October 26, 2010

Name: Etta2010
Posting date: 10/26/10
Stationed in: Afghanistan

So much frantic energy has been invested in keeping my spirits up, and the company's momentum moving forward (against everything), that it seems like I haven't had the opportunity to step back and appreciate the humor and joy of what's actually going on around me. Rather than take a bit of time for myself I allow the situation to overwhelm me and dictate my emotions. Stupid. Thankfully, I was recently blessed by a period of two days that captured all the best things in life -- shared happiness, shared sorrow, with plenty of tomfoolery in between to keep things interesting.

I always have my Platoon Leaders develop their own plans when it's a Platoon mission, and if I see an interesting mission I want to jump on, I tag along. Obviously they have no choice when it come to participating in my operations, although I should make it clear that everyone loves my missions, and wants to go on them, not only because they're brilliant, but because they're also sure to see contact (and the best kind of contact -- the one where the enemy runs off at the end of the day, and one can actually measure progress from the day's actions). This saves me valuable time, while developing my subordinates to think for themselves. I rarely tell my Lieutenants what to do, or where to go. I give them broad intent, and so long as their plans fall within my intent, they are free to do more or less what they please.

So it was that one of my Platoon Leaders came up with an interesting plan to visit a village we hadn't visited before. He'd recon'd a route on his own, and came up with a very thorough plan that was wholly supported by the ABP* -- there was some small chance of contact, but, more importantly, it was pushing out the area that the ABP were willing to patrol. So I figured, "Great way to get off the FOB for a couple days, see some new turf, work with the ABP, reinforce easy wins."

The mission was well planned and meticulously rehearsed. After all the preparation, there was one last hour-long talkthrough / "rock drill" the night before, with a chilling cold wind blowing through, making it difficult to stand still and promising an uncomfortable night for those who'd forgotten their sleeping bags. We finished the briefing, retired to the four-wall, open-air compound at which we would spend the night, posted sentries, built up a roaring fire, and waited for sleep to arrive. I was in a damned fine, comfortable mood -- there's nothing quite like having a warm fire pushing out a bit of heat, a sleeping bag, and that all-important feeling of security. It's very easy to slip out of consciousness under those conditions.

I woke up with a vague sense of alarm, tied to a shout. The fire had died down, and the illumination cycle and clouds were such that it was nearly pitch black. Someone in the compound was yelling, with a sense of urgency, which brought me fully alert. "Get him off me! Get him off me! Help me!"

Still 75% in my sleeping bag, I combat-rolled off my cot, grabbing the loaded rifle one habitually keeps within arm's reach when sleeping in the field, assuming we were under attack. I pulled security outward (I'd positioned myself at a sandbagged entrance -- a dangerous place, basically a fighting position -- I depend fully on my ability to pull better security than anyone else, based on prior experience), as everyone else came awake, and flashlights started stabbing through the darkness. I turned back -- all this had taken no more than three seconds -- and yelled for a SITREP. In the middle of the flashlights, one of our Air Force JTACs* was shadow boxing... with his personal demons.

This opens up an interesting subject. I recently learned that Congress is debating what constitutes a Purple Heart-worthy injury. The Purple Heart is typically awarded "for military merit and for wounds received in action," so it's the "award" one receives for being wounded. Without going too far into the specifics, suffice it to say that the disagreement boils down to what constitutes "a wound received in action."

The progressives argue that even mild traumatic brain injury constitutes a wound, or an injury -- there is evidence to suggest that these things are cumulative, and debilitating, and our definition of injury should be based on contemporary scientific beliefs, not century-old tradition. The conservatives point out that under current scientific beliefs, just about every front-line soldier in WWI, WWII, the Korean War, and most of them in the Vietnam War would qualify for the Purple Heart based on the prevalence of bombs, artillery, and rocket fire. The Purple Heart is for wounds that impair a warrior's body, not his mind, or soul.

