September 30, 2009

Name: K
Posting date: 9/30/09
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Milblog: Embedded in Afghanistan

It's a tough row to hoe for the Afghan women. Actually everyone's got a tough way to go over here, and you can see it on their faces. I tend to overestimate ages here by roughly 10 years, unless I'm consistently being lied to as to the true ages of the people. At any rate, women have it especially tough. From the time they can walk it seems the young girls are treated like mules, carrying various jugs or containers on their heads or in their arms. It's a common sight to see a man walking down the road empty-handed while his young daughter struggles along behind him serving as his porter. I guess having a daughter accustomed to working may make her more marriageable. Better to get those good habits started early on.

On the other hand, I've been to girls' schools that were very well attended by five-to-twelve-year-old cute young ladies. So undoubtedly the people do want their daughters to learn and get a bit of an education. The high schools around here are boys-only though. Afghanistan actually has a fair number of female politicians in government. Those women are brave souls no doubt, as female politicians have been murdered.

In this part of the country most all women of child-bearing age wear the burqa in public. I say most all because in one particular area it was not uncommon for me to see women working outside around their home without wearing the burqa, but that was a small, close-knit community. For the most part, except for the old and withered and the very young, we see no women here. We do, however, see plenty of T and A beneath those burqas -- toes and ankles.

Islam allows male practitioners four wives. Women, or course, aren't allowed the same privilege. Given that I'm well into my 30s now, the ANA often question me as to why I don't have a wife or children yet. I often play off their questions by telling them I'm only allowed one wife, so I have to make sure I pick the right girl.

I once (jokingly -- I promise I was only gauging his reaction) told the ANA Religious Officer (an older guy who's basically the battalion mullah) with whom I was eating dinner, that if I were allowed more than one wife I would have already married one. I would then follow her up with a newer model ten years later or so, and kick the old one into the back room somewhere. Repeat that process three times and you've got your four wives without ever lacking for a young one, with three old ones in the back of the house or in the yard doing chores. After he heard the translation he got a big smile on his face, clapped me on the shoulder, and said in English, "Good!". As if to say, "You're getting it figured out my young American friend!" Religion and my idea of morality don't always go hand in hand over here.


September 28, 2009

Name: SGT B.
Posting date: 9/28/09
Returned from: Iraq
Hometown: Rockford, WA
Milblog: The Gun Line 
Email: [email protected]

It has been one month since I returned home. So far, it has gone smoothly, more sweet than bitter. I  have a few issues on which i am working with the VA. They all are physical, and not so debilitating as to have a major impact on my quality of life. There’s the tinnitus that I suspect was caused by the daily exposure to the pairs of F-16s taking off three times a day about 200 meters from where I lived and worked. There’s a lump in my right trapezius that’s been there for four months now, with something going on down the cusp of my right shoulder. All in all, though, I came out of the deployment intact, especially between the ears, and I count myself lucky to have done so.

It’s a new beginning, in many ways, beginning with what I hope is an increased sense of maturity. I had time to think over there. I had the chance to examine my life, and chart the “sustains” and “improves” that life’s lessons have imparted. I came to many realizations, many epiphanies; some painful, some chagrined, some quite positive. I’d like to think that I grew up a bit, which is a helluva thing to say at the ripe old age of 44, but better late than never, eh?

The greatest realization is in the field of self-identification. I’ll not bore you with the details, but suffice it to say that I shifted gears: from the artificial identity imparted by the Marine Corps (which is great if one is surrounded by the total Marine support infrastructure, but not so much once you leave the protective arms of the Corps) to a confidence to just be me, to be “Bill”, and take strength in who I am as a person, and in what I believe, who I want to be.

I am content to be me, to be Bill…

Not to discount the experiences I have endured in the past. I will always be “veteran Marine Sergeant B.”, I will always be “Iraq War Veteran Army Sergeant B.” – and proud to have earned the titles, but I don’t need to define myself in such terms, not every day. I have earned my bones, but there is so much more to me, and I am confident to be “just” Bill.

There were casualties, however. In a years-long campaign to try to live life is something approaching a stable manner, I pushed off on others some the responsibilities I should have shouldered myself. While I was out being Superman, and saving the world, I didn’t take care of the business right in front of me, and the person who I should have been working with as a partner was forced to step into a situation she neither expected, wanted, or was really prepared to assume. In such circumstances, disaster was the only logical result, as the structure of our relationship fell apart through a series of changes that caused major rifts on a fundamental scale, culminating in the tragedy of divorce. The fault is shared, but I was the one who blew the final bridge, and I did a bang up job of it. If there is a bright spot in all of this, it is that KM6, despite the pain and stress this has caused, has agreed to attempt to maintain an amicable relationship, for the sake of the children, and her fortitude in the face of all of this deserves the highest accolades I can voice. I’ve read many accounts when one “ex” uses this public forum of ours to vent about the other “ex”.  I am not one of them. We knew, going into this deployment, that we were through. 

At that time, KM6 was well armed with a General Power of Attorney, and she could have completely blown my world out of the water – selling my civilian truck for a dollar, selling my military truck for a song, racking up debts out of sheer spite, and initiated any of a thousand other actions to make my life a living hell – but she didn’t. She took on the challenges of a single parent like the spouse of any other deployed soldier; she paid the mortgage, kept the lights on, kept the kids fed, dealt with the cats, all while holding down a full time job and going to school for her Master’s Degree. (She has just recently completed the academic phase, and needs to take the State Board Exam in October, and complete a specified period of OJT -- my term, not hers -- to finally be able to realize her own dreams in terms of self-fulfillment and professional achievement. Her Master’s Thesis was received by her instructor with not a single correction, and has been said to be one of those submittable that future student should use as a reference of how to do it right.)  Despite our differences, I am very proud of her, and it is my intent to support her in any way, shape, or form as she recovers from this morass of misery she has been forced to endure. She kept the faith, and I am eternally grateful for her efforts, though I was not deserving of them. She is a hero, and I lift her up as such.

At the same time, another face entered the picture, and I will tell you of her later, when time has passed, and wounds have healed a bit more, for she was also instrumental in my getting my head and tail re-wired, but more on that later.

