The Sandbox

GWOT hot wash, straight from the wire

Welcome to The Sandbox, our command-wide milblog, featuring comments, anecdotes, and observations from service members currently deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. This is GWOT-lit's forward position, offering those in-country a chance to share their experiences and reflections with the rest of us. The Sandbox's focus is not on policy and partisanship (go to our Blowback page for that), but on the unclassified details of deployment -- the everyday, the extraordinary, the wonderful, the messed-up, the absurd. The Sandbox is a clean, lightly-edited debriefing environment where all correspondence is read, and as much as possible is posted. And contributors may rest assured that all content, no matter how robust, is currently secured by the First Amendment. To submit a post, click here.

Name: Major Dan
Returned from: Afghanistan
Milblog: AfghaniDan
Twitter: Mayordelmundo

  Framed Afghanidan CODA 1
Glamour shot, Mazar-e Sharif, 11/7/10
Right from the start, I wonder if I should prattle on about the myriad of reasons I don’t write anymore. About why such a significant period of my life, spanning two Operation Enduring Freedom deployments and beyond, will mostly remain boxed, gathering over time the type of dust and cobwebs that blur and warp the memories that aren’t already erased. I won’t prattle, not too much anyway. But I’ll restate something I’ve said before, at least once: It gives me no satisfaction to write about the experience of being in Afghanistan when I’m not in Afghanistan. Many literary types manage to do that, but I’m not James Joyce. Hell, I’m not even a writer. I’m just someone who absorbed what he could, and passed on as much as possible, while in the midst of some experiences. When those experiences were done, my urge to write about them was done too.
I write now, after a deliberate stop to the post-post-deployment entries a couple of years ago, because the good people at The Sandbox have given me the opportunity to add a new post from AfghaniDan as they wind down that impressive collection of essays and milblog posts from the past two wars. Not to sound like an acceptance speech, but I give them enormous credit for ending their valuable web site in such a way.
Framed Afghanidan CODA 2 ANA
ANA cadets await a concert, Kabul, 10/21/10
For the purpose of a standard timeline check, and just to make this feels even more as if I’m in a confessional, it’s been more than three years since I returned from the last deployment and four exactly since I was heading to Camp Lejeune for another inprocessing cluster---k. It was eight (!) years ago this month that I took part in Operation Mountain Lion in Kunar Province during my first deployment to Afghanistan. And just for the heck of it, it’s been 14 years exactly since I was in Kosovo with the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, reinforcing a thin NATO peacekeeping contingent amidst a nervous population, thinking that was the hairiest thing we would be doing for a while (in fairness, most of us thought that).

Afghanistan has just held a presidential election, and Taliban attacks intended to disrupt it have failed, though they’ve brutally slain innocents and beloved patriots. As our international coalition sharply draws down its numbers there, it is finally true that Afghan national security forces have the lead. March closed as the first month in over seven years with zero American fatalities, while still we have military personnel and civilians heading over (the media rarely bother to explain troop rotations). Welcome to 2014, the "year of transition."
Framed Afghanidan CODA 3 AEA

Afghanistan Electoral Alliance (source N/A)
I’d like to say the world has watched, or at least our nation has, as this era of American/NATO intervention in Afghanistan has flowed, ebbed, flowed, and ebbed again -- but if you’ve paid attention, you’ve been in the distinct minority. That’s one of the reasons it’s bracing to hear the chattering class bring up “America’s longest war” when a milestone is passed, because only the very few and far between have maintained any awareness of their nation being “at war.” Over there, of course, it’s a different story, but in many settings, including the most populated ones, daily life generally has a normalcy to it. A normalcy that’s often closely related to the presence of large numbers of international forces, if not directly feeding off the odd system that seemed as if it would retain semi-permanence for decades, but a normalcy nonetheless. I tried to highlight that as my observations shifted from those of a fairly clueless newcomer to those of a more attuned participant, and one located mainly in Kabul in the advisory go-round.
  Framed Afghanidan CODA 4 Fruit
Fruit vendors, Kabul, 10/31/10
Was it worth it? Gen. Jim “Chaos” Mattis (ret.) -- he who commanded the initial Marine Expeditionary Brigade that swept into the south of Afghanistan in 2002, before achieving far greater responsibility, fame and notoriety in Operation Iraqi Freedom and eventually at US Central Command -- opined recently on the question of whether it was “worth it” for those who served in these conflicts (as my readers may recall, I’m not a fan of lumping the two together, but that’s apparently how it was asked and answered in this case). The “Warrior Monk” went on to break down his answer in terms of national strategy and personal considerations, and while it’s all worth a read, it’s the latter that truly resonated with me. These are summaries by the piece’s author, not direct quotes:
For veterans, "Was it worth it?" should be intensely personal. The focus should be on experiences while deployed and since returning home. What sorts of relationships were formed at war? How deep and rewarding were they? How have you stayed in touch with your buddies since returning home? Have you been able to integrate into civil society in a healthy and sustainable way?
You have some control over the answer to these questions, even if doesn't feel like it a lot of the time. This is where the ultimate judgment must reside for each of us. We claim -- or lose -- that mantle through our actions.

