Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Where the Ocean Meets the Sky

Greetings from Stockton, IL population 2000 not including the cows!

I arrived safely in the U.S. on Sunday morning and still in one piece to my parents home on Monday night. I have to confess I will never again complain about TSA or traveling commercially again. Traveling home from Iraq was hands down the most physically and psychologically exhausting experiences of my life!

First off, I mentioned that my shift had been rearranged and I was now starting work 4 hours earlier. This was extremely unfortunate for me because much as I tried to force myself to bed earlier, I just could not fall asleep. My body couldn't understand why were were doing to sleep during the "day" so I went into this marathon of traveling already sleep deprived. Last Wednesday after 3 hours of sleep we met at 7:00am to pick up our three 70lb duffel bags from our rooms, ran some necessary errands and then convened at the Red Cross office until it was time to leave for the airport. We made the airport run in two shifts because we couldn't fit all 12 duffels in the car. I ended up passed out on the canteen couch while most of this was going on, but around 11:30 my team leader roused me and said we were off to the airport.

I should emphasize that for security reasons the military is frustratingly vague regarding your departure time and flights are always "subject to change."  For this flight I believe we left around 4:30pm after waiting about 4.5 hours. We were in our body armor and Kevlar helmet which is always an enlightening experience (okay, more like encumbering-the flack vest weighs 35 lbs and the helmet is so heavy you have to fight to keep you head straight).

We flew in a C-130 to Kuwait which was sort of fun. Once in Kuwait we were bussed in a black out convoy to Ali-Al Salem military base. From there we checked in, made sure we were on the manifest for our flight back to the States on Saturday and then we checked into billeting and hauled our insanely heavy duffels to our tent. This was another highlight of the extravaganza home. They issue you one bunk in a dusty 16 person tent. I should clarify that Al Al Salem is fondly called "Tent City" because it is a transient camp. The mattress is rubber and you are issued no bedding: no sheets, no pillow, no blankets! So all of us pulled out anything we had to compose a make-shift bed. To top it all off, the lights are supposed to be on 24/7 so travelers arriving during the night can claim their bunk.

It's safe to say that combined Thursday and Friday nights I got maybe 5 hours of poor sleep. I was really starting to shut down psychologically because the experience was so exhausting and overwhelming it was the only way I could make it through.  All day Friday we sort of futzed around and waited for the other Red Cross teams to arrive. Friday night 4 of the 5 teams had dinner together for the first time since we departed Ft Benning on the Fourth of July.

I was up at 0430 on Saturday morning, showered and hauling my duffels to the customs folks by 0530.  There was a flight briefing at 0700 and it turns out that we were redeploying with a unit from Ft Dicks which pretty much filled the plane to capacity, After several hours of waiting we were eventually called in groups to take our duffels through Navy customs and I have to tell you this was nightmarish. Not only was it hot and I was a zombie, but you are forced to haul your duffels through a line that takes almost an hour and then you are made to dump out the duffels you so meticulously packed in front of a customs officer you sifts through everything including your underwear to make sure you are not smuggling knives or guns or war trophies back to the U.S. This was such a demoralizing process and after he's gone through your stuff, you load all your gear and equipment and personal belongings into giant plastic bins and repack your duffels rapido.

Once this was over we proceeded through security to another part of the base where we were held in lockdown with almost no information on our flight. By this time I was so tired that I felt ill and like I said, I just had to shut everything off and go through the motions to make do. We entered lockdown around 1:00pm and sometime around 5:00pm were were in formation and on another blackout convoy to some undisclosed airport location. The ride to the ariport was almost 2 hours and I mercifully passed out. Then we were boarding the plane and I was thanking heaven I got an aisle seat. The first flight was about 5.5 hours and I was awake for most of it. Then we had an hour and a half layover in Germany and then another 9 hour flight of which I mostly slept. We landed at McGuire Air Force Base at 4:00am and dropped off the Ft Dicks bunch and had another 1.5 hour layover and FINALLY we had a two hour flight to Ft Benning and arrived somewhere mid-morning. The suffering wasn't over yet!

We disembarked and headed to the airport hanger where an Army band greeted us and then there was a no-nonsense ceremony welcoming us back. However, we then proceeded to fill out more paperwork and we were bussed to CIF, the facility that distributed all our military gear. Thus began another 3 hour nightmare where we were made to unpack our duffels again and this time stand in line to turn in the 100lbs of military gear we received. This was a painstaking process not only because there were 130 of us, but also because if you didn't turn something in or is the worker marked your form wrong, you are made to pay for the gear! I made it out of there around 1:00pm and took the bus back to the Conus Replacement Center at Ft. benning. I was issued billeting in the barracks (this time with bedding!) and thankfully snagged a bottom bunk. 

By this time I was on my 10,000th wind and I couldn't sleep so I took a blissful shower (after 3 days of disgustingness) and played on the internet until it was time for dinner when my friend an dI decided to head to the bowling alley for drinks and dinner. Although the prospect of having a drink after 4.5 months of abstinence was exciting, we ended up practically falling asleep at the bar and thus were back in bed by 9:00pm.

The next morning we were up and packing. There was a briefing at 11:00am where we were given our individual flight itineraries home. We then boarded a coach bus and were shuttled to the Atlanta Airport where my flight left at 4:50pm. Mom met me at O'Hare when my flight arrived at 6:30pm and I back home by 10:00 that evening!

Sorry for the lengthy entry, but since you've traveled this adventure with me I felt I owed it to you to do the ending justice. I know I've said this many times, but thank you for everything for sharing this experience with me. Knowing you were there, even in spirit, made the lonely and dark times so much more bearable. Thank you also for your courage in supporting me. It's not east to stand by as someone you care about puts themselves in danger, but you had the strength to stand by and raise me up.  

Until Tikrit....

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Redeploying Part II

I mentioned earlier that we did the medical portion of the redeployment process. This morning, at 0930 (which is almost exactly in the middle of my "night") we completed the second part to this process, essentially a lecture on what you can expect when you redeploy. And again, just as with the almost flippancy of the medical requirements, we breezed through a slide show in less than a half an hour on the following: breakdown of marriages, how to get to know your spouse and kids again, the warning signs of suicide, do not rape, do not drink excessively and make sure you file your taxes. It was the oddest smattering of information on topics which are incredibly profound and seriously affect so many of the servicemembers, but it's done in such a desensitized fashion.

I guess just as I relay news every night of deaths, illnesses, assaults, suicides and disasters with the practiced efficiency of a mortician, so does the military out process it's soldiers with the same mechanized expediency. 

Sunday, 2 November 2008

I confess that I am passionately starting to miss the 100 degree weather. It's now raining every few days and it's almost like the terrain here just doesn't know what to do with water.  There are giant standing puddles that have this greenish film on them (probably from the oil-rich earth- have I mentioned that oil seeps up from the ground here? It's why we spread gravel on the earth).  It's still pleasant during the day, but at night it's getting quite chilly, to the point that I am wearing long pants, sweat shirts and the walk to and from the latrine is not fun. 

Here's a classic story for you--last night I got off of work, went to the chow hall with the plan to bring my food back to my room, eat, and then head to the gym. Well, as I am walking from the car to my CHU in the blackness I happen to step into one of those filmy pools of filth and I found myself ankle deep in muck. So balancing my dinner, I haul my caked feet back to my room, peel off my shoes and socks, and in sandals, trudge to the latrine. I then have to thoroughly douse my shoes in hot water to clean them of the crude so now the gym is out because my shoes are drenched.