So now, I am home, living in my mother’s basement until KM6 closes on her new home, and I can move back into my previous residence. I’m looking for work, have a few irons in the fire, and seemed to have weathered this deployment well. Last night I took my harmonicas down to the Harvest Moon (one of our two watering holes) and spent four hours jamming with four other musicians. We sounded a little rough at first, but there is potential. We won’t ever go further than being a local club band, and I really don’t think we want to, because it’s about the music, and giving our local friends and neighbors a chance to tap their feet and get away from the outside world for a while, and that’s the best reason to make music in the first place.

So, right now, I am content, as I reconnect with old friends, rebuild the bridges that can be rebuilt, and fire up The Gun Line for the next Great Adventure:

The rest of my life...


September 25, 2009

Posting date: 9/25/09


Benjamin Tupper was a frequent contributor to The Sandbox during his 2006-2007 deployment to
Afghanistan, and he has continued to write for the site since he returned home. We are pleased to help spread the word that he has just published a book, WELCOME TO AFGHANISTAN SEND MORE AMMO: The Tragicomic Art of Making War as an Embedded Trainer in the Afghan National Army.

While he was deployed, Tupper's audio-posts were often featured on National Public Radio, and "Morning Edition" recently interviewed him about the book. You can listen to the program here.


"A penetrating look at life deep inside Afghanistan and way outside the wire.Tupper's timing is right, and readers will appreciate the context he provides for the news stories we will be reading soon."

        -- G.B. Trudeau, creator of Doonesbury and The Sandbox

"Captain Benjamin Tupper has produced a series of compelling commentaries for 'Morning Edition,' raw, direct and powerful reports on what it's like to serve along the Pakistani border. This work is vitally important to our 31 million listeners nationwide."
        -- Ken Stern, former CEO of National Public Radio

"A keen and sympathetic observer, and a fine writer. His vignettes describing combat and the people involved in it are insightful and poignant, offering vivid and moving pictures of the realities of war."
        -- former Ambassador Goodwin Cooke, Professor Emeritus, Syracuse University


ETTs: The Tip Of The Counterinsurgency Spear

Photo 2

Forget what you know about the American Army. Strip from your mind the familiar images of U.S.
soldiers fighting their way through Germany, Korea,or Vietnam. The essays you are about to read reveal another side of the American soldier's experience at war: Individual soldiers removed from the comfort and familiarity of their Army units and placed into the ramshackle, newly formed Afghan National Army.

An average ETT team is sixteen American soldiers, embedded into an Afghan Battalion of about five hundred soldiers. These ETTs are separated into teams of two, each team assigned to its own individual Afghan National Army Company of about one hundred Afghan soldiers. They are embedded into these foreign ranks with little knowledge of Afghanistan's language, history, or culture, and they are forced, often in the heat of battle, to abandon the American doctrine of warfare and embrace creativity, patience, and primitive war-fighting techniques.

These American soldiers are the ETTs, the Embedded Training Teams, and these essays are my personal stories as a member of this force in Afghanistan. ETTs are Marines, Army, and most often Army National Guard officers and NCOs assigned to the fledgling Afghan National Army (ANA), where they are tasked with the daunting mission of training it in garrison, leading it in combat, and mentoring it to a final victory against a thriving and brutal Taliban insurgency.

Photo 1

These essays provide an introduction to the Afghan war as seen through the partnership of the
ANA and the ETTS, forming the literal "tip of the spear" in the counterinsurgency fight. They chronicle the personal experiences of two ETTs: myself, Captain Benjamin Tupper (Infantry) and my partner, Corporal Radek Polanski, also an infantryman. The stories vary in their scope, from personal war stories of our successes and failures in combat, to observations of day-to-day life inside the Afghan Army; the humorous moments, the culture clashes, the voice-raising arguments, and the differing role that religion, women, and politics play in the lives of Afghans and the American soldiers assigned to train them.This collection of essays also explores the injuries inflicted during war; from the slow but steady
degradation of healthy minds by combat stress, to treating the physical wounds of combat, to the
permanent, and final mortal death of our comrades and enemies.

To understand Afghanistan's culture, its potential for modernization and democracy, and its remaining military challenges, one must walk in the shoes of the Afghan people and its army. From May 2006 to  May 2007, I walked in those shoes. These essays are the footprints of my journey.

Read a review here.

Order a signed copy from the author here.

Links to some of Benjamin Tupper's Sandbox posts:

Pieces in the Snow, 1-22-07

Decency and Honor, 1-29-07

A Clear Shot, 3-14-07

The Heat in Dreams, 8-17-07


September 23, 2009

Name: K
Posting date: 9/23/09
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Milblog: Embedded in Afghanistan

I haven't been feeling especially inspired to write this week so I dug through my archives, and sanitized and edited this journal entry which I wrote earlier in the year. Reading over it makes me miss the little base where I spent my first four months of the tour:

I’m not completely sure how many firefights we’ve been in up to this point. The ones that we participate in while we’re on the base are not really a big deal to me because we’re generally not the target of those attacks, due to our proximity to the village below. We get to participate because the other firebases and observation posts in the area are getting attacked.

The frequency of attacks has been increasing recently. We’d gotten some intel that some foreign fighters had pushed into the area with the intention of hitting us as hard as they could for about a week or so -- and hitting us they have been, though with no friendly casualties to this point.

Sometimes you get so used to the shooting you don’t pay much attention to it, and not just when you’re "safe" inside the confines of your compound. As part of a security patrol the other day, we stopped at the local lumber mill, which consists of a house with a large, partly-covered porch where they do the cutting with an old bandsaw. This province used to have a thriving timber industry, which has since been shut down by the government for fear the proceeds were being used to fund insurgent operations – a not unreasonable fear given this area is considered “insurgent central".

The anthropologist embedded with us for the time being thought talking to the young men at the lumber mill would be a good chance to get some information about the lumber industry’s history and their hopes for the future. I, on the other hand, thought stopping at the mill would be a good chance to get to talk to some of the people who shoot at us in their spare time. I'll mention that our "default position" toward all young males in this specific area is to consider them as active or passive insurgency supporters.

