Balad Redux
Back to the Desert


Sometimes, LTC Sanders will CC me on emails or write me directly to let me know how things are going in Balad with my old flight.  Since AEF 1/2 is about to end, the guys who replaced my group will be leaving shortly, so I’m very much looking forward to hearing about their deployment, and I’m particularly looking forward to debriefing with the folks from Nashville who stayed 8 months (meaning they served under me for 4 mos and under Sanders for 4 mos). 

Below is an email that I think is indicative of some of the best in our deployed troops, but that many readers will consider bad:  the pull of duty and country vs. family at home. 

Capt Don just came to my office, visibly distraught.  His
father had a cardiac arrest and is on life support in the Philippines.  He
doesn’t know much more information.  Don wants to continue on the mission.
He has spoken to his siblings and they are supportive of this.  His family is
working with the Red Cross in Philippines, so you may hear of this  shortly.
Don is scheduled to fly tonight and stressed that he still
wants to go, no need to sit around and worry about something he obviously
cannot control.  I am supportive of his decision and told him to use the DSN
as he wishes.


Here I am in front of my decorated office.  I had an impromptu press conference for the first couple hours I was back.  time to return to being an atlanta workers’ comp attorney.


just learned that some members of my flight are getting divorced now.  i wonder how common this is? 

on my last deployment to iraq, i saw several friends get the middle finger from spouses or girlfriends while stuck in the sand.  i even counseled a few of them (as well as a law student could).  one got remarried a couple years later to the woman who’d sent the “dear john” email while he was in balad.  i went to the wedding, saw their two children, and realized why he was willing to reconcile.


i’ve been back for just over three months now.  this is the point at which, according to the armed forces network’s public service announcements, i am supposed to feel “like nothing is the same” or withdrawn.  for me, that is not the case.  not this time or at this point, at least.  maybe when i first got back from the post-deployment vacations.

what does amaze me, however, is how long “it” stays with the returned veteran…just beneath the surface, waiting to be awakened in a sort of PTSD-meets-deja vu during a subsequent deployment or other source of distress.  i got home from my first trip to iraq in august 2003, deployed to andrews air force base in early 2006, and then went back to balad, iraq in september 2007.  by the time i’d gone back, i was finished with the quicktemperedness, risk taking, and affection for the bottle that categorized nearly 1 year following the first deployment. 

i’d been told by the flight nurse who accompanied me in 2003 (and visited balad a couple years later for several hours while picking up patients on a mission from germany) that it would be “surreal” to be back and see what had changed and what had not.  so, i expected it to be merely surreal, if such a state can actually exist.  it was not surreal.  it was awful.  it was the worst of what had frightened me most while there before, but without any companionship that made it bearable before.  the first night i spent alone in my new home, despite being exhausted from the flight, i barely slept.  in fact, every time a trailer door would slam around A-47, my eyelids would spring open, my heartrate would triple, and my body would instantly be covered in sweat.  while i’d been a little more jumpy for the previous 4 years (much to the occasional embarrassment of my secretary and amusement of my colleagues), i certainly didn’t associate deep, loud noises with exploding mortar shells in my atlanta life.  but that changed as soon as my boots hit balad dirt again.  and it took weeks to go away.  after the first few nights, i became embarrassed by reaction (despite having no audience) and then after it didn’t go away after several nights, angry at myself.  even as the temperatures dropped, i’d run the a/c unit (on a vent setting) to make enough noise to cover up neighbors’ slamming doors around me, and i finally was able to sleep through the night…until the F16s launched, at least.

i had dinner saturday night with one of the flight nurses who deployed with me when i was in nashville for drill weekend a few days ago.  we talked about the deployment some and its aftermath–the first conversation i’ve had with anyone who went with me since getting back (if i thought it was lonely being OIC while there, i have certainly seen it to be significantly worse now that we’re all back).  he talked about being bored with his life and career here, despite its being in the same field-nursing.  nursing in TN can’t compete on an adrenaline scale with nursing in iraq, of course.  he also spoke of his spending several weeks unable to sleep more than a few hours at night since getting back.  both sentiments i shared when getting back in ’03 but not this time.  i suspect i didn’t share the first feeling this go-round b/c i found a lot of my job in balad this time to be less exciting than my normal civilian career, ironically.  i think taking several weeks of R&R helped with transitioning, such that i didn’t have the sleeplessness. 

i hope i can continue to have conversations with some of the members of my guard unit who went with me to iraq a few months ago when i see them for two days each month.  a few of them won’t speak to me; i suspect reasons why relate to some of the issues we had with getting people home by the dates they anticipated leaving.  my successor, lt colonel sanders, is getting the same wrath from several deployed flight members who are going to be held up a couple of weeks past the date on which they expected to leave, too.  i told him to not expect that they will “forgive and forget” when they all get back to nashville.  he seems more apathetic about it than i have been.  i hope he continues to feel that way when he gets back in a few weeks.  i never would have thought being able to not give a damn about others’ feelings would be a good quality for a leader to have, but i have since learned otherwise.