As I qualify for the Purple Heart based on the most liberal interpretation of the award -- as do many serving in today's Army -- I feel that it should carry some weight when I agree with the conservative group. If an enemy rocket bursts above me and I get a headache that goes away after a few days, I do not deserve a Purple Heart. If the stress of being in a combat environment twists or warps me, I do not deserve a Purple Heart. If I get nicked in the fat portion of my left thigh by a stray piece of shrapnel, or a bullet, I'll take my Purple Heart. The point is that the award is tied to a certain type of action, which does not include "nerves," "shellshock," or "post-traumatic stress disorder / mild-traumatic brain injury." It's getting peppered with shrapnel, shot up, stepping on a mine, stuck by a bayonet.

What started me on this particular rant was another phenomenon that I've been reading about -- the phenomenon of the soldier who develops combat stress / PTSD without having deployed, or having served one light deployment in a support zone. Versus, say, deploying to an area where one is in a fight every day one leaves the wire (I'm quite a bit closer to the latter end of the spectrum than the former). Although there is medical and empirical evidence to support the validity of these "PTSD-lite" cases -- made up mostly of people who probably should never have made the army a lifestyle choice to begin with, or been weeded out by selection -- I tend to fall into the camp of those who have suffered, and been checked, and experienced real loss in combat, where everything that happens is completely arbitrary and on a certain level, once you leave the wire, out of your control.

Now this Air Force JTAC who came out with us falls into the camp of people who see little or nothing of combat, yet somehow manage to be deeply affected by the possibility of combat. The stress of the potential fight of the next day overwhelmed him, and he suffered from Night Terrors.

To return to the scene: I am pulling security facing out with my rifle, JTAC is shadow-boxing with demons, three soldiers are pointing their rifles at him, one of the Navy EOD-techs is pointing his pistol alternately at a gap in the wall and the JTAC, others are pointing their rifles at different corners of the compound or at doorways, and I am doing my best not to appear frantic, praying that nobody pulls a trigger, as it will certainly occasion a massive bloodletting. The JTAC comes to, looks around, puts up his arms, and says: "What's going on?" Everyone lowers their weapons. It takes a little while for the absurdity of it all to sink in, a couple guys mutter "Fuckin' JTAC!" and we go back to sleep. The next day, when we get back to the FOB, everyone laughs about the scenario. Everyone except the JTAC, who finds himself the object of derision and scorn.

This incident was the funniest thing that happened to me in months.

 *     JTAC: Joint Tactical Air Controller
        ABP: Afghan Border Police


October 19, 2010

Name: LT. G
Posting date: 10/20/10
Returned from: Iraq
Hometown: Reno, Nevada
Milblog: Kerplunk

I woke up the other morning to a text from a good friend who, like me, served in Iraq as a platoon leader, and like me, separated from the Army at the end of his initial commitment. "Don't you just feel like kicking in a door again?" he asked. Though platoon leaders tend not to be the door-kickers, I understood his broader point, and replied with "damn straight."

I've been out of the military for just over a year now, and I've been shocked at how much I miss (parts of) it. The camaraderie, of course, can't be replaced in the civilian world, nor can the ability to act like a boorish 16-year old with a gun. (I'll leave it to the reader's judgment whether or not the latter is a positive or a negative). But the pure sense of purpose we had in combat is what I long for the most. The missions changed day-to-day obviously, as did our tasks and purpose, but at its base level, soldiering in Iraq offered a clarity normal life can't. "Kill or be killed" felt a lot more pressing than "Pick up a gallon of milk," you know?

Of my friends and peers who left the service the same time I did, I'd say roughly half have expressed interest in returning for the reasons outlined above. "Civilian life is boring," they'll say, or "At least the bullshit in the Army mattered." One close friend stated outright that he was certain he'd get sued for accidental sexual harassment if he worked in corporate America another day, because "women don't have a sense of humor." (His words, not mine.) I understand their arguments -- for all its faults and dangers, the Army and combat offer thrills and adventure. It's easy to get addicted to that, but not so easy to kick.

The other half of my friends, though, want nothing to do with returning to service. More often than not, these guys lost something or someone over there, rather than getting lucky with their close calls. For them, thrill and adventure are boyish fantasies of a past life. They may long for the camaraderie, and usually detest the civilian mindset as much as the other group, but they are as done with the service as done can be.