I walk back to my room, take a hanger and start finagling with the air conditioner to rig my shoes so that they hang and absorb the air pressure. Then, because I am cold and because I think hot air will dry them faster I switch the unit from AC to heat. Well after several seconds there is a pungent burning smell and I casually think it's just from the unit transitioning from AC to heat. 10 seconds later my smoke detector starts screeching it's batteries out!!! So I starting tossing photos off my night stands, mount one on top of the other and balance on them until I can reach the smoke detector and silence it's screaming.  So I ended up trapped, shoeless, in my burnt-smelling room listening to my smoke detector chirp every 45 seconds until it tired out. Now that's a rocking Saturday night ;-)

Thursday, 30 October 2008

A Few Ponderings...

~Be careful what you wish for... the rain has now decided that after having been on hiatus for my entire deployment it is now going to soak in as much time with me as possible. Since that first storm I shared with you it has now rained almost every other day, turning the normally baby powder fine dust into a thick muddy peanut butter that clings to you with the adoration of a labrador. My clothes are caked after a single day and my shoes are, safe to say, trashed. 

~It's pretty incredible to look up into the sky on a cloudy night and stand mesmerized as brilliant flashes of light splash across the sky. The incredibility comes not in the beauty of the moment but in the terrifying thrill of not knowing if those flashes are an act of nature or man.

~Yesterday (October 28) my teammates and I took part in what's known as Golby, the redeployment medical processing. I found the process disturbingly simple. We went into a small room laid out in a lecture hall formation. We were each handed a palm pilot with a 42 page survey. As we casually breezed through the questions (Have you had thoughts of suicide?Have you seen dead bodies? Do you have recurring nightmares?) I began to wonder...how many soldiers skimmed through the questions just as I was now doing?  Answering those questions the way they knew needed to be answered: to ensure that they would successfully return home without branding themselves for follow up evaluations. And how many of them would later pay a price as the result?

Saturday, 25 October 2008

The Thunder Rolls

I have been waiting for this day every since we arrived in this lifeless barren, dusty desert. Anyone of you who know me personally know I am sort of wild about thunderstorms. I love to dance in them, chase them down in my car, when I was little I used to drag blankets and stuffed animals out onto our porch to watch them roll in. At American University I used to climb up to top floor of the parking garage and sit on my car to watch the lightening. For me, there is no greater gift from nature.  They are good for the soul.

Well in all my time in Iraq I had hope against hope that I might see one. Often throughout the deployment the wind would pick up and the sky was turn a hesitant purple and I would pray that the storm would get angry enough to burst but it never did.

Last night I could smell it in the air. Normally Iraq has a burnt, chalky smell that gets stuck in your throat. To me, it does not smell like life. No hint of grass or flowers or water, only a charred earthen smell.  But as I went to work last night I could smell the rain in the air. The wind was blowing pretty fiercely, tearing through the palm trees and sounding surprisingly like rain I yearned for. When I got to the office I opened the window right behind me and that scent of rain was overpowering. I could practically taste it, that pure, clean smell of moisture.  My entire shift I kept sticking my head out the window and inhaling as deep as possible, turning to my co-worker (who was watching me like I had escaped off the reservation) and saying "I just know it's going to rain, I can FEEL it". 

Well by the time I left at 2:00am the wind had died down and the sky appeared to be clearing and as with all my past disappointments, I figured the storm just couldn't muster enough to break free.

Boy was I wrong. Around 11:00am this morning I was awoken to huge booms and a rapid pelting sound that had my heart racing. Gun-fire and mortars. In my confusion I lay still trying to decide if I should get dressed and find a bunker or if I was safer where I was. However, as full alertness was registering I realized that something was actually hitting the roof of my CHU. So I opened my curtain...and there it was. An angry gray sky hurtling succulent, plump rain drops over the dessert.  The smell was over powering-- of life and health and growth seeping it's way into the barren ground. Beautiful.

Thursday, 23 October 2008

Two Lighters

Today marked the passing of my 24th year. Since I could hardly expect a temporary ceasefire or a day without a single tragedy in the world, I was pretty much banking on a regular day in Baghdad. And yet, knowing it's your birthday, things just seem more special.

To start with, our team leader agreed to close the office for a few hours so that the four of us teammates could all eat together for a change. Since the office is open 24/7 and someone is always sleeping this took some major coordination with the Tikrit Red Cross office covering our queue for life -threats or suicides and Kris, the true grave yard shift waking up in the middle of her "night" to eat with us. We drive out to eat at the BIAP Air Force DFAC (BIAP is Baghdad International Airport) because that DFAC has real silverware, china plates and booths. Can't ask for anymore in Iraq ;-)

After dinner with lots of lovely "chinking" sounds we drove straight back to the office and understandably there were half a dozen guys milling around the deck waiting for us to come back and open up. The ladies took me back to our little office and there they unveiled a substantial sheet cake that Greta had decorated with twizzlers and skittles. Greta and Kris each pulled out a lighter to serve as candles and after a little happy birthday serenade I made my wish on two lighters.

The cake actually had ingredients on it and mercifully it was nut free so for once I got to eat my birthday cake! After we cut ourselves huge pieces we cut more for all the guys in the office and then I put the rest of the cake out in the canteen. Greta and Kris had combined to buy me a beautiful marble chess board made in Iraq. At that point my shift had already begun and as a little present from above it was a relatively quiet night. I forbade anyone from dying on my birthday and for the most part everyone seemed to have received the memo.

After work I met up with another night shift worker from a brigade we work with and he gave me a really sweet gift. It ended up being a beautiful night so we stayed and chatted outside for several hours.  I was treated to my own personal firework show (which was really the Blackhawks shooting preemptive flares  but still... it was pretty)

And to top off my day I played volley ball with the med unit.  It might not have been extravagant, or decorative or filled with wild partying but for Baghdad it was perfect. 

Monday, 20 October 2008

The Parallel

There are times when living on base seems like living in some parallel dimension where I can hear things that happen in the city of Baghdad, and I can see things in Baghdad and I can smell the fires burning in Baghdad...but I never really know what is happening in those streets.  I was watching the news while at work this past weekend and every network was broadcasting images of thousands of Iraqis marching through the city waving flags and yelling slogans in protest to the pact that would allow U.S. forces to stay in Iraq for three more years. And it occurred to me that throughout the day on Saturday I may have registered sounds or smoke in the distance but it was not until the imagery on the news alerted me to the demonstration that I became aware the day was anything other than average.

It is astounding to me that something so monumental and historical could have occurred so close to where I reside yet due to obscurity and confines of my employment I will never witness such significant events. You may wonder why I wish to be on the other side of the wall where my life would be in undoubtedly more danger, but to be so close yet blind to the events that will shape the future of this country and the future of international relations make me feel, in some ways, as though I'm not really even here. 

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Duel in the Pool

It's no secret that Greta and I are pool rats. Any free time we can acquire together we love to head to the small island pool and pretend we are somewhere off on vacation. That is until the Blackhawks fly over head. If you and I have never met, I swam in college and it's safe to say that the pool is my mothership.  However, I rarely have the opportunity to get in some laps because of the testosterone overloaded Rambos who cannonball, chicken fight and splash their way through the water. I'd usually prefer not to draw any further attention to myself so I only break out the cap and goggles when the place is deserted.

Today was a different story.

When we arrived at the pool today there were probably about 25 people there which is decently crowded for this small outdoor facility. There was a military unit roughhousing on deck, probably about 16 guys and then a smattering of twos and threes, air force, army and possible a few civilians.  There were four women total among the pool-goers. 

