Thursday, 9 July 2009

Tuesday, 30 June 2009

The Best Thing I have done in Iraq

After spending nine months of the last year in Iraq, I have to say that today made every single stress or horror or exhaustion worth undertaking a deployment. Today I had the opportunity to assist the 25th Infantry Division, Special Troops Battalion play host to about 30 children, ages 5-8, from the Orphanage House in Tikrit. The day was meant as a community service outreach between the U.S. Military on COB Speicher and the local Iraqis in the town of Tikrit. It was an ironic choice of day, as last night fireworks went off in Baghdad to celebrate the removal of US troops from Iraqi cities and towns. But as one Iraqi official today me today, "Today we are not thinking about that, today we are thinking about the children."

The day was off to a hectic start as my teammate and I, both night shift workers, decided to forgo the morning activities for some sleep and meet up with the festivities for lunch. We arrived at our building around 1:00pm while the children and other guests were having lunch in the courtyard. As we dropped off our belongings in the Red Cross office we were hijacked by the Air Forces Security Forces, our equivalent to MPs on base, and told they needed to do a contraband inspection of our rooms...NOW. Grumbling, Deb and I trudged back out to the car with the police as our escort back to our CHUs to do this contraband inspection.

Half an hour later we were back at the building, just in time to see the children and soldiers on their way to the gym for a carnival. We got re-situated and then drove to the gym ourselves. The Main Gym had been converted into a carnival with lots of different stations around the large room. There was bowling, a foot ball toss, a crafts station, guess the number of jelly beans in the bottle, a dunk tank, and a fishing station where kids threw a fishing line over a painted piece of wood and then reeled in their "fish" which was some sort of prize.

All the prizes had been donated and the generosity was extraordinary. People had donated radios, dolls, beads, yo-yos, there was tons of candy and treats. Our office had donated much of the arts and crafts supplies and although that was our official station to support, the entire gym was mass chaos and everyone migrated to whatever the children were doing. The hilarious thing was that the kids didn't need the stations to entertain themselves. They managed to find the soccer and volleyballs normally used at the gym and soon, games of each type had broken out around the room. They'd also gotten into the store of inflatable fitness balls and in many cases the balls were larger than the kids.

The children themselves were heartbreaking. To be honest, I spent the entire time not knowing if I should laugh or cry. I have not seen a child since before I deployed some 5 months ago and their energy and innocence and sincerity with which they rolled, and kicked and laughed made my heart want to burst. These were war orphans and many of them bore the scars of their pasts. A few children were missing limbs, several were mentally disabled, they were all unclean and in need of a bath and new clothes. They bore scratches and scrapes and looked up at you with at once the saddest and most excited eyes.

I let them lead me around the gym, sit in my lap, I tried desperately to understand what the wanted and when we both got frustrated I would search for a translator. The children were accompanied by probably 15-20 adults. Three individuals, two women and one man, actually worked at the orphanage and when I was introduced to the Special Needs teacher, a woman shrouded in black, eyes darkened with kohl, she shook my hand and then kissed me on both cheeks.

I was introduced to a Colonial in the Iraqi government, who, with the help of a translator told me that support from the orphanage came from all over, from the Iraqi government and the American military, from humanitarians and NGOs. He told me that the children really needed this day. He had wanted to introduce me to another official who he worked with, but he jokingly pointed to the arts and crafts table and said that he was busy "coloring" and sure enough this official was surrounded by a gaggle of little girls with crayons. I teasingly asked if he had any daughters and the official looked at me mischievously and said that he had two wives, 5 children by one and 6 children by the other. Alrighty then!

Afterwards, the same translator and I had a long conversation about the state of Iraq and the US military. She was neither a fan of American men or Iraqi men and she shared some very insightful and somewhat horrifying stories of her experiences with both men. It was an enlightening conversation, to say the least.

After an hour the kids were starting to slow down. The 25 ID band had been playing the whole event and a crowd have gathered by the band to dance. As things wound down, the crowd split into two groups as there were two pinatas tied to each basketball hoop. The girls went to one and the boys went to the other and what proceeded was hilarious as these tiny children attempted to break down the pinatas. At the end of the event, the kids, already loaded down with all their prizes and treats were each given a backpack and a smaller pouch filled with more gifts. Lots of pictures were taken and the adults were attempting to prevent tantrums as the tired kids were led back out to their bus.

