March 29, 2014

Name:  1SG James L. Gibson
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Hometown: Forest Grove, Oregon
Milblog: The Life of Top
Email: [email protected]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


March 25, 2014

Name: Charlie Sherpa
Previously embedded:
with former unit in Afghanistan
Boone, Iowa
Milblog: Red Bull Rising

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Lesson No. 1. Blogging is journalism.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Beginning, middle, end."

"Wash, rinse, repeat."


3. Everybody has their own war.

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

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

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

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


4. Homecoming is a journey, not a destination.

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Keep writing!"

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


March 21, 2014

Name: Robert
Returned from: Iraq
Email: [email protected]

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.  


March 17, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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



March 10, 2014

Name: Maj. Douglas D. Templeton
Returned from: Afghanistan
Returning to: Afghanistan, Fall 2014
Hometown: Kansas City, MO
Email: [email protected]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


* TDY: Temporary Duty


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


March 05, 2014

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.


March 01, 2014

Name: Garrett Phillip Anderson
Returned from: Iraq and Afghanistan
Hometown: Portland, OR
Email: [email protected]
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.
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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.


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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.
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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.
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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.

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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.


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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.


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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.

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