he needed help. I told him it would be a better idea for him to return home. He told me he started a post-traumatic stress disorder program later in the week and when I told the acting commander that the soldier was having problems, he agreed and sent the soldier home. My friend called me to let me know he made it home and I have not seen or talked to him since.

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Garrett Anderson and Andrew Rothlein pose in front of Alpha Company's first objective during the battle. Fallujah, Iraq, 2004.

Photo by Jose Moracruz.

I drove up to Portland, Oregon and got a job writing parking tickets for a private company. It took me a few months to check into my new Guard unit because there were no tank units near Portland, so in the end I was sent to an infantry unit. I had told the guy placing me that I had been rated non-deployable and asked him not to send me to a deploying unit. My infantry unit had deployed to Afghanistan when I got to it, so I once again found myself in the rear detachment.

I had saved up a little bit and moved from my friend’s loft into an apartment, and found myself truly alone for the first time in my life. At first I thought that being alone is what I had always wanted, but the nights got longer again and the same weight had been with me. I felt less than cured and was not sure if there was a cure for how life felt. In January 2010 I once again found myself in a hospital after strong suicidal ideation.

I got out and this time it did not take long for me to realize that things were still not fixed. I could feel myself running out of patience with myself and one day in April 2010 I was walking in Portland, fearing the next Guard weekend, when I realized that the source for most of the anxiety in my life was being a member of the National Guard. I was not a bad soldier and that was part of the problem; it looked like I was fine, so why would anyone think I wasn’t? Even with two hospitalizations I was seen as fit for duty though I felt completely unfit for duty and the pressure was building. It agitated my symptoms and I felt like someone was going to deploy me even if they were not, and the fear of deployment agitated these things that literally drove me insane. I decided that if I valued my life I would write the National Guard unit a letter of resignation and face the consequences or carry on, because I knew I would not survive much longer under the status quo, certainly not until December 2013.

In April of 2010 I wrote something that changed my life, a letter of resignation…

With proper military respect and to whom it may concern,

I joined the United States Marine Corps in August of 2003, shortly
after graduating high school. After completing the Marine Corps School of
Infantry in February of 2004 I was stationed in Kaneohe Bay Hawaii where I
trained for a deployment to the Philippines specializing in jungle warfare.
When training was completed we set sail from Okinawa and continued on to
Kuwait. In a few months my infantry battalion suffered the loss of fifty-one
brothers, many of whom I had crossed paths with during my then short stint.
Afterward I participated in a combat deployment to northeastern Afghanistan
where my battalion suffered four KIA. Since the loss of so many close friends
I have never been able to reconcile my belief in service with my belief in
life.
     I no longer cherish the ability to be combat effective, lost in the
most evil haze of hell that a war can produce. I miss my friends and am often
confused as to why I am alive and they are not, I cannot imagine what it is
like to draw the short straw. This thought consumes me, I find myself unable
to comprehend any sort of meaning in this life, and I miss my friends.
     Since my discharge from the Marine Corps I have spent time in two
different mental hospitals, one for an attempted suicide and the other two
years later after the symptoms of a beast of an affliction returned to kill
me again. Being a dumb grunt I do not know much other than that I am still
alive and that I do not have the ability to hurt another human being.
      I will not lace up my boots again, and I am aware that there are
consequences for this action. I write this letter as a resignation and not a
declaration of insubordination, I beg for mercy and for benefits that I
earned walking between steel raindrops twice. I hope that I can someday make
peace with the violence that has consumed my twenties, I pray that this
affliction does not consume my thirties on into the rest of my life. I hope
the reader of this letter a successful and safe career, I hope the reader of
this letter finds what they are looking for in life, I thank God for the
United States Military, full of brave souls and too full of sacrifice for me,
if this is delayed cowardice than a coward is what I now am. I will not be
returning phone calls or allowing visitors into my home without a warrant,
this is not personal, it is simply my own paranoia of a large world that I
have seen destroy good men.
       Lastly I would like to thank ***** for doing everything
in their power to help a Soldier when he was down.