It was absolutely the most fulfilling day I have spent in this country and every hardship was forgotten as I watched these children, with no home, and no loving parents run around the gym on a US military base and hold hands with the soldiers as though the war never was.

Wednesday, 17 June 2009


So it is currently 11:12 at night and I am literally trapped at the office in a dust storm that has shut down the entire base. It hit when I was eating dinner at the DFAC and although the large rooms clouded over with the brownish orange dust particles I still ventured out to get back to the office on time. Approximately 20 yards from the DFAC the decision was made for me, I could not see anything, the wind was blowing mercilessly and I was looking at at least a 5-10 min walk. Defeated, I scurried back inside the DFAC, forced to wait another half an hour. The second time I attempted to get back to the office, the wind had lessened somewhat but the walk was brutal, sand infiltrated every orifice of my body and my eyes were in agony as I tried to navigate my way back to the office.
Once back, I found that the smoke alarm in the canteen was being triggered by the dust and it went off every 5 min until another Army guy and I literally removed it from the ceiling. The dust was so thick in the building that I could not see 10 feet down my hallway, there was enough dust on the floor to literally write messages (I wrote HI ;-) and as I was entering the rest room, two soldiers walked out wrapped from their neck up like mummies!
At 10:40 my poor teammate came tumbling in the office. It had taken her 35 min to drive the normal 5 min to the office and after multiple near car accidents she insisted that I remain at the office. To top it off, I got an email from a friend who works in my building saying the Garrison had issued a statement saying driving conditions are code Black = No Driving! So here I am, pining for food and a shower, loving the crazy country...

Saturday, 6 June 2009

The Boxing Smoker

Last night was the Boxing Smoker VI showdown held at the Main Gym. Our COB Speicher boxed 11 matches against opponents from the neighboring FOB Summerall. A bunch of my friends were heading over as well and I managed to find them almost right when I walked into the gym, sitting on the first row of the bleachers, front and center. I wasn't exactly sure what to expect from the event, having never been to a boxing match before combined with the fact that military events can be somewhat stuffy and uncomfortable. The Boxing Smoker COULD not have been farther this impression.

After squeezing in on the bleachers I surveyed the scene through the dimmed lights and realized that the entire gym swirled with the smoke of a thousand cigars circulating amongst the crowd. Brown bottles of near beer (probably the only inauthentic part of the evening) occupied most hands and MWR employees hawked complimentary bottles of water, Gatorade and bags of pop corn. A boxing ring had been set up in the center of the gym with a judges table slightly off to one side and the crowd was set up on three sides of the ring with standing room only in the back against the walls and on the second floor above the bleachers.

I confess I know nothing about boxing and could make no sense of the "One-two, one-two!" that everyone kept yelling, but I'm sharp enough to know when someone's winning and someone's losing and I cheered like crazy with the crowd. I wasn't able to stay for the whole event because I was still on shift, which figures because after I left there was a knock out, but it was by the far the best Friday night I've had in Iraq, hands down!

Friday, 5 June 2009


This morning I was invited to play football and volleyball with our Intelligence & Sustainability (I & S)company who's office is just out front of ours. I had mentioned in passing to their captain how much I missed playing volleyball since in Baghdad I played every Friday morning with the med unit. So Friday's for the I & S company is game day instead of regular PT and meeting up with them worked out great for me because they play at 5:00am which is just at the end of my day.

At 4:45am I walked the half mile from my CHU to the stadium and by the time I got there they were already playing so I waited to sub-in when someone wanted a break. Unfortunately, the unit did not reserve the field so I got to play for only 10 min, before we got kicked off the field BUT I made a play! Wahoo! We then switched to volleyball, playing another unit who I guess is a regular opponent. Holy Lord did we get slaughtered. The other team was comprised of 6 foot tall swarthy guys and we were a bunch of short misfits. In our defence, a sandstorm began kicking up during our game and by the end of it, you couldn't even judge where a serve would land, because the wind decided to play with it. It is now horrendous outside, everything tinged orange and visibility down to 50 meters. But I guess losing 0-15, 1-15 and 6-15 is pretty indicative that we lost.