  Framed Afghanidan CODA 5 Mattis
Iraq and Afghanistan vets pull no punches with General Mattis
Without subjecting you poor readers to a point-by-point breakdown, my reflections confirmed what I’ve long felt; that I’ve failed pretty miserably at reintegration, i.e. becoming a civilian, and that I’ve led a transient postwar existence. I wasn’t exactly sticking to one career like glue before a return to service and the subsequent deployments anyway, so if it wasn’t serving in Afghanistan twice (and in a few other scattered commands) as a Marine, who knows what my job(s) might have been. But that jolt, that incredible jolt, of being on high alert and in incredibly heady situations for months on end, only to return to some place you idealized but instead seems to be fraught with uninteresting choices -- that has played quite a role in my lack of a healthy and sustainable reintegration.

This reflection business is harder than I even thought it would be. I won’t say every day is a struggle, the way it is for so many brothers-and-sisters-in-arms, because for me that’s not always the case. I get to escape the doldrums, sometimes through my ongoing positions through the Reserve, sometimes outside of it completely, and not everyone is so lucky. We’re all dealing with different shit, and as I was recently reminded, just about every single veteran refers to those who had it worse. Still, it is never far from my mind how easy I have it, compared to the challenges in adjusting to postwar life that must be faced by the war's casualties: the multiple amputees, the traumatic brain injuries, the PTSD sufferers who struck an IED one day, or more than once…
Framed Afghanidan CODA 6 Daybreak
Daybreak at Camp Mike Spann, 11/8/10
It was a welcome break from my issues, and a distinct honor, to spend two weeks recently augmenting the staff of the USMC Wounded Warrior Regiment as they staged the Marine Corps Trials in Camp Pendleton, CA. The event is an extraordinary international competition among teams from the regiment’s east and west battalions, nine allies ranging from Colombia to the Republic of Georgia, as well as Marine Corps veterans who’ve been discharged but still qualify to compete. I can’t imagine another experience that could be so simultaneously humbling and inspiring as this one was. If you’re looking for the true warrior spirit, you need look no farther than the wounded, ill, and injured service members and veterans of these games, or of the more widely known Wounded Warrior Games.
“I thought, ‘I need to get out of this funk. The world’s not going to stop moving, I need to get out and do something with my life,’” Sears said.
Framed Afghanidan CODA 7 MC Trials
Battling it out at the Marine Corps Trials, 3/11/14
Marine overcomes obstacles, becomes mentor to peers