We chose a spot next to one of the other women who was there sun bathing by herself and we proceeded to laze about the afternoon. It was clear however, that the arrival of two blondes was too good for this rowdy unit to pass up. The moved their belly flop contest to the ledge of the pool about 5 feet behind where we lounged. We got splashed every time they went in which was clearly the plan. After several splashes I weetly asked them to move which got some obnoxious grins out of them, but after another 5 or 10 min Greta made a sharper remark after being asked to "Give them a smile" and they retreated farther down the deck. They flirtatiously asked the girl next to us if they were bothering her and she coyly replied, "No, I'm one of you guys, I'm military" implying that Greta and my's prissiness was due that we were civilians. Grrrr that's cute honey

Well their next manly challenge became underwater swimming something that I excel at if I can toot my own horn. The guys were making a huge fuss about making it down the length of the pool and back underwater and of all 16 of them, only one made it. I was very tempted to hop in and show them a thing or two about the prissy Red Cross girls, but I refrained knowing if I participated there would be no peace from them the rest of our stay.

They continued to goof around and about the time Greta and I were dressing to leave they must of sensed our departure as they started up with the underwater racing again, only this time when one failed to make it he would climb out and flop on deck pretending to be dying while his buddies would be grinning and call for the Red Cross to perform CPR. Finally the loudest and biggest of them shouted "Hey Red Cross chicks, did we splash you that time?  I did two laps underwater, that's good right? Tell me that was good?!" Wait a second, Red Cross chicks?! I had to take the guy down. I turned to Greta who was already dressed and said "Would you mind?" and Greta turned back to the unit and announced, "Well fellas, Michelle here is going to show you how it's done." Well at that the entire pool stopped what they were doing and flocked to the edge of the pool. 

I stripped my shirt back off and tied my hair back tightly. I hopped in the pool and started breathing deeply, trying to slow my heart rate down as much as possible. The secret to underwater swimming is to move slowly and exert as little effort as possible, while keeping your heart rate low, and your mind under control. Unfortunately, my adrenaline was surging and I knew the guys would start razzing me if I didn't start soon, so I prepared as best I could and pushed off. I did the entire swim underwater with my arms above my head in a streamline while kicking dolphin kick. The first lap underwater was fairly easy.  As I approached the wall for the second lap I could hear cheering and yelling coming from above the water, when I hit that wall and turned for the third length I knew I should have been able to go four, but I wasn't warmed up enough. As I came up at the third wall all I could hear was silence. As I turned back around to the crowd at the other you could see these macho dudes were stunned. I swam back to the other end, where one of the guys reached out for my hand, shook it and then helped pull me out.

The once ultra-cocky obnoxious soldiers were stumbling over their words, "I- I've never seen anything like that", "How did you do that?", "How long have you been swimming?" It was really pretty hilarious, gone was the arrogant machismo and in its place was sincere disbelief.

I hurridly dressed while the unit continued to stare at me wide-eyed and as Greta and I proceeded on our way, the soldiers had apparently relocated their balls as they went back to roughhousing and wrestling and yelling after us "Wahoo!! Red Cross!!!"

It was one of life's sweet redeeming moments. 

Friday, 10 October 2008

A Stork in Baghdad

Yesterday was a happy day at the Red Cross. So often our message traffic is dominated by tragedy: death, illness, destruction. But yesterday was all about life.  On Wednesday we had a young solider come into the office and share with us that his wife would be induced the next day and he was wondering if there was anyway he could "be there". So he went about getting some technical information from the hospital and we at the Red Cross promised to get him set up with a computer and a webcam so he could view the birth. 

It was all excitement here as all of us waited for the birth of his first child, a baby girl. I dropped by the office a few hours before my shift and the anxious father to be was pacing up and down the hallways, stepping outside for a nervous smoke and popping back in on the computer every few minutes to see how his wife was holding up. We all followed the progress of her pregnancy through her inducement, contracts and dilations. 

When I came back for my shift 2 hours later, the poor solider looked exhausted and my team leader asked me to watch the office while she drove him to grab some dinner. By 9:00pm he walked tiredly into my office, sighed and said, "well, I can't wait any longer, I've got to get back, thanks for everything. It's okay". I was crushed that they guy had waited all day and wouldn't get to see the birth. I wished I could have done something more for him.

But during the beginning of my shift today I received this email:

Hey everybody,

First off, I would like to say just how much I appreciate what you guys did for me in providing me with the tool's to see my daughter's birth and I would like to let you know that at 2:22pm (9:22pm Iraq time) we welcomed Haven Serenity into the world. She is 7 lbs 8 ox and 20 and 1/4 inches long and let me tell you does she have a set of lungs on her. She is the most gorgeous little girl I have ever seen in my life. My wife would also like to extend her thanks as well for what you guys did, it really helped her along. Again I would like to let you know how much I appreciate everything and I will spread the word to every solider in need about just how awesome you guys are.

Thank you, thank you, thank you

Spc James

That's why I wanted this job.

Friday, 3 October 2008

Bump, Set, Shoot

If you've been following the posts, you'll recall that recently I went to the TMC to treat what I thought was an allergic reaction. Well, the evening after I was released I returned to the clinic with bags of Starbucks to thank the medics who'd spent the morning with me. A day or two after this visit I got a phone call while I was at work from the SGT who was my primary care taker during the reaction. Having had several hours to chat while at the clinic it came up that his unit played volleyball every week and he must have registered my bright-eyed interest because the purpose of his call was to invite me to play with his unit this Friday.

So this morning, with butterflies like a kid on the first day of school, I walked to the volleyball court behind Pad 10 (less than 5 min walk from my CHU) at 6:00am.  I should clarify that I absolutely LOVE volleyball though I'm just a decent player. I've never played on a team, but am a huge fan of the sport and this invitation was a thrill. 

Naturally, I was the only female there as seems to be the curse of Iraq, and I encountered two types of reactions from the guys, they were either extremely shy and would barely look at me, gently tossing the ball to me underhand or they were overtly flirty and were thrilled to see a woman who wasn't afraid of the ball. 

Either way, the morning was a blast. I actually made the 12th player so we played 3 games of 6 on 6 and then we lost a few players and our last game was 4 on 4. The invited me back to play next week which was a relief. Part of me felt like I was intruding since this was their unit playing and not a collection of random individuals. It was one of the first experiences I've had in Iraq where I think I was genuinely just having a great time. The sunshine, the game environment, the jokes and the laughing. It was almost like we could have been on a beach somewhere, on vacation, except for the rat-tat-tat of gun fire heard off in the distance, keeping pace with our game. 

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

The End of the Ninth Month

This year Ramadan began on the evening on Aug 31...

Ramadan signifies to Muslims the month in which the Qur'an was revealed to the prophet Muhammad. It is the Islamic month of fasting (sawm) in which practicing Muslims do not eat or drink from dawn until dusk. Ramadan is the time to fast for the honor of God and to offer more prayer than usual. Fasting is meant to teach the follower patience, sacrifice and humility. During the period of Ramadan Muslims ask forgiveness for past sins, pray for guidance and restraint from committing everyday evils. Muslims seek purification through self-restraint and good deeds...

The past month, the major indication for me that is was Ramadan on base was the noticeable surplus of fruits, particularly watermelon, that was consumed by the Iraqis in the evenings as their sole meal. The morning prayer at 0400 was also especially resonant during Ramadan, the ethereal crying timbre echoing across the base in the still star-swept dawn.

Ramadan ended yesterday, Sept 30 2008...You can tell.  The end of the holy month was marked by the return of loud, frightening and one might say, evil, noises.

Saturday, 27 September 2008

A Nut of Excitement

Many of you have asked how I have been fairing with allergy...well now I've got a story for you.