Sunday, 31 May 2009

The Real Memorial Day

So apparently the MWR decided to reschedule the Memorial Day 5k run so that is actually occurred on Memorial Day, the 31 of May. It ended up being one of those strange occurrences where you feel like you're really moving, flying down the road, legs charging, lungs pumping, thinking to yourself, "I can't wait to get to the finish and see my time! I must have dropped a chunk of time". As the finish line approaches you let loose with everything you have left, everything in you burning as you fight those last yards to the white line. And then you look at the clock and see that you're actually slower than the last 5k you ran when you felt sluggish. Although the satisfaction of running the race and feeling alive isn't are left wondering if you really just have no control over your performance or if someone started the clock late ;-)

Monday, 25 May 2009

On The Day of Remembrance

For a day that honors those who have died in service to our nation, I had an extremely uneventful day of memoriam while working in a war zone...apart from the fact that I stayed up the whole night before Memorial Day after my shift to run the Memorial Day 5k, which I discovered once at the Main Gym had been summarily cancelled with out warning for no given reason. On to the 4th of July then!

Saturday, 23 May 2009

A Much Needed Pool Party

Today brought the long-awaited for Pool Party with Boe, the Combat Stress Dog. A Combat Stress dog is a relatively new program in the military and the dog's purpose is to serve as a therapy dog for the servicemembers, relieving stress and increasing morale. Although we had originally hoped to have the party earlier in the deployment, collecting supplies from over in Iraq proved time-consuming and by the time we set the date the party essentially became Boe's going away party (she goes home in a week). This worked to our advantage however, as people made an extra effort to venture out on an extra hot day .

I set my alarm this morning for 10:15am which is significantly earlier than when I normally arise, but there was lots of set-up to do. My teammate picked me up at 11:30am. We arrived at the office and began setting up plastic tables and chairs in the courtyard and laying tarps that would protect the delicate grass from the pool, a kiddie pool approx 5 feet in circumference. We decorated the gazebo and tables with leis and little rubber duckies. We had Hawaiian patterned table clothes, cocktail umbrellas and paw-print napkins. At 1:00pm we headed over to the DFAC to pick up the fruit and dessert trays plus the drinks that we ordered. This was in addition to bags of chips, pretzels, cookies and Fla-v-or Ice pops that we'd purchased. The desserts immediately began melting in the 108 degree heat so we dropped the food back at the office before heading to the ice point to get the much needed bags of cubes.

The ice point was blissfully cool as a KBR employee hauled bags of ice from a industrial sized freezer. 20 bags later we were back at the office trucking ice bags out to our giant cooler that would house the bottle of water and juice we were going to serve. A little before 2:00pm our guest of honor, Boe, the black lab, arrived with her entourage. She started racing around the courtyard like a crazed maniac and at first didn't seem to understand the concept that the pool was for her! She would tentatively stick her snout in the water and then back away as though she was doing something wrong. Only by the end did we have her dunking.

Our guests began arriving right at 2:00pm and from there on out the party was thriving. We had a great turn out, with at least 50 people attending over the course of an hour and a half. People definitely came to say goodbye to Boe, but ended up staying to socialize and with the arrival of the Air Force (and the longer people stayed out in the merciless afternoon heat) a water war began between the Air Force and the Army using the many water guns we had supplied. The whole thing was hilarious with several of the officers getting involved referring to the water guns as "pistols". Boe was clearly the highlight of the party as everyone migrated to whatever she was doing, and she ate like a celebrity getting little nibbles of whatever a guest was eating in addition to the doggie bacon strips we'd bought her.