“Try and make it far enough…to the next time zone.”
                                                      -- Son Volt
One of those lyrics that just stays in my head, after many long drives across and around the country over the past few years...
Life isn’t bad in Colorado, despite constant indecision that has me stuck spinning my wheels. If this was a video post, I’d probably do a voiceover with scenes of my energetic jackal-dog Daly playing, with the Rocky Mountains beyond. It wasn’t bad on balance in the self-imposed exile to Miami either, or back in New York City before the western spirit succeeded in calling me out here. But when it’s too much to unpack your boxes, filled as they are with smaller, more compact collections of notes, contacts, receipts, gifts sent to you overseas or ones you bought for others but never sent, reminders all -- you’re left to wonder if normalcy will ever arrive.
Was it worth it? I guess “Mad Dog” Mattis is right (gotta get every major nickname of his in there). It’s intensely personal. How Afghanistan does in the next few years will certainly factor into my answer, as mission success has been defined for a good while now as a stable and secure nation. But even if it’s deemed a "failed state" once again, that would be due to so many more factors than how ably U.S. and allied troops performed their given missions. For me it was worthwhile.
Framed Afghanidan CODA 8 Ride
Cramped ride, Herat City, 11/4/10
If you’re enough the empathetic type, or just ever the overthinker, or especially both, you understand more and more why some adrenaline junkies (be they security pros, aid workers, journalists, many others) never stop traveling to the latest conflicts. You also understand how the least fortunate lose hope entirely, how all the goddam flailing just gives way to morose resignation that some get left behind. No matter how empathetic or not you may be, you don’t want to see another one go down that awful road. And you definitely understand the pull of returning to a place where you fought for something, worked your tail off for something, sacrificed for something, and bonded with those who’d give their last breath for their country -- or a stranger’s country -- to make it.
Tonight I attended an event called "Failure to Communicate: Homefront Myths of Veterans and Civilians," put on by Veterans Helping Veterans Now (VHVN), a group with which I was unfamiliar. I usually avoid veterans’ organizations entirely, likely to my detriment, but I was compelled to check out this discussion. With a new approach, its stated goal was for community members and veterans to come together and break down reintegration stereotypes. Interesting concept, I thought, all the more so because of my difficulties in moving beyond Marine duty orders and becoming a part of the fabric of a community, whatever that means.
Framed Afghanidan CODA 9 Krak
Krak and me, 8 years later… Boulder CO, 4/2/14
A bonus feature was that the guest speaker would be Jon Krakauer, the bestselling author I’d met in Afghanistan as he began the embed for what would become Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman. Reconnecting with him was great, but what really stuck with me is what he pointed out in his humble remarks: that after volunteering for years now with VHVN, he couldn’t believe how many veterans described coming home and adjusting to "normal" life as much harder than anything they experienced over there. In the group chats that followed, I expressed a similar sentiment and seemingly for the first time, saw that fellow veterans -- of a few different eras -- fully understood and could relate. 
Up until that moment, I was still gripped with fear of telling a few strangers that I’m still figuring out what to do with myself after Afghanistan -- but once I did, and found no judgment there, the relief was extraordinary. It was a fitting ending to the days I’d spent contemplating what I’d write in this space in order to sign off as AfghaniDan. 

Major Dan's numerous Sandbox posts include Ramazan Observed , Commando, Riots, Rockets and an Election, and The Pull to Return.

Name: Owen Powell (aka "Sgt. Roy Batty")
Returned from: Iraq
Hometown: New York City
Email: [email protected]

So, this is the end, my friend.

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

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

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

It helped

but less so as things got more real

like when we started losing people.

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

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

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

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


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

500 lb IED underneath their truck

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

Then Karen Clifton,

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

All of them were under the age of 25.

And then there were the wounded,

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

And then there were the dead Iraqis.

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

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

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

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

100 meters away,

blew through the walls of our makeshift barracks.

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

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

The final attack on our IP station,

where I finally shot back

only to get reamed by Higher.

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

into a scared and abusive little tyrant of a man

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

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

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

as if it wasn’t enough already.

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

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

Standing in the darkness in front of my squad leader

M9 charged, in my hand, at my temple,

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

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

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

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

Turns out he was sexually coercing and abusing his female soldiers

as well as terrorizing a whole slew of others.

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

You were in over your head, in all regards,

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

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

but hating myself for leaving my Soldiers behind,

for being a non-hacker,

and the descent continued.

New duty station, Fort Hamilton, in NYC.

Garrison, chill, non-deployable.

Getting help from the VA was next to impossible

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

throwing myself into training Soldiers, hoping it might save them

when they eventually would deploy.

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

The other one, Rocky, died shortly afterwards.

It was like a bad country song.

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

Took five DACP cops to take me down

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

That helped a little bit

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

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

But the descent continued.

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

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

punched out my stepfather in a stupid, heated argument,

landed up in jail,

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

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

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

Thanks, Frank. You saved my life.

Regrouped. Got my shit together, a little bit.