Unfortunately, due to our ANA commander’s meddling in the conversation (I thought he would know that if we wanted his answers to the questions we would just have asked him in the confines of our base during our nightly discussions, but apparently this was another assumption I should not have made), the domination of the conversation by the head local guy once he arrived, the ineptitude of the particular interpreter I’m stuck with at this point, and the natural reticence of the local people, I’m afraid our anthropologist didn’t get all the information he could have hoped for in a conversation lasting more than 30 minutes.

And so it was that the most interesting part of our brief stay at the lumber mill occurred about 15 minutes into the conversation when a firefight erupted at the observation post about 500 meters west up the hill from us. The firefight was interesting not because of what happened, but because of what did not happen – namely, no one, not the local men, anthropologist, marines, or ANA made much of an acknowledgment of the bullets and mortars flying other than an occasional glance up the hill.

Five hundred meters is not all that far away, but of the ten of us sitting and talking, no one really considered moving or altering his immediate plans in any way, including myself, though I did begin to pay a bit more attention to my radio. Now that's multi-tasking, when you can make sense of a garbled radio blaring in one ear, while also making sense of a translation in broken English with your other ear.

One might think that we would have or should have done something, but in reality there is little we can do to support that post unless the fires are coming from an area of the valley we can reach with our guns, which is rare, so in a situation where we're otherwise engaged we don't worry about it too much. As for our own safety, even if a coordinated attack were planned from multiple firing positions, the odds of us being shot at while on a visit with the local people are low. Part of the insurgents’ hold over the local people is due to intimidation, but they don’t normally take to shooting into crowded areas just to get at us. And so I sat there with the rest of them outside on the porch drinking chai, calmly listening in on the conversation as mortars fell about 800 meters away and the sound of heavy guns reverberated in the air.

I suppose I know now how the people in Beirut felt for all those years during their civil war. One can get used to pretty much anything it seems. Just keep doing what you're doing.


September 21, 2009

Name: America's 1st Sgt.
Posting date: 9/21/09
Stationed in: Iraq  
Milblog: Castra Praetoria
Email: [email protected]

Occasionally you have a premonition that it is time to move on. That what you’ve been doing is now concluded and your work here is actually done. I've received a sign that is is time for me to leave Iraq. 

Recently I received the below notice on the all hands e-mail here in scenic Al Assad:

Framed AmFirst HauntedHouse

After reading it, I felt it complete confirmation that it is time for me to leave this country and never return. What I’m not sure about is which is more ludicrous: the idea that MWR is having a haunted house in a combat zone, or that some brain surgeon thought it would be a good idea to host a haunted house and invite hundreds and hundreds of people armed with automatic weapons.


September 17, 2009

Name: Alex Horton
Posting date: 9/17/09
Returned from: Iraq
Milblog: Army of Dude

Framed Horton Amber Shay At times he must have been no more than two hundred feet from me, but I never had the privilege to meet Jordan Shay. Together we chewed up the most inhospitable terrain on earth, and back on Ft. Lewis, we worked daily in the same dilapidated Korean War era barracks. The only connection I shared with Jordan was through the comments section of his blog, which I keep linked on the top of my blog page, under our unit crest.

Though our companies faced a heated inter-battalion rivalry, Attack Company was always in the thick of combat with my company, Battle. They shouldered a far greater burden than us, sustaining eight KIAs to our two. Jordan, at 22 years old, saw more combat than a lot of crusty old vets before he could legally buy a beer. For his second combat tour with the 3rd Stryker Brigade, Jordan started a blog to chronicle his experience. He named it  Through Amber Lenses, the color of his sunglasses. He wanted to explain to the world what he saw with a bright amber tint.

What I read when I checked his most recent comment section hit me straight in the gut. "RIP Jordan." I rushed to the DoD announcement page and found nothing. Through a Google search I confirmed my worst fear: Jordan Shay, 22 years young, killed in Iraq. Shortly thereafter I read that the Department of Defense had officially announced the death of Jordan and fellow soldier SSG Todd Selge. I met Todd at Javelin School on Ft. Lewis. He was a quiet professional, confident in his skills as a leader. I believe he graduated at the top of the class, but it would be no surprise if you had talked to the man for more than a minute. The nation is lesser for the loss of these two soldiers.

It will always be difficult to hear a Regular soldier has been killed, but to see Jordan leave us too soon hits me especially hard. I didn't know Jordan personally, but I knew him well. I understand his need to commit his thoughts to writing in order to share with the rest of us. He spoke of his teachers and his mother pushing him to write more. I'm eternally grateful for their efforts, and to Jordan for taking them up on their challenge. We not only lost a great soldier, but a gifted writer. We suffer doubly at the loss, for his talent bridged the gap of understanding between soldier and civilian. Jordan's time on earth allowed just sixteen posts to be written in the span of four months, but his writing was honest, measured and disciplined. He must have thought he was bound for something great, but never realized he was already there.

Rest easy, Jordan. You've made a difference to more than you know. The United States lost a brave soldier, and the military blog community lost a brave new voice. I ask that you take the time to read his blog from beginning to end. In his comments section, his girlfriend tells us the blog was important to him. I hope he realized how important it was to those who read it.

Here is the final essay he put up on his site:

The Promised "Real" Post!

The back ramp of the Stryker dropped to reveal a dusty, rundown Iraqi Police station in a nondescript Baqubah suburb. We stepped out of the truck onto the ramp, and took the two foot drop to the ground in stride. Todd took off for a walk around the compound; I motioned for the rest of our squad and followed after him. The walk revealed a typical IP station, a large walled courtyard surrounding an average size building. The courtyard was filled with trash, sewage, broken generators and spare parts to nonexistent machines.

Framed Horton Amber  Leaning up against the back of the building we discovered half of a rusted Russian heavy machine gun, and another piece of a Cold War era anti-aircraft gun. No big deal, except both weapons had been used against our company two years prior during the retaking of the city of Baqubah. Pretending this find meant the IPs were doing their job and taking dangerous weapons off the street and not that they were the average two-faced insurgents, we rounded the last corner of the compound and headed for the front gate.

