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 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.