I have been extremely diligent about managing the allergy in this environment. I compare it to eating in the dining hall at my university where you are served buffet style and the food is arranged in cases based on theme. Common sense dictates avoiding the islands that could be hazardous: Tai, Asian, desserts, stir fry, etc. It's much the same here. I have a sandwich or salad for lunch and for dinner sliced meat, rice and a vegetable. Plain and simple. I also each as much packaged food as possible since labeling is always a plus.  The major drawback here is not being able to pick up the phone and call 911 although there are emergency ambulance numbers and I live a 5 min walk from a 24 emergency clinic.

Well last week, Friday I believe it was, I found that my neck was irritated throughout my shift. I wouldn't say they were hives exactly but my skin was itchy and rash-like and I found myself holding the phone away from my ear so as not to chafe my neck.  I wasn't particularly concerned because with all the dust and weirdness out here, scratchy is not abnormal.  

By the end of the shift my left eye was starting to give me issues. It felt irritated and begged to be itched. I made it back to my CHU and climbed in bed to read and accidentally rubbed it. We went down hill from there. Although I washed my hands, washed out my eye and took a dose of Benadryl, the next day my left eye was completely swollen shut.  With another does of Benadryl, it was back to normal by the end of my shift but unnerving none the less. I have no explanation for the cause other than I came into contact with something my body didn't like.

Well having that encounter with a minor reaction dictated last night's course of events.  My teammate Kris went out to grab us dinner and came back around 12:30am with burgers and fries, a relatively common Friday night splurge for us. Around 1:30am I noticed that my throat felt constricted. It didn't itch, it didn't hurt, I had no hives anywhere, and I was breathing freely without wheezing. Despite my surprising lack of other symptoms the first thing that comes to mind with that sensation is a reaction. 

I went ahead and took a does of Benadryl but it made no impression. After pacing about the office for another half an hour trying to talk myself out of the fact that this could be a reaction, I decided to quit fighting and go the the "ER". Epi-pen in hand I told my concerned teammate that I just wanted to be there in case the reaction decided to go full blown on me. I jumped in the Explorer and was there in just a few minutes. 

So here was my first experience with deployed health care in a war zone. I pull up to the clinic and there's a solider outside using a laptop to project his unit's mascot onto a T-wall where he was painting over the digital image. Twilight zone. He asked me if I was alright and then pointed me through the right door. Inside I found the place deserted. I was in what appeared to be an intake room, but the lights had been dimmed and the desk was empty.

Thinking that I would shortly be dying I forged on into the area that said Restricted, Do Not Enter.  "Hello?" I called. "Is someone here"? At once I found myself surrounded by three uniformed soldiers that seemed absolutely baffled to see a young, blonde woman while at the same time noting that my face was swollen and that I was clearly trying to keep my voice steady. I rapidly explained about my history with anaphylaxis and that while I could not explain my lack of other symptoms, I did not like the way my throat felt. I could tell that they were as confused as I was by the way the medical condition was playing out, but I did my best to tell them that I was VERY familiar with Epi-pens and ICUs and suffocating to death from a reaction and after a few minutes I think I had them fully convinced.

They went and woke up the doctor, a Major, whose combat trauma services, I was told, were sought by injured servicemembers at all the FOBs. I soon learned that I was surrounded by combat medics who were used to mortars and rockets and IED injuries and not this more unique, temperamental condition. I was subjected to my first battlefield triage experience when the combat medic started the IV. He stuck that sucker into me like I had the constitution of Rambo and he the finesse drunken sailor.

The doctor ordered me a round of steroids, told me they'd monitor me for the next four hours and that I was not be left only. This last point caused a dilemma when I went through my first IV bag and had to pee like a racehorse. I told my dear attentive staff sergeant that I needed to use the ladies room and he nodded, unhooked my IV bag, handed the bag to me and said "the latrine is outside on your left, don't trip on the IV tube" Errrr okay?  So I walked myself back out into the dusty desert night and went over to the coed latrine where once inside I hooked my IV bag on a nail that had been hammered into the plastic stalls.  I can't say it lacked for the character. I wanted the real thing, I got it. Twice more I made that trip after 2 IV bags. 

Over the course of the next few hours my throat did not improve which resulted in a new round of steroids around 4:30am and my increased frustration with my throat. Was this even a reaction? Why did I feel like I had a noose around my neck but with no other symptoms? I sat with the medics who regaled me with grizzly stories about their deployments, about casualties and rocket injuries. They are currently still treating rocket injuries on a weekly basis from people who have been hit on base which was a disconcerting thought and they advised that when Ramadan ends on the 3, be ready. Alrighty then.

About this time I began to panic about the car situation. I had driven our only car to the TMC and the next teammate needed the car to drive to work. I managed to convince my new combat friends to not only drive the car back to my pad, but to walk the keys up to my teammate's door. This created a new flourish of activity which included my poor bleary eyed teammate announcing herself in my room 15 min later to ensure that I was still alive. After convincing her that things were under control, she agreed to go over and fill in our team leader and that I should be out of there by 6:30am.

By 5:30am my throat had loosened enough and the doctor gave me the green light. The disconcerting ending to this story is that we still have no explanation from my throat tightening. It is common enough for me to have mild reactions, but not one so internal that involves the constriction of my throat. The good news is that now, almost 24 hours later I feel fine apart from a steroid headache and my bruised and blood-blistered IV arm. I'm heading back over tonight to thank the medics and give them some Starbucks and one of our challenge coins.  Although it isn't exactly an experience I look forward to repeating, it's one more tale I can bring back from my time in Iraq. 

Friday, 26 September 2008


It seems that the Air Force has knocked out our "cable" indefinitely. Granted we only had about 8 channels (at least 3 of which only broadcasted military propaganda--a blog post I am working on) but it was an escape to the familiar and a world outside this extreme place :-(

Now we are relegated to only the local Arabic channels which certainly authenticates the experience, but I feel very cut off from the world. Especially with everything that is going on in the States right now and The Debates this weekend, I am cursing the timing!

Thursday, 25 September 2008

Grande White Chocolate Double Chocolaty Chip Frappuccino Blended Creme, please

Although I am not a coffee drinker, I have always found the aroma of this pungent bean somehow comforting.  Well comfort now abounds in Baghdad as yesterday we witnessed the arrival of almost 5,000 lbs of Starbucks coffee courtesy of our American Red Cross corporate partnership with the company. We received 6 pallets of the grounds, each weighing between 600 and 800 lbs and the majority of which is now stored in the conex out by our office.

Now I should explain that the military units know about this lucrative partnership with the coffee giant and I can attest that from the first 24 hours I spent in Baghdad I was interrogated as to where we were hiding the coffee. I remember vividly sitting in the Green Bean Coffee just 24 hours after arriving in Iraq and being approached by a group of soldiers inquiring when they could pick up more coffee. 

Well now that we are back in the distribution business we are trying to keep this high demand product as hush-hush as possible for fear of an onslaught by units driving over pick up trucks to haul away caseloads of the valuable substance...which is apparently what happened with the last shipment! So we are surreptitiously trying to both distribute the coffee to the remote FOBs (Forward Operating Base) in which a high class luxury like Starbucks is merely a memory while at the same time trying to come up with a plan to distribute locally without total pandemonium.

More to come on this I suspect... 


Thursday, 18 September 2008

Fluorescent Orange Tangerine

You may have occasionally heard me say that there is a pronounced lack of color and beauty here. Well I have been seriously put in my place about the allegation of no color, we have been having unrelenting sandstorms since the beginning of the week which is something akin to a snowstorm in terms of visibility.  However, typically I think disgusting would be adjective I'd pick to describe a sandstorm as opposed to breathtaking to describe snow. 

The sand hangs heavy in the air which blocks all the sunlight and the earthen particles fly up into your nostrils, into your eyes, when you swallow your throat has a gritty, charred taste and when you run your hands through your hair a lovely flaking of not dandruff, but dust drifts off your head.