                                    Fair winds and good luck,

                                       Garrett Phillip Anderson

I expected my cell phone to be assaulted by incoming phone calls that morning, but nothing came. I felt a wave of fear sweep over me; I knew military police would probably be at my apartment, maybe after work. I went home from lunch. I was astonished to find an email from our training sergeant that explained I would not have to put on my uniform again and that the unit wanted to help me through this process of discharge but I had to contact them. I did and the process began.

Since then I have not had to attend a Guard weekend. I have written for therapy, and that has led to this film I am working on. I am getting married soon and live with my fiancé, and have created a more stable support network. Nothing is fixed, but the pressure being taken off of me has allowed me to live a more real and fulfilling life.

 

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Location shoot for documentary And Then They Came Home, Colorado, 2012.

Photo by C.J. Maddox.

I was told that I would go to two review boards for discharge; the first would be a mental health screening and the next, if I was found not fit for duty at the mental health screening, would be my actual discharge board. I went to the first board in Madigan connected to Fort Lewis in Washington State in January of 2011. Madigan would later be found to have been lowering PTSD ratings for soldiers to save money at the time I was seen there. All I can conclude from that is that my story was so fucked up even those dirty shrinks said I was not fit for duty.

I waited for my discharge board and it never came. In July 2011 I was called by my unit and told to report for two weeks of annual training. I explained that I was still waiting for my discharge board and he explained that my not fit for duty status expired after one hundred eighty days. I called my father and we got in contact with a congressional representative who was able to delay my annual training and start the process again.

In November of 2011 I flew to Georgia for another fit for duty board and was again found not. I had a second phone interview after the Madigan story broke and I think that one went well. I am not clear if I will ever be discharged from the National Guard. I wish I knew what it felt like to be truly free again. I also wonder: How many more soldiers like me are out there in this limbo? The unit when informed went out of its way to help while following the rules of the system, so if there is blame to be put on delay it is on whatever is happening above. I recently received a letter from the VA apologizing for the delay in my case review, and assuring me that they will get back to me when the process is finished.

Combat operations in Afghanistan are slated to end in 2014; luckily my contract ends December 2013. In a decade of service my time will not have known peace. The unit knows I am not fit to serve, the shrinks have found me unfit to serve, I know I am not fit to serve, and for two and a half years I have been waiting for the paperwork to be filed.

The only reason I am better today than I used to be is because I found another way. I have pages of paperwork from mental hospitals and a film I am editing to verify how it could have been that combat affected a young life so deeply. I urge those in similar situations to seek help, because they will wait for you to die before offering help if you don’t do anything for yourself. I proudly served my country and fought through two combat deployments. I am not ashamed of having been so affected, but I am ashamed of how the system treats warriors who have put their lives on the line to protect it. This makes me nauseous and I don’t know what to do with any of this information.

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Next to the grave of a relative killed on the last day of World War One.

Photo by C. J. Maddox.

Name: Sideways
Deploying to: Afghanistan

I tried to write this post last night because I wanted it to go up first thing this morning. I just couldn’t put it all together. I wanted to wait and see what the day would bring. It seemed wrong to write about the day before it had the opportunity to unfold for me. I am certainly no soothsayer and when I started typing I thought I knew how I would feel today, but turns out I couldn’t put my finger on it. The day is over now, and I am still not sure how I feel. Disconnected comes to mind, but I’m not sure that’s it.

My first real recollection of September 11, 2001 started with my Operations Officer calling me at my desk.

Are you watching the TV?”

He was calling me from off base.  I thought it was some kind of trick question.

No sir, I’m working.”

Turn on the TV. Some idiot just flew a plane into the World Trade Center.”

Eleven years ago today I stood in the squadron conference room and watched the twin towers of the World Trade Center come down. I watched the smoke billow up from the gash in the Pentagon and the scorched pit in a random field in Pennsylvania. It was confusing. Unreal. Scary. I knew by the end of the day that things had changed.

I had no idea how right I would turn out to be.

Less than a week later I deployed for the first time in my life. I never stopped to wonder how many more would follow. I still don’t know the answer to that question.

The rotation was already scheduled but it took on a new urgency and a sense of foreboding. People really seemed to take notice that we were going. If we had deployed a week earlier it would have been a non-event in the local community. The conflict we were scheduled to deploy in support of had long been normalized. We’d been guarding Saddam for a decade at that point. The deployment turned out to be a big deal.