Thanks to the hand-tying status of forces agreement between Iraq and the United States, American soldiers are not allowed to operate in urban areas without having the Iraqi Police or Iraqi Army present. Exceptions apply, but they're few and far between.

By the time our squad had regrouped around the front of the building, our IA escort forces from outside the city had exited their humvees and stood around smoking and joking with each other. They were dressed in USMC desert fatigues, military body armor, and commercial tactical vests. They were also carrying clean weapons outfitted with modern American optics and flashlights. Apparently, Iraqi Army Special Forces are fairly well funded.

We passed them by and headed out the gate, since our absurdly strict platoon leader wasn't around to stop us. One lonely IP stood guard just outside the entrance to the station. He remained rooted to the ground while we moved past him and out into the neighborhood. We figured he'd count as our Iraqi escort if someone important came along. Crossing a small lot with a few scattered cars and trash piles, a pack of four or five dogs picked up our scent and barked to alert the area to our presence. We held up at the far side of the lot, less than a hundred meters from the IP station. A group of kids had been playing around in the street, but had scattered as soon as we left the station. In previous years, that was a bad sign. Kids scattered and plugged their ears before roadside bombs detonated.

This time around, it's a different war. "War" is hardly the word to describe the current situation. Anyway, the unit we're replacing didn't spend a single second of their tour mingling with the locals around this particular IP station. It had been months since the last American foot patrol through their village. They peeked around corners and out from behind courtyard gates. Families weaving around rubble and small rivers of sewage eyeballed us suspiciously, rarely returning a wave.

Two young boys crept closer, stopping about ten meters ahead of us. I motioned to them to come closer while Todd called to them in broken Arabic. Cautiously, the older of the two darted up to us. Todd pulled a pack of gum from his pants pocket and handed a piece to the boy, who looked confused but optimistic. Todd pulled out another piece for himself, and popped it in his mouth. The boy smiled and darted back to the safety of his house. When he stuck his head out a moment later, he was chewing happily and surrounded by a new group of local kids.

I motioned again to them, and a younger boy came running up over the broken bricks and dirt littering the street. I handed him a little pack of Sweet Tarts as my squad started moving back to the police station. He accepted happily and ran back to the house. I turned and followed the squad out of the neighborhood and back through the guarded station entrance, offering the lone IP a wave as he closed the gate behind me.

We walked up to the front of the building, wondering where our blundering platoon leader was. The Iraqi Army Special Forces soldiers were still lounging around, smoking cheap cigarettes in the scorching afternoon sun. Approaching them, they welcomed us with open arms and all sorts of broken English. Cigarettes were offered all around, we removed our helmets and gloves, and relaxed. The language barrier is always difficult to overcome, but through the few Arabic phrases I remember from my first deployment and creative sign language, we got to know each other. We examined each others rifles and pistols, resisted the pleas of the IA soldiers to trade watches and jokingly traded insults. An American private from Guam was played up as an Iraqi who forgot how to speak Arabic, and the sexual preference of all involved was questioned. Some things are funny to soldiers no matter their nationality.

A number of the Iraqi soldiers pulled out mobile phones with built-in cameras to take pictures with us. In true Iraqi style, they showed us pictures of their wives and children and poked fun at each other before finally settling down to pose for pictures. Todd took a few pictures with my camera, then moved into the group for a few more.

Our platoon leader emerged from the station a short time later, and ordered us back onto the trucks. We said goodbye to our new friends and loaded up into our Strykers. As our convoy pulled out of the compound onto the bumpy village roads, we offered the locals a final wave. Surrounded by young kids, even the parents waved back.


It's scary to think the few minutes my squad spent outside the police station interacting with the local kids, showing that we're there to be friendly and help the Iraqis, and proving we're not afraid to wander the streets alone may set the tone in KBS for the rest of our deployment.

Also interesting to note: According to the interpreter we had along with us today, the citizens of Baqubah (and most of Diyala Province) fear the men who wear the patch with the Indian head and star on a black shield (2nd Infantry Division.) When asked about 5-20 Infantry, they talk of the grey phantoms (rough translation) who appear in the night, move without sound, and rain incredible destruction down upon their enemies. At the same time, they praise our battalion for driving Al Qaeda out of their city, out of their neighborhoods, and out of their children's lives.

We are respected in Baqubah. We are also feared. Our battalion has a fantastic opportunity to use these facts to our advantage and make a real difference before the withdrawal of all combat forces in the summer of next year. We made a difference in 2007, we could do it again in 2009. I fear we will not.


September 14, 2009

Name: Old Blue
Posting date: 9/14/09
Returned to: Afghanistan
Milblog: Afghan Quest

A blogger friend, military supporter whose husband has served in this war, asked what victory looks like in Afghanistan. It’s a good question, and one that I think is probably in more minds than just hers. So I’m going to take a whack at answering it.

First, I never really think in terms of “victory.” There will be no grand surrender ceremony on the deck of a battleship in this conflict. Insurgencies don’t die in a horrendous bright flash of light and culminate in a giant sigh of acceptance of defeat. They dwindle and starve, become a criminal problem, and finally fade out largely from lack of interest. Twenty years from now, former insurgents will own shops and other businesses and live relatively obscure lives here in Afghanistan. Some may even be in government. No, I don’t use the word victory. The words that we use are important, and they are powerful. They evoke images. Americans love victory, even as they love the underdog, most Cincinnati Bengals fans who don’t even bother to show up to games by mid-season demonstrate that the underdog appeal fades in the face of repeated defeat.

I think in terms of success or failure. The previous Afghan government, if you could call it that, was not so much governing as ruling over a failed state. So let’s talk about what success looks like in Afghanistan. We can describe it simply, but then you have to drill down to what that actually means. For starters, success in Afghanistan includes a stable government devoid of dysfunctional or disabling corruption. What does that mean? Look at our own level of corruption in the United States. Don’t act like we don’t have corruption -- but it’s generally not disabling. Disabling means that whatever corruption is present interferes materially and consistently with the provision of basic governmental responsibilities; what we often call basic services. It means an Afghanistan with a rising economy, dropping unemployment, a growing standard of living, climbing literacy rates and ever higher standards of education. It means an Afghanistan where there is a basic rule of law and where the citizens feel relatively safe in their homes and neighborhoods and where nearly all feel that there is some access to justice. This means that one of the basic services is security; the ability of the populace to live without threat or intimidation.