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

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

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

Lizz calls it my "redemption ride."

We got  married four months ago

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

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

Blood binds people together

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

Thank you, Lizz. You truly saved my life.

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

and you will be my Lil Dog, forever.

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

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

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

So here I am now. Doing okay. Maintaining.

Not looking at the railings of the bridges I ride over

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

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

And this is where it gets weird.

Thirty-five days ago, around January 3rd,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perhaps it will work for you too.

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

And the Universe is reacting to it.

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

We all can.

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


Humanity is my fire team now.

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

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

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

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

At least within myself, I am looking at the stars

and all of you are welcome to come with me. 

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

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

I believe it is completely possible. 

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

Why? To focus creative energy, of course.

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

Pain instructs as much as pleasure. Often more than. 

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


Framed POWELL Rally Point

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

So, here I am.

Either I am a

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

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


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

Which reality would you choose?

Yep. I’m going the superhero route.

But whatever I’m going to do,

it will be with a couple of different outlooks.

The first of which is: peace.

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

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

Be open.

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

Be positive, in all things.

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

Never stop learning. Never stop asking questions.

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

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

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

Big is coming down the line for us

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

Too many of the old ways don’t work anymore

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

We have to find some new ways of looking at ourselves

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

The title of the book is

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

If that resonates with you, check it out.

I’d love to have you on the Team

because we have some work to do





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




Name: Mikey Piro
Returned from: Iraq
Milblog: ptsdsurvivordaily
Email: [email protected]

Framed Piro SURVIVOR
Disclaimer up front, I am attempting to watch the Lone Survivor movie after consulting with many family, friends and confidants. I am not acting on a psychologist's advice, or warning, but instead dusting off my skills developed from Prolonged Exposure Therapy and Cognitive Processing Therapy. The idea is to engage in comprehensive preparation for watching movies with stressors and triggers. I expect the result that I am better prepared to watch Lone Survivor, and subsequently better prepared to handle life. I do not recommend this approach without the guidance of a therapist the first time. Let me say that again, go get a therapist for PET or CPT. (Here are some great therapy services). Do not just read a book or blog and do it yourself.

I am attempting this because I feel that, like many skills in life, the ones PET and CPT taught are perishable. I completed both courses and have used their techniques and coaching effectively for some time. Still, tools need maintenance. I do not doubt this will be an unpleasant experience. My first pass through Prolonged Exposure Therapy brought me up close to Restrepo. It was a very emotional experience. Both Prolonged Expose and Cognitive Processing therapy force you to stare down and confront the worst days. And while each day is getting better, part of gaining control over this is not avoiding everything with trigger potential like it is the plague.

A Quick Review of Prolonged Exposure Therapy

The flavor of Prolonged Exposure Therapy I undertook used the Subjective Unit of Distress (SUDs) level to measure progress. From the start, even though it was a subjective feeling, it was quantified and tracked. Over the course of many weeks, after I established my SUDs scale, my therapist and I would systematically tackle and monitor my distress level for my “homework."

We started at the bottom of the scale and worked our way up. The objective of each session was to address and unwind the spike in feelings and raw emotional memories that uncomfortable situations brought out. After enough exposure with positive outcomes, we were able to lower the barrier to gain a level of comfort.

For example, for a long while I would avoid at all costs a crowded place, especially the subway. Being around that many people made me extremely uncomfortable and put me on high alert. There were more than a few days in Iraq where a crowded market or labor line brought a bomb and chaos. We were trained to be on the lookout for anyone suspicious, and to disperse crowds. Well, Manhattan doesn’t care about my view of crowds or suspicious people. If I was forced to ride, I would come home exhausted for days.

So, as part of my homework, I had to ride the subway. For an hour. During the peak. No, this was not an intentional sadistic exercise. I went in with a plan and had a release valve to pull. The point of the exercise was to gain comfort with the SUDs level. The emotions behind my extreme discomfort were just that: emotions. Logic tells me that there is no reason I should not be able to ride a subway. I will admit, it was almost unbearable. But, after a few trips, I realized I could gain my composure more quickly and that the danger was in my mind.