From Kuwait I watched the air campaign over Afghanistan unfold. Everything kept changing. By that time we were already supporting two conflicts, the continued enforcement of the Southern No Fly Zone and the new war in Afghanistan. We looked north to Iraq and saw nothing. The third country nationals who worked in our chow hall watched CNN as it played on the TVs while we ate dinner. I wonder now what they thought.

In the decade that has followed I have carried a rifle and kicked dirt in ten different countries on three continents. As I write this I am preparing to deploy again. This time I’m going back to where it all began — Afghanistan.

I have buried friends. I have buried peers. I buried one Airman who worked for me and didn’t go to the funeral of a second Airman because I wasn’t welcome there. I buried an Iraqi pilot who died with my friend. I watched his family. They grieved just like we did.

I am uncertain of the outcome of this war. It wasn’t always that way for me; there was a time when I thought I knew what this was all about and I was confident in how it would end. I’m trying to figure out what changed. Was it the war and its objectives or was it me?  Can either be changed back? I’m not sure I even remember what it was like to be certain about the outcome of the war, but I know that I was at one time. It seems so long ago.

My uncertainty about the outcome of this war should not be confused with my belief that something must be done to try to secure our way of life and our country.  Whatever that is, I am willing to do it.  I am, after all, a volunteer.  I’d just like to understand it.  I’d like for it to make sense to me.

I should note that volunteering doesn’t make going any easier. One might think that after a decade of deployments a person would become somewhat desensitized to leaving your family, the comfort of your home and this fantastic country. This is simply not the case. It has not gotten any easier. Rather, every iteration of this war I have completed has been more and more difficult both personally and professionally.

The more I study this problem, the more I think about it, the more I participate in it, the more nebulous it seems to get.

I went to Ground Zero for the first time this year. It was awkward. There is a weird energy there for me, like something is happening but I couldn’t see it. Two new towers are twisting into the sky while water falls with a white noise into two enormous holes in the ground. I stood for a moment and tried to see the bottom of the memorial. I wanted to see where the water ended up but I couldn’t. It’s just a constant stream of water pouring into the memorial and then disappearing into a hole in the bottom. It’s endless and in a way unsatisfying. The symbolism is not lost on me.

The memorial has an eternal feel to it.

So does the war in Afghanistan at this point.

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

Eleven years ago today my life and many others changed in ways we did not want and will never be able to forget. Last night sleep came fitfully, filled with nightmares of death and destruction, and I was up early this morning. I made it out of the house, to the gym then off for a long, hard run, all in an attempt to block the memories.

I thought it didn’t hurt as much this year; I went to the memorial last night, sat on my friend’s bench and felt empty. No tears, no sorrow, simply empty. I thought I was better, remembering the first time I walked into the Pentagon Memorial with friends Troy and Christine by my side. I wouldn’t have made that visit had they not been with me. That day pain brutal and savage attacked me, wrenching sobs from deep inside. Yesterday’s visit was bleak and cold.

I’ve devoted the past eight years to taking care of our war wounded troops and their families because of this day. It’s been my attempt to give back to those who serve our country. Now my heart is scarred with memories, of lives lost and forever changed by war. A mind damaged, slow to heal, I’m on hiatus from being a wounded warrior caretaker, a job that was once my solace. 

A friend from FDNY checked in this morning. A military co-worker emailed. A former patient’s family member called. Suddenly I am no longer empty, the tears now welling in my eyes, the pain, once sharp and destructive, is now an ache I cannot get rid of.

It was a Tuesday, a bright, cloudless clear-blue-sky day. A day exactly like today.

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

I dug a hole with a Marine whose last name was so long that I will refer to him as Alphabet. Alphabet and I were training to be infantry Marines in February 2004. I liked Alphabet because the instructors had instructed us not to sleep but Alphabet slept anyway. Alphabet descended from Persia and was quick to let you know. He was supposed to be awake and providing conscious security behind his weapon as I dug a hole to prepare a defensive position for simulated enemy invasion. We had spent the day climbing up a mountain and I couldn’t blame Alphabet because there were no real enemy coming to storm the mountain so as I listened to his heavy breathing and watched his shoulders rise and sag I reminded myself that I was tired too so maybe if I let him get away with it, he might return the favor. The last time I saw Alphabet was on the last day I spent in Camp Fallujah, Iraq. Just like a war movie; he told me he could not wait to get out of this place. I concurred, that night he boarded a helicopter and Alphabet has been dead ever since.
   