Can we do that? I think that perhaps we can. Should we do that? Topic for another post, but I am here of my own volition. I don’t like to lose any more than the next guy, and this is not just Operation Enduring Paycheck for me; so you can guess that my answer is likely positive on that one, too.

There are a lot of encouraging signs. The vanguard of the civilian surge is coming aboard. There are hundreds more on the way, and while they don’t meet the typical State Department mold, the community organizers of the Obama Campaign are finding their way to Afghanistan. Just this week I met and worked with a State Department employee of five months standing, four of which were in Afghanistan. She had worked on the Obama campaign, before that on “another candidate’s campaign,” and prior to that was, “in business.” Very well-intentioned. I could write an entire post about that one, but give us the raw material and you might be surprised where we can take this. The point is that we are beginning to develop the civilian capacity-building arm of our foreign policy apparatus.

Just as encouraging is the participation that we are seeing from Afghans in the civilian government and the military. COIN doctrine is Afghan doctrine as well. Everything that is being taught to Americans and NATO/Coalition partners coming into Afghanistan is Afghan doctrine. It is also being taught to Afghans. Tons of Afghan officers, including the very senior ones, are active participants in the dissemination of the doctrine and in planning for the rapid growth necessary in Afghan forces. I can’t brief it, because it’s not for public release, but there are certain economies of force that are being strongly considered to leverage the existing forces as cadre for rapid expansion. Growth becomes easier when you have a professional core upon which to build, and that core exists in greater numbers every day. The growth within the leadership of the ANA, including the NCO Corps, has been a huge success story here.

Afghan government ministries, Afghan NGOs and Afghan contractors are also participants. They are also being trained and enthusiastically receiving the training in how to work across organizational boundaries to target effects based on the input and needs of local people. One of the legacies of the Taliban days is that the Taliban destroyed traditional structures that used to regulate Afghan life. Those weakened tribal and village structures are now the target of efforts to strengthen them and by doing so, return a sense of normal life forces in Afghan society. There is a significant movement afoot to leverage traditional methods of local justice. This may, on the surface, appear to be contrary to what we are used to -- but in the United States, Mayor’s Courts thrive and are still in widespread use. Think of it along those lines.

Host nation support is unprecedented and growing.

The plan to add resources to the ANP also cannot be described in detail, but it is possible that a plan to move significant resources in that direction, quickly, may be approved for implementation very soon. This will also build upon lessons learned from the successful but time-consuming Focused District Development (FDD) program, as well. The ANP have lacked large-scale mentoring efforts for quite some time, and it appears possible that some horsepower may be directly applied to this most important counterinsurgent force very soon. Another reason for optimism. While months and years will be required, this is not really a long time in context. Positive results may occur very quickly.

Remember, you don’t have to be the faster than the bear; you just have to be faster than the next guy. The next guy, in this case, is very small and while agile, he is actually hobbled. The people don’t like him, and only need to feel safe to push back. There are approximately 30,000 active insurgents in Afghanistan to try to subdue approximately 30,000,000 people. Another thing to remember is that while the entire country needs governance and development, there is only a serious insurgent threat in portions of the country. Some threats are actually criminal in nature, sometimes under the guise of insurgency. Lots of weapons trafficking and drug trafficking-related violence is attributed to political violence, which it is not.

Overall, we are going to temporarily construct a national security apparatus that is actually economically unsustainable in the long term. Afghanistan will only need these large forces long enough for the insurgency to be beaten back. If the other factors are addressed during this process -- and we are building that capacity now -- then the insurgency will begin to fade. As it fades, so long as the positive changes continue, the Afghan people will themselves be less and less likely to feel drawn to any radical ideology. Young men will find fulfillment in licit work rather than finding identity with radical leadership, and the need for such massive security forces will wane. For those who fear that a massive army will need to be sustained in perpetuity, that is usually a red herring used as a bogeyman to frighten others. It’s just fallacious logic.

One of our Achilles heels is public opinion. During the elections, many gravitated towards the “good war” versus “bad war” line of thinking. Many of those folks were simply setting up a straw man. Another thing to take into consideration was that the overwhelming majority of the population knew little about Afghanistan. Our networks were flooded with Iraq doom and gloom. Now those same people who held up the “good” vs “bad” argument are openly questioning Afghanistan.

That’s because it makes their head hurt.

Afghanistan is a complicated environment. Major and minor ethnic groups abound. Tribal rivalries go back centuries. There are over three thousand distinct insurgent groups in Afghanistan. They are linked into confederations of varying degrees of cohesiveness. There are rifts and alliances and more rifts and alliances. These provide many opportunities to leverage cracks -- and many opportunities for headaches. For many, who otherwise appear to be very intelligent people, it just makes their head hurt. Unable to comprehend, they prognosticate in the only direction they can. Lots of that from talking heads who know little about actuality in Afghanistan lately. These hurt-headed failures do influence, though. Sadly, some just can’t say that they are ignorant and don’t really need to be involved in the discussion. Sadder still is their inability to listen to or take seriously those who do see and do know, apparently because of some academic sense of superiority or well-developed ego. We’ve all known those types, and the foreign policy wonkworld certainly abounds with them. Their keyboards are aflame with addle-pated hammerings this year.

Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.

Afghanistan is not Iraq. No question. But there is a similarity. COIN was not executed perfectly in Iraq. The surge didn’t do everything right down to the last detail. But what happened was amazing. Some will ascribe the changes in that country during the time surrounding the surge to be the result of nearly anything but the application of some very basic COIN principles, but that’s driven, often, by personal politics and disingenuous motives. What happened, at least in part, was that even imperfect application of population-centric tactics on a large scale led to disproportionate reactions within society. Positive reactions. We lost momentum in Afghanistan for a number of reasons, but the people here truly want to see us regain it and begin providing hope again. I think that it will take less to switch that momentum than the blithering heads would ever think. They will ascribe it, again, to nearly anything other than acceptably applied COIN, but that doesn’t matter. The proof is in the pudding.