My SUDs for the subway halved by the end of my therapy sessions. That was only part of the homework, but overall, as a follow on to CPT, Prolonged Exposure was the most challenging and rewarding therapy. The initial gains were exponential, though those skills are now a little creaky. It is time to stare them down. As one of my favorite Crossfit phrases puts it: “Get comfortable being uncomfortable.”

Bring On The War Movies

OK, here is the hits list of what I watched and am watching:





Act of Valor :  A Navy SEAL recruiting video. Fiction and SEAL chest-thumping, so a good safe start.

Blackhawk Down :  Here is the first of the true to-life stories. The sucky thing about all these movies is that we know going in how they end. I still have never watched Titanic due to one excuse (aside from Leonardo DiCaprio) -- that I know how it ends.

Zero Dark Thirty : There are intense scenes and it is, again, based on actual events. I think that makes these types harder for me to watch. The end definitely reminds me of a few raids where we walked or flew into the objective, though I am nowhere near the skill level of a Navy SEAL.

Saving Private Ryan : This movie always gets me. The beginning and end are gut-wrenching.

Restrepo :  This is the hardest for me to watch.  As part of my original homework, it took me days to watch this movie. The sounds, sights and action are raw. If Lone Survivor plays this way, I am in for a rough go.


Wish me luck, and thanks for following along.


Name: David Stanford, Duty Officer

Sandbox_CoverAt some point in the not-so-distant future we are going to stop posting new content on The Sandbox -- concluding with a final permanent intro that will explain what the site archive is, for those who may find their way to it in due course.

But before we get to that moment I would like to extend an (urgent) invitation to everyone who has posted on the site over the past seven years: If there is one more story you’ve been meaning to tell, one final reflection on your deployment, or your reintegration, or anything else -- please send it to me soon at [email protected] .

I’m going to write directly to all Sandbox contributors to spread the word, but over the years many of the email addresses have gone bad, so I am posting this public invitation.

And if you are a deployed soldier, returned vet, caregiver, or family member, and you have been meaning to write something for The Sandbox; well, it’s not too late. But it will be soon...


Note: Everyone who has contributed a post to The Sandbox site should have received a Sandbox service patch and a copy of the anthology. But I suspect my record-keeping system is flawed; if you did not, please let me know!

Name: Derek Eland
Returned from: Afghanistan
Hometown: Carlisle, UK
Website: In Our Own Words
Email: [email protected]

I have mounted an Indegogo campaign in order to raise funds to publish In Our Own Words, a book of extraordinary handwritten stories written by people on the front lines in Afghanistan. The book tells their stories, it is their self portrait.

I'm an artist, based in the UK, and in 2011 I volunteered to go to Afghanistan as a war artist. I spent a month on the front lines and wanted to find a way to get inside the heads of the people I met: soldiers and civilians, Afghan and Western.

I asked everyone I met to write their unique story or a poem on a postcard, and collated these stories in a series of Diary Rooms. Here is one of the postcards:

In my time in Afghanistan I was shot at and was with a patrol that was targeted by an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) as I went to remote areas to collect the stories. Hundreds of people wrote their stories to form a unique self portrait of what it's like to be human in a war zone: men and women, soldiers and civilians. The people who wrote their stories revealed extraordinary things about themselves, their lives, their losses and their hopes and fears.

What was the end result? The Diary Room walls filled up, hundreds of stories were written, mostly on the coloured cards, but sometimes on scraps of paper, on cardboard ripped from ration boxes or scribbled on blank medical forms. One soldier took an empty packet of semolina and wrote ‘Yummy’ on the side. A female medic wrote what it was like to treat her first casualties and save their lives; a chef described cooking and distributing Christmas dinner to hundreds of soldiers scattered about the front line; a bomb disposal expert described what it felt like to go to Afghanistan as a battle casualty replacement for someone who had been injured. Some of those who wrote stories went on to be killed or seriously wounded.

Overall, the response I got was staggering and included excerpts such as:

"Your mind clicks into a gear that you never knew you had, and you bark orders like your life depends on it … and GUESS WHAT: IT DOES!"

"My abiding memory of Afghanistan? … it will be a humble local farmer who one day took me by surprise by asking after my family. ‘You are far from home. You must miss you family very much. We are very grateful.'"

