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:

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 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 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!