At 3:45- 15 mins after the party's end- we still had people hanging around which is a sure sign of a party's success. The Air Force guys that instigated the war, now soaked from head to toe, offered to stay late with me and clean up so with their help clean up was a breeze. All in all, I had a fabulous time at the party (even though I got sunburned with my hat on!) and really without intending it, our party made this holiday weekend feel real for me, when most holidays out here feel like just any other day.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

No Turning Back

I accidentally opened the temperature feature on my computer this morning, a program that I try to avoid to maintain some sanity in the midst of the furnace that is Iraq in the summer. Too late, I looked at the temperature for today, 113 degrees...and it only gets worse :-(

Saturday, 16 May 2009

In Honor of Armed Forces Day

This morning (although for me technically it was the late evening) I got up after a 4 hour "nap" to participate in the Beach to Bay 10k hosted by the 211th Hurricane unit out of Corpus Christi, Texas. The race started at 0600 and the weather couldn't have been  better, clear and sunny, but with a relatively cool breeze that kept up throughout the race. I was a little concerned about holding up for 6.2 miles having only ever run that distance in Iraq on a treadmill.  But the run was ideal. I started off slow and steady, held my pace and gradually pushed myself so that I had enough left to sprint the last mile. No better way to spend a Saturday morning (Friday night ;-)

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

A Red Letter Day

I woke up this morning already filled with the excitement of having our May Birthday celebration this afternoon, but surprise after surprise made today just one of those red letter days, when your on top of the wheel. When my alarm went off this morning I rolled out of bed and headed for the bathroom. I opened my door to find an enormous box there waiting for me. It was a care package from my mom. Forgetting the bathroom I climbed back in bed with the box and proceeded to tear into it like a crazed toddler. I was cheered into wakefulness by the site of fudge, snacks, toiletries, the Sex and the City DVDs I had ordered from Amazon plus tons of supplies for our upcoming pool party including a Frisbee, water guns, goggles and an inner tube.

My day considerably brightened, I got out of bed again, this time to check my email. HOSPITAL VISIT TODAY (!) was the newest email in my inbox. I quickly skimmed the message and learned that the Colonel of our 47th Combat Support Hospital (CASH) had stopped by the office that morning and alerted our team leader that there were several patients who could use a morale visit. Not wanting to disappoint, I flew to the shower, got ready and then hurried to the office by 2:00pm where I dropped off the fudge and snacks, checked in with my team leader who indicated he needed the car by 3:30pm and then I was off to the CASH.

I wasn't really nervous for my first hospital visit knowing I could rely on my extroverted social skills to take over, but I also had no idea where I was going or who to report to. The CASH has a very complex layout. It is essentially a confusing series of interconnected tents and buildings within the confines of concrete T-walls and sand bags. I ventured into the maze and with puppy-dog eyes approached the first confident looking military human being. Turns out I got a First Sergeant (who, if you're unaware, is one of the highest ranking enlisted servicemembers) who happily guided me through the hodge-podge to the desk of the Colonel who contact us earlier. Unfortunately, the Colonel had just gone to chow, so the First Sergeant basically took me to the ICW (Intermmediate Care Ward) where the patients were located, told the Commanding Office (XO) that I was okay to do morale visits and left me to it!

So! Semi-confidently I went into the Ward and noticed there were about 5 patients lying on various beds so I moved towards the first guy that made eye contact with me. He ended up being an extremely chatty fellow who was in serious need of some company and after talking with him for 20 min I felt relaxed enough to move among the patients. I started my conversation with all of them by asking if they wanted company, that way they could easily say no if there weren't feeling well. Everyone was surprisingly friendly and conversational. I met a girl who was my age, a mechanic in the army who loved the military and her job and told me about her difficulties with her family support and her fear of having children. I met another fellow who was an Army brat and had lived his childhood all over the world including New Zealand while his father supported the US military in Antarctica. There was also a very formidable looking patient behind a cloth screen who, when I entered, was being visited by an entourage of Iraqi police officers. They had brought an extravagant bouquet of flowers and I was dying to know his story, but since the screen implied he was of some importance and he spent most his timing bossing around the staff, I didn't think he really needed a visitor ;-)

At 3:20 I had to drag myself away from the last patient so I could get the car back to the office so Peter could deliver another million pounds of Starbucks coffee to a requesting unit. Back at the office I made the final rounds through our birthday supplies and at 4:50 Deb and Peter came to the office to load up the car. Deb and I proceeded to the DFAC where we met the Air Force fellows who had volunteered to help us and hawk the event to people coming into the DFAC. We spent about an hour setting up, decorating the room, organizing our raffle and giveaways. The event began at 6:30 and we had a good turn out. We sang, and did our raffle around 7:10 and by 7:30 the Air Force guys and I were playing keep away with the zillion balloons we blew up.