One more key; the Afghans really need to know that we are here for the long haul with them. Our history in the past half century doesn’t bear this out, but it’s time to show the world that we can keep going even when our head hurts and helping ourselves means helping someone else first. There are a lot of Americans who resent spending a cup of urine to extinguish a flaming neighbor, bewailing whatever other purpose they may have had for that cup of urine. Think about how those people feel when it is tax dollars they could be using for some pet project. We’ve got lots of those types, too. They often have headaches and think themselves truly brilliant analysts, too. Don’t even get me started about how they pretend to give two shits about my life or my family, though. They don’t. That’s just political fodder for them. The Afghans need to know that we are not quitters any more; that our word actually means something. The meaning of a person’s word has lost something in our society, but not in theirs nor in the eyes of the rest of the world.

The partnering of units remains to be seen. There are concerns that the American Regular Army units will revert to the same old behaviors that they had in the past; abusing their Afghan “partners” as the equivalent of their own pissboys. These units have received some basic COIN training, but there will be another factor, and that would be the Mc-Rod Factor. McChrystal and Rodriguez are serious about enforcing the application of their plan -- that Afghan forces are going to lead and the Americans are there as a multiplier. It will only take a few bell-ringers to correct the old ways. Neither impresses me as a man to spare a career in the presence of failure to execute his orders.

Lastly a reason for optimism is the total lack of traction of failed ideas such as strict reliance on “CT” or counter terrorist operations. Discussions which contain references with suggestions to abandoning population-centric concepts for a strictly CT approach are the equivalent of discussing the merits of a football bat. It’s like asking if someone thinks that roughing the passer should be called more strictly during the World Series. Just roll your eyes and know that you’ve just heard from someone who has as much credibility in the current fight as a gelding on a stud farm. No one here on the ground is able to open their mouths and make such ridiculously inane noises. I think it’s happening back home on a regular basis, but no worries; no traction whatsoever where COIN meets the real world.

Afghanistan won’t look like a Mini-Me version of the United States. It will look like a war torn country with hope, though. Success looks like Afghans making plans to access their sub-soil resources in partnership with companies who don’t just buy the rights to a seam of ore. It looks like a court system that functions in such a way that Afghans feel that if they have a dispute, no one can buy the decision. It takes a while to come from the 19th century to the 20th, much less the 21st. We have to understand that success in Afghanistan doesn’t look like perfection; it looks like positive momentum and a lack of interest in further insurgency. There will be die-hards, but the police will be tracking them down. Success looks like most people not having time to listen to radicals because they are either on their way to work or on their way home from school. There is a lot to do to get there, but with the buy-in we’re seeing from the Afghan Army, Police and civil Ministries, as well as the civilian and NGO surge, there’s a sense that the momentum can be regained.


September 11, 2009

Name: RN Clara Hart
Posting date: 9/11/09
Stationed in: a civilian military hospital in the U.S.
Milblog url: From Our Perspective
Email: [email protected]

It's September 11th again. Another anniversary to get through. This year I am afraid too many people have forgotten. The races I have run in years past, the walks I have participated in to honor those killed and to remember, did not transpire this year. For whatever reason, no one put anything in place. Each year the events designed to remember become fewer and fewer. In a city directly impacted by the horror of this day eight years ago it doesn’t seem it should be possible. Maybe the only ones who remember anymore are those of us with memories of our dead, with images in our heads which we cannot escape no matter how hard we try. 

We discharged a young Marine last week. He was flown back from the war zones after having seizures in theater. It turns out he has a brain mass; a cancerous, inoperable tumor. He’s 26 years old and has only months to live. We sent him home to enjoy what time he has left with his family and his wife of less than a year. I have seen that very same situation played out more times than I can count. They return home from war, and instead of the violence of combat it is the destruction of cancer that will kill them. 

I had a bad moment recently. The family of a war wounded had decided to withdraw care and donate his organs after he was determined to be brain dead. They took him to the OR and with his family present removed his breathing tube and turned off the life-sustaining medications.  While the goodbyes were being said in surgery I was answering phones in the unit. One phone call was from a woman demanding to talk with the transplant coordinator, who was in the OR. The conversation went like this:

“I need to talk to her, so connect me to the OR.”

“I’m sorry, I can’t do that. They are in there with the family and I’m not going to disturb them.  I can take a message and have her call you back."

“Hmmpf. You don’t understand, we’re supposed to get the liver and I have a doctor who needs to know if he has to come in.”

“Uh. . .  excuse me?”

“We’re coordinating the reception of the liver and I need to tell the doctor when it will arrive. So you need to tell me something or let me talk to the transplant people.”

“Look lady, what part of  'They are all in the OR, the patient, his family, doctors, nurses and the
transplant coordinators, and are waiting for the patient to die' – do you not understand? I will not put you through to the OR. I will not call into the OR room to talk with her. You will wait.”

At that point she must have realized she had offended me (ya think?) and quickly disconnected. Later when I saw one member of the transplant team I said to him, "You tell the coordinator I need to talk to her now!” 

“No problem, Ma’am."

Shortly thereafter she appeared. “You needed to talk to me?”

“I’ve always been a supporter of organ donation," I told her. "I’m a donor myself. But my interaction with that woman from recipient services is enough to make me sick. This patient is not just a liver. This is one of our soldiers and he has a name!  He deserves to be treated with the respect he has more than earned. He gave his life for this country and to demean him by calling him ‘the liver’ disgusts me. Quite frankly right now all of you are nothing but a bunch of fucking vultures circling and I want nothing to do with you! And if I had anything to do with it that woman would not get this soldier’s liver.”

The coordinator let me rant, apologized, and promised to investigate. 

I later found out that this soldier’s liver could not be transplanted, and I’m sorry to say I did derive a feeling of satisfaction from that.

Often our family conferences are an effort in futility. No matter how many times we explain the situation, they just do not get it. The family members simply do not want to understand that their son or husband or brother is brain damaged, many times irrevocably. That IED blasted away part of his personality and he will never be the same. They look for answers where there are none. They want their brother, who lies comatose with no movement to his arms or legs, to be able to walk down the aisle at their wedding in seven months. DAI – diffuse axonal injury – in most cases, is a death sentence. Or life in a coma, the person they used to be only a memory. God, it's exhausting seeing these patients. It’s so depressing to watch their physically fit bodies waste away as they lie in their mindless sleep never to awaken.