This time, however, I awoke in the afternoon at 3:00pm and opened my door to head to the women's latrine. Before me looked like something out of a Stephen King movie or a scene from Nightmare on Elm Street. Everything around me, the sky, the air and all the objects in view were tinted a fluorescent orange tangerine color. Nothing retained it's original color, it was like walking through an eerie nightmare. You couldn't see someone approaching until the emerged out of the stagnant orange mist and they were gone just as soon as they appeared. It was an incredible phenomenon.

Today I awoke to sunny skies and heavy heat and we are officially back to Baghdad weather. Which I confess is quite fortunate because the sandstorms really shut things down. There is no mail, no shipment of food or items for the PX, but I stand corrected on desert colors. Orange was a site to see.

Thursday, 4 September 2008

The Challenge Coin

A week ago today I received my first challenge coin, a symbol of camaraderie, respect and appreciation in the military and from General Petraeus' Command Sergeant Major no less! We had arranged a meeting last Thursday morning at 10:30am to wish him farewell and good luck as he and Petraeus finish their tour in Iraq. 

We drove to the Al-Faw Palace which is considered to be command central for the operations in Iraq. We met with CSM Hill, a jovial man who laughed a lot and was surprisingly sociable for someone with such responsibility. Before leaving he presented each of us with a challenge coin, a heavy coin about the size of a silver dollar with the insignia of his command, Multi-National Forces Iraq emblazoned on the medallion.

You may be interested to know some of the history of the challenge coin as it is a tradition now embedded in the military, to the extent that even the Red Cross has had coins made. The story, mostly legend, reads as follows:

During WW I, air warfare was a new phenomenon and pilots came from all walks of life. One of the wealthier lieutenants ordered small, solid-bronze medallions crafted which he presented to the member of his squadron. The coin was of unusual value for the time and one of the pilots tucked the coin into a leather pouch he wore around his neck for safe-keeping. As the story goes, this pilot's aircraft was damaged, he went down behind enemy lines and was then taken prisoner by the Germans. The enemy removed all personal effects from the soldier, but missed the leather pouch. As he was being transported to a permanent detention facility, the British attacked and the airman was able to escape. He donned civilian entire and made his way towards safety when he was picked up by a French patrol who believed him to be a German spy and with no identification, the air man had no proof of his nationality. Desperate to save himself from execution, the pilot pulled out the coin and showed it to his captors. One of the Frenchmen recognized the insignia from the airman's unit and spared his life. 

Once the pilot returned to his squadron, it became a tradition for soldiers to carry their coins at all times. The ensure compliance, the pilots would challenge each other to produce the coin. If the challenged could not produce the coin, he was required to buy a drink for the challenger; if the challenged could produce the coin it was the challenger who bought the drink. Over the years, the coins have come to serve as rewards or awards or to build morale among units. It was thus, with thanks and appreciate for the work of the Red Cross in Iraq, I received my very first challenge coin.

Appropriately, just a few days later, I also happened to give away my very first challenge coin to a Specialist with the 300 MP Battalion who is departing Iraq in just about 2 weeks. He was a particularly good-natured guy who took Red Cross messages for the 300th and who was always patient, efficient and most importantly, good-humored about his work. I'll miss his cheerfulness and wish him good luck when he's gone.

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Under the weather, and no thanks to the weather

Wow, can I tell you that the desert is NOT the place to get sick. I've been fighting this bug since Monday now and it's bad enough that I am sneezing and coughing and feel like I've been hit by a humvee, but the heat exacerbates that feeling and makes you feel dizzy and nauseated. At the same time, the lovely baby-powder fine dust swirls into your nostrils and eyes and throat and leads to the feeling of being plugged up and choking. And to top it all off, we work 7 days a week here and if I were to request a day off it would mean that someone on my team would have to extend there already demanding shift which would probably result in their getting sick and initiating a cycle of sickness...and guilt.
Alas...come on antibodies, tough it up!

Monday, 1 September 2008

A Day of Sweet Labor

So as you might imagine, holidays go largely uncelebrated in a war zone.  Knowing that everyone on base would spend Labor Day not at BBQs drinking beer with family and friends, but in a foreign desert toiling away just as any other day, I plotted to do something unique on Labor Day. 

Although we do have a grill at our office, we didn't have the man power to do a full fledged BBQ so I aimed to come up with a similar alternative. I have no idea where this idea came from since we live in a perpetual furnace, but somewhere in the recesses of my mind I connected BBQ with toasting S'mores. And there you had it, an unusual taste of home and a tribute to the coming fall.

The trick was would we be able to get the supplies--because there in lay the novelty of s'mores. There is rarely, if ever, a chocolate bar to be found on base since they simply can't stand the heat during transport over and marshmellows?  Why? So I contacted the one person who I knew had the determination to make my plan work....my momma. Within 24 hours she had shipped us a box with packages of graham crackers, chocolate bars and lovely marshmellows.  

I am pleased to say the ingredients survived the trip (although the chocolate had melted and the bars arrived totally deformed-they perked up after refrigeration though). To build our camp fire, my teammates and I took two weeks worth of the confidential material with are tasked to burn as the method of confiscation and made a bonfire in our burn barrel. And finally, since there are certainly no trees in Iraq that bear sticks I shimmied the American flags off of our 4th of July decorations and used the wooden poles of the flags to serve as sticks. Hey, this is for bettering the morale of the soldiers serving the flag right?! Circle of life.

And our evening was a success with so many commenting on how long it had been since they'd had a s'more and how on earth did we come up with the ingredients. The telephone company that sponsors our calling center was offering free calling all day long so the office was packed and there we were, gathered around a fire in the 115 degree heat toasting the end of another summer in Iraq.

Sunday, 24 August 2008

Run for the Fallen

Emotionally, this morning was probably the highlight of my now 7 weeks in Iraq. I competed in my first military athletic event, the Run for the Fallen, which I went into thinking only of myself and finished thinking of someone now gone forever. The Run for the Fallen was begun to honor the memory of those who have died in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Starting in the U.S. on June 14 and culminating today in a run at the Arlington National Cemetery participants will run one mile for every fallen soldier. For us in Baghdad, this translated to a 4.2 mile run.
You can learn more here: http://runforthefallen.org

I had decided last week that I wanted to run this race purely for my own motives. I miss my days of competing (collegiate swimming) and I love organized sports and a racing environment. Last Sunday there was a 10k run that I had considered doing but ultimately didn't think I was ready. Not because I wasn't physically fit, but because I was worried about the desert elements, the heat and the sun and the dust, taking their toll. Thus, I was determined to take part in the Run for the Fallen because I knew I could complete the distance and was anxious to jump back into organized competition.

I met my teammate at 5:15am after what could be considered a long day. Because I work the night shift I had been up since 3:00pm the day before, I worked 6pm to midnight and then decided it would be better for me to stay awake until the run rather than nap. So I watched movies, stretched, jammed to my iPod and fired myself up, all the while preparing myself mentally to compete in an event where the environment would be more challenging than the actually activity. We arrived at the starting point with plenty of time to spare and got in line for registration. When I approached the table, the servicewoman explained "If you are running for someone in particular than go ahead and write their name on this badge and pin it to your clothes.  If not there are lists up by the stage and you can chose someone to run for." 

I have been fortunate enough to not know anyone who has lost their life in Iraq so I made my way to the stage and found myself looking at the equivalent to the Vietnam Memorial. The entire front of the stage was papered with giant lists of names. As I filtered among those studying the lists, I found an opening and focused on the list before me. The first name I looked at was SPC Ross Clevenger, Army Reservist. I thought about perhaps browsing the list some more, but thought to myself, Ross Clevenger was a reservist, he wasn't even a full time member of the military and he had sacrificed his life. He was my choice.