Then it was back to the office to work the final three hours of my shift and to top it all off, my girlfriends and I booked out trip to Puerto Rico in August. We found a great deal at the Ritz-Carlton so I'm headed to bed with dreams of aqua-marine waters and twinkling margarita glasses!

Monday, 11 May 2009

Safe & Well

The American Red Cross is safe and well and thinking of those in Baghdad. 

Friday, 8 May 2009

We Are the AU Eagles

The military dining halls in Iraq, DFACs, are essentially an enormous cafeteria with two entrances, one on either end of the building. After scanning your ID you process along one wall where you pick up your tray and eating utensils and then you approach the various food service islands where you can eat anything from burgers to water melon to salmon. Because the DFACs would be rather Spartan without some decoration, it has become the trend to adorn the white washed walls with University flags and insignia. On both my deployments now, in Baghdad and Tikrit, I have been in almost a dozen DFACs and never once have I sign the flag of my Alma mater, American University.

I thought I'd change that. I wrote to my Athletic Department and asked if they has any flag they my spare to send to me. As it turns out, they had just acquired an enormous one from public safety and promised they'd get it off to me right away. My flag arrived this week and tonight we took it over to the North DFAC on COB Speicher to present for display. It case you are unfamiliar, the American University flag is half red and half blue with a giant, interlocking AU in the center- extremely difficult to miss. It is now the largest flag on display in the DFAC and perhaps the only AU flag in Iraq ( I can't claim that title with any certainty as I've yet to eat in every DFAC in the country ;-) Go AU!

You can see a picture of the flag here!

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Three's Company

Well, it's official. The Tikrit station is permanently a team of three. Previously, the three Red Cross stations in Iraq; Baghdad, Balad and Tikrit deployed in teams of 4 people and Afghanistan and Kuwait in teams of 3. However, given the recent influx of troops into Afghanistan combined with a new Red Cross office under construction, it was decided that the Afghan team needed a 4th person. Because our station has the lightest load of emergency message traffic among the Iraqi stations, it was determined that Tikrit would lose a team member to join the team in Afghanistan. Our 4th teammate Gene began his travels to Afghanistan on May 2 and today we got the word that after 6 days of travel he made is safely to Bagram, Afghanistan. Thus begins the remainder of my deployment in the company of three.

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

The 47th CASH

This evening my team and I were invited to attend the Opening Ceremony of Nurse's Week hosted by the 47th Combat Support Hospital (CASH). National Nurses Week is May 6-12 annually and our 47th CASH includes some 52 nurses and over 100 medics. The American Red Cross was asked to donate giveaways to the event and as a result we were asked to be guests at the Opening Ceremonial dinner this evening in the Main Dining Facility.

I wasn't quite sure what to expect, but the evening went nothing how I'd imagined. First off, we were the last ones to slip in before the 6:00pm start and the room was absolutely packed, over 150 people. We were escorted to seats front and center and were placed right next to Lieutenant Colonel Ramos, the head nurse. As soon as we sat down, the ceremony began and the Red Cross was singled out and promptly asked to stand again in front of the entire audience to be recognized for out contribution to the event.

We sat down a second time, only to snap back up to attention with the rest of the attendees as the General entered the room. He made humble gestures for all of us to sit as he took the podium and made his opening remarks. He related the now infamous event at our CASH on Easter morning when three causalities were brought in, one was already gone, another was saved with some minor injuries and the last soldier survived...but as a paraplegic. It was quite a speech.