I remember a Marine who had been shot in the head. I looked down even though I told myself not to. His eyes were rolled back and the sun broke through the hole in his empty skull, the sunlight making the thinner parts around the open wound glow orange, the first time sunlight had ever shone in his head. I remember a Marine about my age, he was overweight and one time walked himself to death on a forced march in Okinawa during a black flag day. A black flag is flown on base to let other Marines know that it is too hot to conduct strenuous training on account that walking in the heat with a combat load on has been known to raise a Marine’s core temperature which might have nowhere to go other than total meltdown on a day so hot. One of the Marines in my unit replied after hearing the news, “Fuck ‘im he should have hydrated.” March or die!

One night the squad leader of 1st Squad asked if anyone wanted to go back to base to make a phone call for the first time in three weeks during a battle my unit had been told we would only spend four days in. Each Marine declined so the squad leader volunteered himself and a close friend. The next morning an order came down that we would not be allowed to throw hand grenades as we entered each house that was to be cleared during the day’s operation. This was a deviation of our standard operating procedure. Later that day the replacement for the squad leader who had returned to base was killed and six of our Marines were wounded. At the end of the night that city block was destroyed by a massive airstrike, which packs more punch than a hand grenade but was only used after all enemy contact had ceased.

The first time I came across an enemy dead body was after I shot him to be funny. We could smell his potent stench from houses away but earlier in the day had been given the order to shoot all dead bodies so when I did to lighten the mood, my Lieutenant looked at me in disbelief and said, “Good Anderson, you want to be a smart ass and shoot very dead bodies? You can check it for intelligence.”

I asked my old roommate for some gloves and he handed me a pair as I approached what used to be a very tall Arab man’s corpse lying in the doorway that led to a kitchen. At the time all I could see were his two legs sticking out from under a blanket that had been draped over him, covering above his knee caps. The blanket was soiled and stained black. It smelled like someone had left a refrigerator full of meat open in the hundred degree heat and I pulled the blanket back. It appeared that the intelligence the Lieutenant was searching for had flown out of the front of the large man’s face after he had been executed as I noticed that his hands were bound. There was not much of a face left; I remember sticky stinky black goop, scattered teeth and being amazed at the sight of a real life dead man, which would cease to amaze me later on as there were to be many more corpses to see. Down the street were thirty-one Syrian foreign fighters that would all be dead in a few hours. I think those Syrians killed the tall guy during a Fallujah house-jacking so we killed the Syrians and now they kill each other.
   
When I got out of the Marine Corps I would think about these things and how I wished I could see them again just to check on them and make sure they were real. Human misery was not something I had been exposed to growing up in suburban Southern California and part of it fascinated me and the other part horrified me the way a pre-adolescent poking a dead animal with a stick on a hot afternoon might feel after dinner with the folks.

The army suicide statistics doubled within a month recently. I hate when people ask me why we are there because to tell the truth, I don’t care. It is not the trigger pullers' job to care about why they are there, their job is to carry out the bidding of superiors who are trusted and act as the omnipotent sword of American policy. American civilians are the reason we are there.They are represented by elected representatives of their constituency. If the constituency puts enough pressure on their politician, policy sways with the majority demand. Why are we there? We are there because you don’t care, because our society is too lazy and detached to do anything about this problem which may be a dinner party conversation to many people I know but was and is a very real reality to me and those like me. Sometimes I wonder if the people of Afghanistan don't want the Taliban in charge, why we don't let their constituency throw the Taliban out, and if Al Qaeda comes out from their crab shells in Yemen then why can’t we do what we have been doing in Yemen and kill those nasties from the sky? In the end this is what is going to happen anyway.
     