As the run began I reverted to focusing on myself. Pace yourself, don't go out to fast, deep breaths, head up, good posture and so on. I grew increasingly confident as the race went on. My pace was steady, my legs felt strong and I knew I was going to be fine. On that notorious third mile, the one that seems to stretch on forever, the one where others around you drop out to walk and your fight begins to wane, I thought of SPC Clevenger. What would he give to be running this race? To feel the life coursing through you as the pain solidifies that you are more alive now, in this glory, than you can ever be.

When I finished the race, I was on a total high. My performance was everything I hoped it woul be. Once back at my trailer, I promptly showered and fell asleep as my day was finally as its end. When I woke in the evening however, I started thinking of Ross, the man I had run for. Who was he? What had been his experience in Iraq? It seemed inappropriate that I knew nothing about him, so I turned to the internet. 

Ross Clevenger was my age. We graduated from high school the same year. We both loved horse back riding, the outdoors and driving. He wanted to go to nursing school. Ross died in February of 2007 when he was hit by an IED in Karmah, Iraq. I cried for Ross when I read his bio and I cried for his family robbed of their loved one. I suddenly felt compelled to let his family know that their son was not forgotten. That just today, their son had made a new friend, a friend who would never forget his sacrifice. I cried as I wrote to his family via a condolence website. 

I have rarely felt more alive than I did today. To run for someone who is gone, to juxtapose death and remembrance with physical pain and determination results in an incomparable feeling of life. As I choked on my own parched throat, and the sun burned my face, and my legs screamed at me to stop, that fight in a person, that small voice that just keeps saying "no" was omnipresent.  And so long as that voice is there, you don't give in, you don't give up, as small and faint as the voice might be.  You keep fighting.  And today I fought for Ross...as he had fought for me.

Friday, 22 August 2008

You Give a Mouse a Cookie

In an earlier blog, I wrote about the defense mechanism I have unconsciously developed to address the unpredicatable "room raids" by KBR employees. I wanted to share with you another defense mechanism I have consciously implemented and it's one that is counter to my nature...the scowl.

As every woman who came before me, the male psyche is an arena where clearly the female rule book has no relevance. That being said, I have a difficult time understanding the transformation or perhaps regression, that men experience while away from civilization. Yes, I grant you they are not all lecherous brutes and many are quite gentlemanly and kind, but the leers, the raping with the eyes and from largely my own countrymen, is astounding. Is temprorary celibacy really enough to drive an intellectual being back to his stone age tendencies? Without an equal number of the female gender around do men suddenly become incapable of basic respect and dignity? 

The leers, the unwelcome conversations, the little warning bell that goes off in every woman's head have led to The Scowl. If you know me outside of this enviornment you can attest that I am one of the most positive, cheerful people you'll ever meet and it is in my nature to greet everyone with a smile, to initiate conversation and to welcome new friends. Not in Iraq. Every public display when I am alone has to be one of total aloofness, disinterest and occasionally, radiating hostility. Now, if I am with another person, friend or colleague than the presence of that very person negates the need for this defense mechanism but if you are alone, The Scowl must be present to counteract unwanted advances, cat-calls, whistles, stalking, staring and pretty much all other forms of harassment. 

I should explain that The Scowl is an all-encompassing tactic that unfortunately probably scares off some genuinely nice guys.  On the other hand, most genuinely nice guys over here understand a woman's predicament and would not approach her in a threatening kind of way. I am always up to meet new people and make new friends, however, in Iraq that comes with strings and I don't necessarily mean sexual. I mean there are a lot of lonely, confused, unhappy people out here and as a young, blonde female, even the slightest flicker of benign interest signals to this lost fellow "companion", "mother", "wife", "sister", "girlfriend" and this can be exhuasting. They latch onto you like an orphaned puppy and soon they are writing you florid emails about their mistakes in life and coming to visit you in the office at all hours. It is a form of stalking I suppose, but in their minds and over here in the weirdness that is Iraq, it's largely disregarded.

I could regale you with the many tales of my "interactions" with men, but I'll let one from just last night suffice...I was on the bike at the gym at 3:30 in the morning and one of the KBR employees whom I had met in my first week and hadn't seen since, came over to chat. She asked how I was doing and then said "By the way, there's a guy that asks about you almost everyday on my shift" What the....? She continues "Yeah, I think he sent his friend over to ask you out that one time you came in on my shift? Anyways, he asked about you just yesterday. He's always asking if I've seen you. I remember him telling me 'Oh Michelle, Red Cross?! She's my soul mate." Errrr okay I've never exchanged one word with the guy, I don't even know what he looks like and apparently we are destined for each other. Fan-tas-tic, move over Michael Douglas.  I told the KBR employee to tell him I went home and to get over it.
Again, I know I am an exception here; athletic, young, blonde but it can be so depressing having to ignore and downright avoid people and that stems from the fact that everything here is so EXTREME. You give a mouse a cookie and he'll want a glass of milk.  You give a guy a small smile in greeting or a pleasant conversation in passing and all of a sudden you become his focus. Emotions and actions seem to be exacerbated and inflated by the environment here, the gender discrepancy, the violence, the lack of proper companionship, of proper sleep and of 15 month tours away from normalcy. It's sort of sad really, the guys I feel most comfortable with, the ones I would consider my "friends" are the ones on the other end of a telephone for a emergency message delivery or that I have a professional relationship with because there are implied boundaries. It is those boundaries that allow me to be myself and to show the happiness and positivity that I so want to display and share with others in the desolation.

Saturday, 16 August 2008

"Room Raids"

So I am beginning to experience a rather unusual manifestation of what one might consider PTSD. I say unusual because it has nothing to do with guns or mortars or violence, but rather with what I have come to call "room raids". I had just such an episode yesterday morning...

Curled up in my bed, snuggled against the delicious chill of the air conditioning I was drifting through the infinite subconscious that is dreaming when a "bang, bang, bang" punctured my sleep. In an instant I began yelling through my drowsy haze "I'm coming! I'm coming! Do NOT open the door! Just a minute! I'm coming!" knowing that in realty whoever was standing on the other side of my trailer door could not hear me through the electric snarl of the air conditioning. I began tripping around the room in a panic to properly dress myself before I knew my door would be jimmied open and a posse of tiny men would cram themselves in my room. 

I stuffed myself into a pair of cotton pants and a sweat shirt, tossed on my glasses and aggressively swung open my door....to find no one there but the thick heat of a Baghdad morning. Chagrin dawned as I looked over at my clock: 6:05am. Far too early in the morning for the raid I was anticipating. I had been asleep for only an hour. Standing quietly next to the door for a few moments I heard the "bang, bang, bang" again. Only this time, in my semi-coherent alertness I realized that the sound I thought was knocking was really my neighbor banging the wardrobe door against our paper thin wall divider.

This is the manifestation to which I was referring... the frequent fear of the KBR employees storming into my room to find a half-dressed, sleep intoxicated female. Over the course of my some 6 weeks in Iraq I have been interrupted during my sleep hours anywhere from 1-3 times a week by a small cluster of KBR employees, typically Indian men, accompanied by a Ugandan guard, who seem to have thought up every reason under the sun to invade people's rooms.  Now I concede I am somewhat unusual as a day sleeper and most normal human beings would expect to find a room unoccupied during the day. But living in Baghdad is not normal and despite the very pronounced sign on my door that declares "DAY SLEEPER" I have been subject to these raids at an exceedingly frustrating rate.  