Though my opining that “all is well” below has a hint of sarcasm, my replacement does indicate that the downward trend I saw in casualties is continuing.  The 4-month rotation before me moved several hundred more patients than my rotation did (nearly 3k v. just over 2k), and the one after mine is moving even fewer (<100/week).  There is even talk of downsizing the AEOT a bit for the next rotation.  So, a little bit of encouraging news.


I get emails from my replacement every few days.  I thought this one was fairly amusing (posted below).  I think if these are the present concerns of our deployed, then all is well.

—–Original Message—–
From: Sanders James C Lt Col 332EOSS/EAEF
Sent: Friday, March 21, 2008 4:18 PM
Subject: Fitness+
Importance: High

Good afternoon everyone,

I just got word that we were very close to “winning” the Couch Potato
award for the Wing.  I was shocked to say the least.  I know that most of you
are going to the gym and sweating from one form of exercise or another.
  Many of you may not know it, but the workout point formula was recently
upgraded for weight lifters and runners to demonstrate fairness for your hard work.
I DO NOT want AE to win this award.  I will discuss the problem with
our fitness tracker, as the OS Squadron performed an analysis and found
that most of our folks recorded NO POINTS.  Maj Vaughns reaffirmed that he
has personally seen tons of our folks over in the gym.  This leads me to
believe that we are getting complacent and not filling out the Fitness tracker
form.  Folks, I don’t know how to make it any easier on you.   Some flights do
not have a central recorder, they require each member to fill out the
tracker themselves.  I personally do NOT want to go there.  MSgt Jenks is
helping us, just leave the form in his inbox. 

Now, I’ll make a deal with the flight, as long as each of you are showing
points (in any form), I’ll be happy.  According to the Wing commander,
I can at my option, require you to undergo PT testing a minimum of two times
while here.  Again, I don’t want to PT test anyone, but at the same time, I
am held responsible for ensuring that you are maintaining personal fitness.  I
only have two ways to do this, thru the Tracker or a formal testing  process.

Come see me or e-mail me back if you have specific questions.  For
those of you who are consistently helping us from being embarrassed, I thank you
for turning in your sheets.  Keep up the good work,
James C. “Jim” Sanders, Lt. Col., CFN, USAF Commander 332nd EAEF Balad
Base, Iraq
DSN: 318-443-7326


this video shows a C-RAM (counter rocket artillery and mortar system) knocking out a mortar before it hits balad air base…then the alarm red can be heard here.


today was my last day of making up drills after coming off orders for the deployment to balad, and i got to meet, and shake hands with, president bush.  i thought this was a fitting conclusion to to my second deployment to iraq.  now it’s time to play civilian lawyer again.

here’s my right shoulder on the far left side of the picture.  i thought getting close to the airman with a baby would help me get in a picture.  i was only half right.





valentine’s day 2008


next to our 5-star hotel


believe it or not, the louvre allows photography.  unbelievable. 


somewhere between madrid and cadiz along A4 with our fiat punto


straddling a couple hemispheres


museum in sevilla, spain 


a week in the hawaiian islands wasn’t enough, so now we’re in the UK.  the day after getting back, we drove to charleston, hopped on a C-17, and landed at mildenhall air force base, about 70 miles or so north of london.  as a guardsman, i usually can’t travel “space available” overseas, and i can’t go space a with the mrs at all.  but, since i’m on active duty status right now and am on leave, we can.  the plan is to spend a couple days in london, then a couple days in paris (to include valentine’s day), and then come home via rota, spain next weekend.  

we drove to charleston saturday, had dinner at hyman’s (consistently rated as the top seafood restaurant in the southeast– …where we sat at a table previously used by Jodie Foster and Bob Villa (not on the same night)… had drinks at an irish pub called tommy condon’s, and then walked around a couple cemeteries before heading back to base, where we napped an hour in the parked car before our 1am showtime.  the c-17 left about 3am.  the flight was actually more enjoyable than a commercial airline would’ve been, b/c of our having the freedom to lie down on the ground of the plane and sleep.  only took 7.5 hours.  got here, checked into space-a billeting, and had dinner at an off-base pub called “bird in the hand” we walked to (after wandering in the dark for 30min or so trying to find it). 

i’ll attempt to post our adventures every day or so and then upload pictures when we get back…