I struggle with caring for someone deployed to OEF. Although I’ve known him for several years he decided to tell me of his interest three months before he deployed. Three months which were mostly taken up with deployment train up, our friendship/relationship or whatever it is brought down to once-a-week or once-every-other-week IM conversations via web cam. Thank goodness for modern technology, but it doesn’t seem to help much. I see a tired face on the other end of the computer screen and I worry. I see the casualities of these wars every time I walk into work and I do not want him to become one of them.

I sent him a care package, and one of the things I included was the Flag of Honor I had been given several years ago. Carefully stored in a dresser drawer (the memories associated with it are so painful I can't look at it), it lists the names of every person killed in the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001. I told him in a letter of my involvement that day, I mentioned my friends killed and the horrors I saw. I told him I wanted him and his unit to have the flag, as it was my way of saying "I appreciate your service and your sacrifices."  I haven’t heard whether he’s received it yet, my stomach knots with anxiety over his imagined thoughts at this impromptu gift.

I do not know how to handle this. 

I’ve never done this before.


September 10, 2009

Name: America's 1st Sgt.
Posting date: 9/10/09
Stationed in: Iraq 
Milblog: Castra Praetoria
Email: [email protected]

Framed AmFirst stupid1

It’s funny how young Marines feel they deal with a lot of stupid stuff. They think getting up in the morning is a pain in the neck. Having to shave is an inconvenience. Keeping their area squared away is imposing on their right to self expression. The list goes on.

Often I ask a group of Marines who among them thinks they put up with stupidity. Inevitably a forest of hands goes up until I bark, “Well try putting some rockers on and see how stupid it gets!”

Things 1stSgt’s deal with include...

Other people’s marriages:

Everyone just has to get married right before deployment. These individuals are always lined up outside my office with their marriage packages in hand; oblivious to everyone who is getting divorced right before deployment who are waiting in another line to see me. There is a mysterious phenomenon occurring here, where these two groups of people are utterly blind to the existence of the other and will heed no one’s advice about waiting until after deployment or at least until he gets to know her better.

Framed AmFirst stupid2

Then of course there is everyone who is getting married during post-deployment leave (at least they waited for the deployment to be over). This is followed closely by all those getting a divorce immediately following the deployment. The classic example is the Marine who returns home to an empty house having had no idea his spouse had left him. His chain of command and all his buddies no doubt told him it wasn’t a good idea to marry a stripper he had only known for four weeks but did he listen?

Once I had a Marine get a divorce right before we deployed. When we came back seven months later, one the guys from his platoon ended up marrying the girl on post-deployment leave. I think I broke at least three of my own teeth during this episode.

There have been cases where Marines have deployed while neglecting to make sure their spouse had any money to live on while deployed. No ATM card, no checks, no direct deposit. Hey stud, do you think she might need to buy food and pay your rent?

My favorite is forgetting to mention to your spouse that you are going to be gone for seven months in Iraq at all. This is more common than you might think. I’ve even had Marines forget to tell their mothers that they were deploying. Awesome!

Now with the advent of 21st Century technology you can fight with your loved ones a dozen times a day and still be 8,000 miles from where they are. We’ve got clowns that call multiple times a day and then get belligerent if the wife hasn’t answered the phone on the first ring. Brain surgeon, she has to go to the crapper some time. If you don’t trust her then maybe you shouldn’t have married a woman that was sleeping around with you behind her previous husband’s back when he was on deployment. Sometimes people just get what they deserve.

Other people’s parents:

Then there is the odd Marine who writes home to his mother that he doesn’t get to eat. She naturally writes her congressman in concern which starts a whole chain of e-mails with a subject line containing the letters W, T, and F. Now of course there is plenty of food for this Marine and his delicate palate to consume he just doesn’t like it. Here’s a news flash: None of us like it!

There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that military food is just plain rancid. MREs, Tray Rations, and UGRs are only slightly less foul than what passed for chow back in the Old Corps. But guess what? There is plenty of it so there is no reason to complain about hunger. I remember once the little heathens ate everything in sight and my Company Commander and I were left eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches made out of shelf bread. So Mom, check it out: your son is being fed plenty; he is just being a sissy because you are not cooking for him anymore. Tell him to man up. I already did; that is why he sent you that whiny e-mail.

Most mothers want their sons home from combat. I don’t blame them. I want their sons to come home from combat too; right now in fact. Here’s the problem, we all signed up to do a job. It’s called a contract. When you don’t live up to it then you are called a dirt bag. So Mom, please stop sending the command emergency Red Cross Messages requesting the presence of your son because you are having a bunion removed. No one in the entire theatre of operations is going to approve that emergency leave request. There’s like a war on.

Self inflicted wounds:

In the Marine Corps we have standards; standards of conduct; standards of dress; even height and weight standards. The weight standard is particularly amusing especially when the fat Marine in question is completely mystified by the fact that you want to break a park bench over his back. Of course it is never his fault; no one told him he looked like a beach ball with lips. Maybe when that gigantic orb of flesh called your gut began to affect the tides it should have given you a clue. Listen, when Japanese fishermen start licking their lips when you walk by it’s time to cover your blow hole and run.

Alcohol is the perennial villain in many a tale of liberty gone awry and is usually prominently featured in any and all of the above scenarios. Its uncanny ability to cripple what is already questionable judgment is legendary. Lessons like it is against the law to operate a motor vehicle under the influence are usually learned the hard way vice simply listening to your 1stSgt tell you it is every weekend. The fact that stumbling around Waikiki blind drunk at 0300 in the morning will make you a victim is another good one.

Framed AmFirst stupid3

Even as you read this I am probably standing in front of a group of Marines getting ready to fly home from Iraq. I am more than likely trying to convince them that all the alcohol in America will still be there the day after they get back and that there is no need to attempt to drink it all in one night. Will they listen? That remains to be seen this trip.