"The young soldier was brought to me following an IED blast…I didn’t need to ask more questions – his eyes told the whole story. As wide as possible and conveying such a sense of bewilderment, uncertainty and terror that I shall never forget them."

"I’m going to write about the day to day struggle of being away … what your girlfriend was wearing last time you saw her, what she did, said, what she smelt like, what she will look like and if anything will have changed while you have been away and if you will put up with the changes when you get back … if you are close to someone that is away out here know that you will always be in their minds because there are two wars being fought, one which is publicised and one which goes on in a soldiers head when everything goes quiet…."

These extraordinary stories describe the war which goes on in a soldier's head when the fighting stops, as in this excerpt below:


This campaign is to help produce and publish the book In Our Own Words, containing these powerful stories, poems and some of the photographs I took whilst I was in Afghanistan. I am determined to make this book happen, to help tell the stories of those who wrote.


It's important that these stories are published and seen by people because they tell the human spirit in war. These dusty handwritten postcards, written there and then on the front lines, provide an insight into this and other conflicts never before seen. All of the people who wrote their stories had a strong need to write about what it felt like to be there.

  Readers of this book will be moved by the stories and poems and what they reveal about the human spirit. It will also challenge and perhaps change perceptions about war, soldiers and the conflict in Afghanistan.

The project has already been described by the international press as 'groundbreaking', for more information please read these selected press reviews:



We need to raise £17,500 to get this unique book published in time for a book launch and exhibition of the original art work in November 2014 at the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art in the UK, at:



I volunteered to go to Afghanistan on a not for profit basis and the book has a charitable link where proceeds from it's sale will go to the British charity Combat Stress, The Veterans's Mental Health Charity, at:


Funds raised will go into the physical production of a high quality book which will include the images of the handwritten postcards, photographs I took, and essays. I'm working on the book design with Ned Hoste at the fantastic 2H Design in the UK, at:

We plan to publish an immediate 1000 physical copies of this book for distribution in the UK, with an ebook being available globally. In our second run we plan for a second UK print run and a physical book in the US.


2014 is the year when British troops will be withdrawn from Afghanistan. It is also the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War.


In Our Own Words will add considerably to the global public's view of war and conflict and what it is like to be involved. These handwritten postcards are vital and essential in a digital age and need to be read. There is nothing more honest and revealing than a person's own handwriting, written at a time of stress in a war zone. Readers will be enormously touched and at times shocked by these extraordinary stories, as in this excerpt:




Please help by sharing this story using the Indiegogo share tools.  Many thanks!


If you want more information about me please visit or drop me an email at  [email protected] if you have any questions.

Many thanks for reading, I'm very grateful if you can help, and please spread the word!



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


Through Kickstarter, two U.S. Army veterans are currently crowd-funding a hardcover collection of Iraq and Afghanistan war memoirs, each delivered in punchy six-word shot groups.

I wish I'd thought of that!

West Point classmates Mike Neman and Shaun Wainwright are seeking $4,900 through a fund-raising campaign that ends Aug. 30, 2013. Neman is also an author of humorous parenting books, and has previously conducted two other Kickstarter projects.

At the time of this writing, the pair have raised more than $4,000 toward their objective. Donors of $20 or more can receive a copy of the book. An accompanying video further describes the project:

"Six-Word War" is the first-ever crowd-sourced war memoir. It will give you unique perspective on our nation's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead of a traditional war memoir that may give you just one person's perspective, this book will give you hundreds, hopefully thousands, of short stories from soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines.
Previously submitted entries range from pissy and punny, to provoking and poignant. Here are a couple of examples:
Simple people – complex problems – harsh terrain
— OEF IV 12-month deployment with 2-27 Infantry out of 25th Infantry Division.

PowerPoint Storyboard. Or it didn't happen
— Bobby Ragsdale
Running over soccer balls creates terrorists
— Nate Nahm

News stories must contain no downers
— Posted all over our 4ID office in Tikrit, per General Odierno
Where is your reflective belt, you?
— Will F.

Hearts and minds are only targets
— Anonymous
Veterans and military family members can submit their own six-word memoirs through a project website:

For more information on the fund-raising campaign, click here.

There is also a Facebook page here.

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

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

student reading

                                                                                                                           Nick Daly / Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then, they got blown up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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