Sun goes down and up go the statistics of some more suicides of honorable people offering sacrifice to a complacent society that can’t afford a warrior’s understanding much less a war. Up go the statistics of active duty service dead, gunned down by people we are supposed to be training, but fuck you troop, you signed the contract. March or Die! Why? Don’t ask a vet, ask your congressman and tell him or her why you think war in Afghanistan is or is not the bee's knees. Because I would not hesitate to invade any country for any reason as long as it was alongside people I cared for, which is what my primary motivation to succeed in battle was, not to think about lazy people whose concept of foreign diplomacy is the television until the next commercial. Unless you record your television, in which case you may fast forward through the content which does not interest you. In which case you stopped reading my writing paragraphs ago.

 

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

The early morning hours were passing in the ghostly low-lit glow of my computer clock. The dog was reclined on our sofa and resting her head on her paws, gazing through my soul or looking for a date, I can never tell. A friend was calling and the phone was ringing. I hate the phone; anyone who knows me knows this. It is a strange irrationality of mine, but my level of discomfort turns to panic as I let each ring pass. Sometimes I flip a switch inside and pick it up, other times I watch it play through to the end and take a moment to get over it.

My theory is that I hate the phone because I was a platoon radio operator during the battle of Fallujah when I was nineteen, and every time somebody called me out there it was an emergency. I had to monitor the net for unit reports on friendly movement so that my platoon did not walk into another’s gunfire. One time I had told a tank that it would be clear to fire on a building. Shortly after, I watched a dozen Marines from another platoon take cover behind the same building, out of sight of the tank. The tank’s turret shifted and pointed toward the building. When there are too many people talking on a radio channel, the net gets tied up and I have to wait for a person to stop talking before I can talk to them. I frantically held down the button to my handset repeating over and over, more panicked and more panicked, “Cease fire, cease fire, cease fire!” When I let go of the button I could hear the tank power down with a sound like a vacuum cleaner and my handset answered back, “Roger, cease fire.”

Other times I would need the radio to call for a medical evacuation of friends who had been shot or killed or hit by explosives. Most days my ear was stuck to my handset for eighteen hours and nothing special, but during the times that nothing happened a person could not help but wonder what the next horrible phone call might be. I turn my knob to our battalion channel and sometimes the breaking news of the day is a friend from another company has just been killed, or I am sleepy on hour seventeen but keep nodding to the sound of empty radio static, a noise like television snow, filled with a cold panic that if I succumb to the sleep, my friends will die because of me. Sometimes Nate Douglass would call my apartment late at night and I would not pick up. I would want to cry for fear but did not feel well enough to help someone who needed real help. I would take a moment to recover and carry on with the endless web surfing. He just wanted to talk. So did I, but war is a bitch and we both know it.

One time I picked up the phone for a number I did not recognize and it was Luis Munoz, our old point man. He had moved back to Mexico after the service and was calling to tell me about the violence he was witnessing. He said it was worse than Fallujah and he had a child to raise. He had been shot through the leg in Fallujah so bad that he was told he would never walk again. When we reunited Luis was in physical therapy walking with a cane in his early twenties. By the time he was discharged from the Marines as a wounded warrior he was jogging.

Rich Casares had been hit by an enemy hand grenade in Fallujah. It had damaged one of his eyes. The doctors put an air bubble behind it; I had to write him, because he was in a Texas Prison. When he wrote me he asked for a picture of Fallujah that looked really good so he could have it tattooed across his back. Paul Johnson has a kid, and Donald Blais will soon; they live in Connecticut today. During the battle they rushed into a burning house to ferry the bodies of their wounded friends, without being ordered to.

One early morning in my dark apartment I picked up the phone for Nate Douglass who had also been hit by an enemy hand grenade. We had been best friends in Fallujah. We talked about our struggles coming home and then we talked about the day that he had been hit by the hand grenade. He would reference the morning and I would retort with my perspective of the same thing. When we got to the operation, he would talk about what he saw inside a house while I would tell him what I saw outside of that house. I realized that the story flowed naturally and that if I had the other members of our platoon who were there that day I was sure that we could reconstruct the story with even more depth. I told Douglass that night that I had an idea for a documentary that would tell a story of real life heroism and struggle, a film that might answer questions for outsiders and for those just returning from their story.

Note: That documentary project was posted on Kickstarter and has now been fully funded. Production began on Memorial Day weekend. Here is the pitch video:


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