September 04, 2009

Name: Air Force Wife
Posting date: 9/4/09
Spouse: Preparing to deploy
Milblog: Spousebuzz
Email: [email protected]

It started out innocently enough -- the two younger Air Force kids and I went to a local homeschooling conference. We had to sign up Daughter #2 for next year at our homeschool academy of choice.

We did a bit of "window" shopping, bought some books, and meandered our way over to the Academy table to sign up.  I grabbed an application form, started filling it out, and was confronted by this:

Mother:     (resides in home/resides separately from child)
Father:      (resides in home/resides separately from child)

Whose definition are we using here?

When it comes to school forms, these questions are not just academic nosy-neighbor inquiries. Schools need to know what the child's home situation is so that they can appropriately deal with issues that come up during the year. My phone number is on the emergency call list  -- but the number for my husband is glaringly blank.

Because he won't be home.  And quite frankly, I'm not sure the school would do anything with an international number, even if I knew the International Country Code Prefix for Afghanistan or Iraq or any of the other lovely and exotic locales my husband ends up hanging around in.

Quite irrationally, I ended up angry at the school over this.  How dare they ask me a question like that? It's just not their business, those [insert rude name-calling here].  Of course my husband "resides" with us!  He just isn't going to be "living" with us for a year or so.  Well, plus those months he doesn't "live" with us while he's training.  Or while he's TDY.  Or whatever.

But he damn well does reside with us!  So that's a stupid question!

Except that it's not a stupid question. And I wasn't being totally honest with myself or fair to the school, or even being fair to my daughter who will more than likely have an issue of some sort and varying severity arise relating to the fact that her Dad is either (a) in a war zone, (b) coming home for a visit from a war zone in which case there will be no school work done and I won't make any excuses for it, either, or (c) Mom is single parenting because Dad is residing at home, but not living at home and something came up. These issues happen, and the school needs to know what to expect.

But I did not want to be confronted with this issue right now. I also didn't want to phrase it just that way, either. Somehow it seems easier for me to skirt around the fact and just not mention that my husband's primary abode will be not with us. He'll have a different mailing address, a different phone number, and no we're not divorced/maritally separated/or on non-speaking terms. This is still his house.

He just won't live here.

And I wasn't ready for someone to (unsuspectingly) remind me of that little fact right now.


September 02, 2009

Name: Alex Horton
Posting date: 9/3/09
Returned from: Iraq
Milblog: Army of Dude

From behind his chip stack, Dozer looked unbeatable.

The nightly Mosul poker game saw the regulars leave in a predictable fashion. Mark built up a strong stack in the most unlikely string of winning hands, only to fall after his luck ran out. Steve played tight to his chest as his chips slowly melted into other stacks. Bill let it ride one too many times, sipping Mountain Dew as the other players siphoned his chips. Dozer and I emerged with nearly equal stacks in a game of head-to-head poker. A full poker game means playing the cards you're dealt. In head-to-head, the cards are almost irrelevant. You play the man, using your chips as a battle ax or a scalpel, depending on your playing style. In just a few rounds, his chips barely outnumbered mine. I chose to use the battle ax.

I peeked underneath my fingers before the flop. Pocket twos. Not ideal for a pocket, but a pair off the bat is a good place to start. The flop came out: 2-3-J. Three of a kind! I maintained my cool and placed a healthy bet. Dozer immediately called. I quickly assumed he was holding another Jack. He rarely bluffs, and with a slim lead, he didn't have to. The turn came: 7. Just what I wanted to see. Even if he held two pair, it didn't beat my three of a kind. I bet even larger than before. Without hesitation, Dozer raised.That threw me off. What the hell was he holding? I called his raise, less confident this time.

A nine flopped on the river. My tensions cooled. Staring at the big pot, I decided to go for the gold and make a big dent in Dozer's stack. "All in," I said, a hint of arrogance carried from my throat. Dozer didn't even hesitate. "Call." I flipped my cards over and pushed them forward, expecting to see a frown appear over his face. "Three of a kind twos, dude." Dozer still shielded his cards from view. He erupted in laughter. "No way dude!" He tossed his cards toward the pot. Pocket threes. His three of a kind threes beat my twos. Holy shit.

The countless poker games in Iraq weren't so much about the money as they were about escapism. Once you get on that plane, there is no going back unless you're injured or dead. The heat, the dust, that saccharine septic smell -- it swirls overhead like a black cloud. Distractions like poker and endless DVD libraries prove to be valuable tools to keep that overwhelming feeling from slowly eroding morale into dust. Outside the wire was the time to take it all in, to be masters of our own senses. Back on base though, one has to relax. Tension, they say, is a killer.

The Third Stryker Brigade is in the process of heading back to Iraq for the third time in six years. The brigade has proven itself in combat -- From Tal Afar,Samarra and Mosul in 2003-2004, to Mosul, Baghdad and Baqubah in 2006-2007. My old company, Bravo 5/20, has been the tip of the spear in both deployments. Bravo company was legendary in its recovery of a Kiowa helicopter in 2005, a story later made into a documentary on the Military Channel. In March of 2007, Bravo Company, along with Alpha and Headquarters Company, moved into Baqubah to take it back from al-Qaeda in Iraq. What ensued in those bloody months form the core of this blog and forever shaped the lives of the men who were there.

5/20 has seen more than its fair share of combat in Iraq. For once, I hope their tour is memorable for all night poker sessions and gathering around a small TV at three in the morning to watch the Super Bowl. I hope firefights this tour are as showers were the last tour. The first thing I want to hear when Bravo Company 5/20 returns is "Man, that tour was fucking boring." 5/20 is notorious for finding trouble. This tour, I'm praying they find time to play poker so I can hear all the great stories of full houses beating flushes. I want pranks and jokes to be what the men come back with. We've seen enough scars, thrashed minds and body bags. We've heard Taps far too many times.

I dug up this video from the waning months of our deployment. It's all doom and gloom (typical of the media), but there are moments of hilarity featuring the Snack Master. Second platoon, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Good luck, Bravo Company. I wish you all the best and I'll be following your tour closely. Bring it home, and I'll see you on the other side.

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