(Two quick caveats: One, I'm aware the sample size of junior officers I cite is tiny, and should not be utilized for statistical purposes. Two, the current climate of the economy must be referenced as a factor in retention, as well.)

I think I fall somewhere in between of these two camps. My platoon and I were very lucky in that we lost no one, and the only real tragedy that befell us was the Hot Wheels incident -- which he survived. I miss the people in the Army everyday. But I don't really miss the Army. I don't miss the endless series of PowerPoint presentations. I don't miss the empowered clowns misconstruing and mangling their Higher's orders while passing them down to us. And I don't miss being away from my friends and family for months on end.

As an officer, the only real opportunity one has to soldier is as a platoon leader. Commanding a company sounds intriguing, though it's still nothing like being a PL, but even that is only 18 months of a twenty-year career. Even if I were to sign back up, moving from the IRR back to active duty, I couldn't go back and be a scout platoon leader. The bureaucracy simply won't allow for it; there's a whole new crop of bright-eyed lieutenants eager for the opportunity to lead soldiers and Marines. And good on them for such. So, I remind myself, even if the mind has diluted various memory shards of the negative times, it wouldn't be the same. Office Space in Camo as a staff officer would await, not door-kicking. I joined the Army to lead, and lead I did. But I got out because I didn't want to manage, and manage I would. Eminem wrote a song about the world turning. Apply it accordingly. And don't click that link if you hate rap or profanity.

Anyways, off to get a gallon of whole milk! This bowl of Golden Grahams won't eat itself.

Note: LT. G was a frequent contributor to The Sandbox during his deployment. His book Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War was published last March to excellent reviews.



October 17, 2010

Name: Charlie Sherpa
Posting date: 10/17/10
Hometown: Boone, Iowa
Not deploying to
: Afghanistan

Milblog: Red Bull Rising
Sherpa at RedBullRising.com

If you are open-minded and observant, you can sometimes detect the presence of angels -- even if you don't particularly believe in them.

Long-time friends will recognize that I tend to get both faithful and fatalistic when it comes to big life decisions: Whatever is supposed to happen is supposed to happen. Some people might call that living in the present, or being mindful. As a good Lutheran boy, however, I choose to ascribe it to a powerful and loving God -- a being supreme enough that he probably thinks it's funny that I give him so much credit.

Life is a journey, but it's more like steering a canoe than it is driving a car. You can shift it this way or that way a little, but you're always moving forward, and you'd better anticipate the occasional rapids.

When Household-6 and I found out that I was going to deploy to Afghanistan, we put ourselves in God's hands. When we found out, dramatically and suddenly, that I would not be deploying to Afghanistan -- that, in fact, I would be retired by the end of the year -- we tried the same tack:

"Maybe we have learned what we were supposed to learn, just from the experience of making preparations," we told ourselves. Little did we know.

A few days later, I was back in uniform. This time, I was assigned to help my Red Bull buddies get to Afghanistan. Traveling back and forth to Camp Shelby, Miss., has turned out to be a strange blessing, because it's kept me in touch with my buddies and my unit, far longer than I would have otherwise.

I can't predict where my family's new path may lead, but I know that am occasionally visited by angels of coincidence. Today, on Iowa Public Radio, Garrison Keillor read a poem by Natasha Tretheway on his daily "Writer's Alamanac" program. Titled "Theories of Time and Space," the poem begins, "You can get there from here, though there's no going home. Everywhere you go will be somewhere you've never been."

There are too many coincidences happening to me right now. Almost daily, obstacles are removed, opportunities are presented, and happy coincidences flash by like roadsigns. Here's one such example: Tretheway's poem moves on to explore a drive along Highway 49, the very road I've traveled repeatedly between Gulfport and Camp Shelby. I have walked this ground; I am walking this ground.

The title of the poem?

"Native Guard."

(Here's an Amazon link to the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, in case you are as inspired as I am to explore Tretheway's work.)

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