And let me enlighten you as to the various reasons for these escapades: "changing the air conditioning filter, cleaning the air conditioner, changing the light bulbs, inventorying the furniture, checking the smoke detector, checking the fire extinguisher." Now mind you these essential tasks are far too critical for the likes of one man, therefore 3 or 4 are sent in a squad to tackle these challenges but when the time comes to conquer the beast, invariably one man completes the task in approximately one minute while the others, including the Ugandan guard with his assault rifle protect against the forces of ....(?)  that might interrupt this mission. And meanwhile, there I sit on my bed, eyes stinging against the desert sunlight slashing through the door that has been left open. 

It is not so much the "raid" that bothers me. I understand the conditions off living in a war zone and had this occurred while I was awake, I would be only mildly inconvenienced by whatever task was momentarily interrupted. What bothers me is the feeling of violation, the feeling that my trailer is my only personal escape and that while at my most vulnerable, at the one time when you can seemingly let your guard down in Iraq, I am subjected to a gang of employees who can storm in my room at any time for ridiculous reasons, even while I'm shouting "Do Not Come In!"

Let me clarify that I am not afraid for my safety. I do not anticipate or sense anything sinister in these invasions. Rather, it is the total lack of privacy and the disregard for the sign that notifies visitors that, for a time, I have managed to escape from the challenging deployment life and find some rest. Instead I have been forced to develop a defense mechanism that has me up and running, screaming and scrambling at the slightest knocking sound. As far as PTSD goes, I'm not worried about this new adaptation. As far as letting your guard down? I guess that awake or asleep, that is simply not an option in Baghdad.

Friday, 15 August 2008

Arabian Nights

Happy Friday!

That doesn't have much significance for me anymore with no days off, but I can still remember the excitement or relief the day inspired! Life over here has begun to slip into what is called the "GroundHog Day Effect" usually accompanied by a sigh and an eye-roll. It refers to the endless repetition of days revolving around the same work, the same weather, the same surroundings. That being said, my team of four seems to be holding up well and we make an extra effort to make the days feel different. Lately though fate has thrown us a few curve balls that have made for some unexpected variation.

First off, about 2 weeks ago I exited my trailer for the usual hike to the bathroom when I noticed a sign on my door that read "Occupant, you have until August 8 to come to the Mayor's cell and sign for another room." On further investigation I saw that one of these signs was posted on almost every door in my row. Knowing that my room was secured until December, I rolled my eyes at the obvious error that had been made and the fact that I would have to truck over to the Mayor's cell to fix it. Boy, was I in for a shock when the Staff Sergeant a the Mayor's cell began by saying "Ahh yes, sorry for the trouble but we have a CID (Criminal Investigation Division) unit coming in and they need that front row of trailers for easy access by the MPs (military police)"...What?! And I just had the whole room debugged!  He informed me that I had a week to move and that I would be in the same "neighborhood" so to speak. Well that night, after my shift, I went to inspect the new trailer. I didn't bring a flashlight coming straight from work and after finding the trailer I fumbled with the key in the dark for almost 5 minutes. For the life of me I could not get the key into the hole. So I hiked all the way back to my trailer, got a flashlight, trooped back and after another several minutes of fumbling became convinced this was the wrong key. The next morning my teammate came by and goes over to try the key, definitely not mine. So we head back to billeting, explain that it's not the right key and then are directed to go back to the trailer and wait for the locksmith who proceeded to change the door handle and locks. And we venture inside the trailer...pardon the language, but it was a sh*t show. Hadn't been cleaned probably since we'd invaded. Sticky stains marked the floor, grime and crud in the wardrobes, trash strewn about the room , a single light bulb hanging from the ceiling, night stands whose drawers were broken and hanging off the tracks, a bed frame supported by cinder blocks...I went back over to the Mayor's cell, this time with smoke coming out my ears and fire bolts out my eyes, and wrangled the pug nosed, beady eyed sergeant into picking up his walkie-talkie and requesting a cleaning crew. The long and the short of it is that while the cleaning crew made a dent in my pig pen, The Brawny Man, Mr. Clean and I attacked the room on hands and knees for some time. The move itself was relatively uneventful and I can now say I am pleased with the outcome...only to hear yesterday that there are whisperings of moving us into an entirely different section of the base. Sigh.

Our other curve ball came just two nights ago when I finished my shift at 3am and went to start the car. After turning the key in the ignition, I began to get that sickening feeling as the control panel lit up, but the car didn't start: check battery, check gages, oil pressure low, Oh dear. After multiple more attempts, consulting my teammate, opening the hood to find a glowing green battery light and a few curse words, we resigned ourselves that the car wasn't going anywhere. I gathered myself for a rather heart-racing walk back to my trailer over a mile from the office in the war zone darkness. We spent a chaotic 12 hours trying to figure out how we would manage the walk to and from the office, getting food and the blazing heat when we somehow finagled a car from a sympathetic sergeant. Our vehicle is still at the shop, but we have the replacement at least until Saturday.

I also haven't mentioned the Wild Kingdom that is apparently our office. We have several lizards living in the trailer and since I can't tell them apart I have named them all Bill. I have made several attempts at catching the "Bills" and making him my pet but I have been successful as of yet :-(  I want an animal to love ... a lizard's probably not my first choice though. We also had a delightful experience the other day with the many creepy crawlies here. My teammate Kris and I were doing case work in the office when all of a sudden there is a sharp scream from the phone center. We slowly look at each other and then Kris gets up and walks out to investigate. When she doesn't return promptly I approach the door and peer my head around the corner. On the phone directly in front of me, crawling up the handle as though trying to figure out how to make his call, was a white spider about the size of a silver dollar. Everyone in the canteen was frozen including the macho warriors with their guns, fixated on our creepy caller. I jokingly asked the guys to shoot it which broke the paralysis spell and finally one of the guys used the barrel of his gun to sweep it off the phone while another proceeded to stomp on in, which mind you, given the size of that thing made for a juicy aftermath!

A final story worth sharing involved the cousin (whom I'd never met) of a close friend of mine, who stopped in the office and asked my team leader if I would be able to take part in a Purple Heart Ceremony and pin on his Combat Action Badge! I, of course, was most excited about this prospect until it dawned on us the ceremony was "outside the wire" and the request was immediately shot down. We are, under no circumstances, to leave the base. An exceedingly frustrating rule. Alas. 

So that's an update for now. On a final note, I've cut 6 inches off my hair. Not exactly my length of preference but far exceeding in terms of practicality. We didn't have any real grooming sheers so we used rather dull office scissors and I ended up finishing it off with a knife. Rather barbaric sounding I know, but out here, just sort of adds to the experience!
Hope you are enjoying the smell of grass, the feel or rain and the Olympics!

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Ali Baba and the 40 Fleas

Jambo! (Ugandan for hell0-I'm doing my best to make friends with the Ugandan soldiers contracted to guard the DFAC, gym, etc because the Red Cross does not get normal military Common Access Cards. We get held up all the time and made to show our orders verifying we are allowed to use the dining facilities. Do they think I randomly hoped on a plane to Baghdad and thought I'd try my luck for dinner at one of the cafeterias? Baffling :-)

Anyways! The days here are flying by. I was told by many to be prepared to be lonely and bored in my off hours, but that has been far from my experience thus far. I feel like I don't have two seconds to spare. I'm finally settling into somewhat of a routine, with the sleep adjustment coming as the hardest part. I get off of work at 3:00am and usually drive straight to the gym where I can work out relatively uninterrupted by fellows who think I flew halfway around the world to meet them for a date at the Green Bean Coffee. After the gym I drive back to my CHU (hooch/trailer), slip the keys under the next teammate's door and then head to bed. I sleep typically from 5:00am to 2:00pm though lately I have been woken up by the TV set of my apparently deaf next door neighbor-contractor who also never seems to work. I finally left him a note the other day and he promises to keep it down. When I get up I usually have some free time to myself to watch TV, read or play on the computer. I run errands like laundry or get items from the PX, go exploring in the Ford, to the Hodgie shops for pirated movies, or go to the pool.

Other challenges include (and Don I give you full permission to laugh your head off) the sand fleas that seem to find me a particularly attractive bedmate. I went through the whole lovely production of having the bug guys come (he looked like the scientist from Area 51 in Independence Day). They nuked my room with chemicals, decided I didn't have an infestation but just a knack for attracting them. And I am still getting bites from the pesky vermin so I am perpetually washing my sheets and spraying the 30% military Deet around the room which the Area 51 guy told me was illegal in the States. Excellent, cancer before 30. Many of you have asked about the heat. It's basically too hot to sweat. My cheeks sting when I go outside and there's definitely a smoky smell in the air. August could go up to the 130s before the temp starts to fall again in late September. The thing is, since it's the military you are just expected to deal with it so while we all complain about it, in never really stops you from doing anything. Basically, I'm chalking it up to character building.

Meantime, my teammate Greta and I have officially staked a claim at the Australian pool, the pool that I told many of you was reportedly closed. The pool is, in fact, open but alas is far more of a spring break hang out than a fitness pool.  It's shaped like an L, probably 15-20 meters both ways and filled with testosterone overloaded, sexually frustrated, seemingly intoxicated men whose lecherous staring could make a doorknob blush. Nevertheless, I am rather bullheaded when it comes to the pool and consider it MY domain that they are invading so I persist. The location of the pool is actually quite beautiful set on an island in one of Saddam's lakes that can only be accessed by walking across a 50 meter dock. Greta and I dubbed it "the plank" i.e. everyone at the pool gets a runway preview of the newest addition to the pool party. We go to the pool a few times a week and on the weekends as well. It almost feels like being on vacation... except for the BlackHawk Helopad that is right across the water. 

Sundays are turning into our adventure day. Two Sundays ago we were treated to a visit with the Specialized Search Dogs (SSD). These amazing dogs, mostly labs and spaniels, are trained to sniff out bombs and IEDs. They are also big lovers because they are not trained attack dogs so we got to pet and snuggle to our hearts content. We were given a demonstration outside and it took the pup only a few minutes to locate the "IED". This past Sunday we took the Slayer Camp Tour which is the base that contains almost all of Saddam's palaces and important buildings. We happened to come on an extremely crowded day, there must have been close to 100 people on the tour and it was easily 120 degrees. It was an exhausting but incredible day. We started at the Victory Over America Palace which is indeed an ironic name. Saddam built it after Desert Storm the rationale being that even though he was promptly defeated he was still in power and thus, the victor. It must have been a jaw-dropping palace. It is, in fact, connected to the Victory of Iran palace (another example of Saddam's victory in the Iran/Iraq war) but they were both destroyed by the Air Force in 2003. We also saw the palaces built for Saddam's mistresses, mother-in-laws, the brothel for the Ba'ath party members as well as the Ba'ath Party House. The Ba'ath Party House was an enlightening experience for me with some familiarity of Middle Eastern history. The building must have been stunningly beautiful, built out on the water, with a water courtyard and all the surrounding rooms with floor to ceiling windows. Incredible a building so beautiful was used for such evil. We saw the infamous "pool room" where political prisoners i.e. anyone, was tortured and eliminated by Uday, Qusay, Saddam and the party members. Now all the remains is the skeleton of that building, bombed by the Air Force and Navy in 2003. 

Things are great at the office. Soldiers, contractors and generous people are always bringing us stuff to make our lives and the soldier's lives easier. Last week we had a group of Air Force guys bring us a 10 ft inflatable pool and just the other day we got a shipment of Girl Scout cookies that caused general euphoria. We are perpetually asked when we are going to get another shipment of Starbucks coffee or AT & T calling cards, courtesy of our corporate partnerships. By far the hardest part about our work is the connectivity. The phone lines go down, the internet goes offline, the satellites fall out of orbit (?) and meantime the cases roll on in, the office is packed and a nine hour shift goes by in the blink of an eye.

I don't mean to make it sound like a walk in the park here. It is an extremely stressful job with the pressure to deliver the emergency messages as fast a possible, often with ridiculous addresses like "Baghdad, Iraq" (well that narrows it down!) And when you have someone whose father is going to die in 48 hours or a suicide case where the family is counting on you to save their loved one by contacting the command in time, you can feel the gravity of the work we do. We also do not get any days off while we're here so there is no time to recover. This is coupled with living in a war zone and all that you can imagine is associated with that. But I think that dwelling on these aspects over here would make for a torturous 4.5 months so instead you are seeing life as I am looking at it. If you have any questions or are curious about the war part I am happy to talk about it, but for the sake of those who worry, feel free to disregard (MOM!)

Thanks for all the thoughtful emails and letters.  

Friday, 11 July 2008

Welcome to the Sandbox

Greetings from Baghdad, a breezy 117 degrees!

I arrived safely this past Sunday morning after a delightful weekend of traveling.  I had spent the previous week a the CONUS Replacement Center (CRC) in Ft. Benning, GA to complete the processing to go downrange.  It was a rather exhausting week with long days of paperwork, needle pricks and classes. I spent the 4th of July on lockdown in an airport hanger at Ft. Benning. It was sort of like being camped out in a giant convention center and their strategy to keep us pacified was to perpetually feed us all day long. We were given the green light to fly out that evening around 6pm. We had a 6 hour flight to Ireland, a 4 hour layover, then another 6 hour flight to Kuwait City. From there we traveled in a blackout convoy an hour outside the city to Ali Al Salem air base. We arrived on base at 11:00pm, were given a 10 minute break and then were told to form 6 lines and unload the cargo trucks that carried our some 600 duffel bags! By this time I was on my 1,000th wind so I was pretty cheerful about this midnight workout. After another series of paperwork and tents we found out that we would be flying out at 8:00am that morning. We were up all night exploring and then at 7:30am we boarded a C-17 for Baghdad. Truthfully, I don't remember much of the flight because we were in our body armor, Kevlar helmet and long uniforms (oh, and did I mention I was issued winter blouses?) and there was no air conditioning in the back of that tin contraption and we roasted on the runway for over an hour. The last thing I remember was starting to feel the plane move for take off and then I passed out from the heat. Next thing I remember was a jolt and my head flying forward as we went into maneuvers for landing.

It took a few days to settle in but I would say I at least have a good sense of the area where I live and work. The hooch is across the street from the laundry facility, gym and MWR (Morale, Welfare and Recreation--basically a rec-center) and about a minute walk to the women's latrine. There are several DFACs (cafeterias) close by, the PX is about a 10 minute walk and then our office is another 10 min from there. We also own a Ford Explorer that we rotate around so we have a method of transport around base. There are multiple, interconnecting bases here in Baghdad: Liberty, Victory, Stryker, Slayer and other smaller ones. It is like an international city here with mostly Americans, but a good presences of Brits and Australians. Ugandan guards have been contracted to work security at the buildings and there is a whole mix of international folks that are employed by KBR (Kellogg, Brown and Root) who work the laundry, dining facilities, post etc. 

I am really enjoying the company of my teammates and I love the work here. One of the other girls is my age and we have become fast friends. My shift is 6:00pm to 3:00am, which, although later into the morning than I would have liked (the sun comes up here at 4:30am) is the shift I requested. We get the most foot traffic in the office during those hours with soldiers coming in to use the internet cafe, phones or to hang out in the canteen and we also get the heaviest case load of emergency messages to deliver at this time as well. This is understandable as it is peak daytime hours in the States. The shift goes quite fast and I look forward to it everyday.