From there we moved onto dinner and I found myself wrapped in discussion with LTC Ramos. I asked her how often the CASH received causalities like the dramatic ones Easter morning and she surprised me by saying every couple of weeks. She revealed heart-breaking stories of soldiers being brought in, dying on the operating table and begging to call their families, but she explained they didn't have a phone. Naively, I thought the problem could be fixed by simply asking communications for the technology. No, she explained, dying soldiers cannot say goodbye to their families. Such contact would alarm the families when the call is disconnected and the frantic families would then call Red Cross to initiate a health and welfare message. If the servicemember does die, then Red Cross cannot verify or pass the message because only the Department of the Army can inform a family of a casualty. I was too speechless to respond.

After dinner, there was cake cutting and a photo slide show, and finally a newly appointed full- bird Colonel was chosen to be the guest speaker. As he prefaced his remarks, he promised his speech would be short because the physicians in the room had already warned him they wouldn't tolerate a rambling soliloquy. As he said this the doctors sitting behind me pulled out their pistols and cocked them! Everyone in the room cracked up and I had to wonder if those weapons were loaded! On the whole, it was a really fun evening and perhaps most importantly, I had been given the opportunity to see life in Iraq from another perspective, from those who see at face value the butchery of war and who truly fight, in the most basic sense, to preserve life.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Cinco de Mayo Madness

Since fighting the Groundhog Day effect is an ongoing battle while deployed, you find yourself willing to make sacrifices to do things that will liven your day. Today, the North DFAC was having a Cinco de Mayo fiesta during their lunch hours-- a meal that normally I am sound asleep through. But my teammate and I decided we needed to spice things up, so I got up 3 hours early and she, as the night shifter, stayed up late so we could go. But things did not go as easily as planned.

At exactly 9:46am (the middle of my night) the smoke detector started going off in the room next to me. I was up like a jack rabbit since a fire in our enormously interconnected CHUs would be devastating. After a solid minute of sniffing the air and listening for crackling all I heard was the racket of the guy next to me trying to turn it off. After a lot of scuffling he got the thing silenced. He left the room. 15 min later it was back at it. I shoved my ear plugs in, pulled the pillows over my head and shut my eyes.

When I woke up about an hour and a half later it was still blaring. I grumbled against it's inconvenience and headed to the shower. I flipped the shower on and was most distressed to learn that with the water turned as hot as it would go, it was no warmer than my University pool. No! I looked at our hot water heater and sure enough, the thing was ca put, on zero. I grumbled some more and decided to wash my hair and face using the nozzle, without getting my body wet. As the water got progressively browner, I knew our water heater was dead.

I entered my torture chamber to get dressed while the alarm continued it's mind-altering repetitious beeps. Soon my teammate and I were ready to depart and she looked at me and said "Be ready, it's ugly out there." Sure enough we're in the midst of a full blown dust storm. Visibility 25-100 meters, the base command even sent out a bad weather warning! Not to be discouraged, we headed over to the DFAC for some celebrating.

As it happened, the place was packed despite the weather and the military and KBR did a great job with the event. They had a pinata strung up from the ceiling, a DJ blasting everything from Shakira to Pit Bull to Juanes, with couples dancing to the more traditional tunes. In an attempt to liven the celebration, (in the noticeable absence of the standard alcoholic beverages) we had Sangria made with Sparkling apple cider, sprite and slices of apples. The had tons of cake available, and bizarrely their main entree was fried chicken which I'm pretty sure is not a Mexican staple. The highlight of the event came when this burly guy was taking a monster swing at the pinata, missed, and sent the broom handle flying into the tables of diners and spectators. Everyone ducked with the military precision of an incoming rocket and the military decided that was the end of the pinata!

We only stayed about 45 min, my teammate at the end of a long day and myself slightly traumatised and sleep deprived, but it was worth the sacrifices. Sometimes what you go through makes the experience that much more memorable.

Saturday, 2 May 2009

The Polar Bear Swim

I don't want outages to become a trend in my blog writing, but I wanted to share a particularly entertaining one. This morning my alarm went off about 1:30pm and sleepily I trudged into our bathroom to shower. As I flipped up the nozzle all I got were pitiful noises of strangulation emitting from the spout. Damn. They shut the water off! Usually we are privy to these disruptions via base wide email the day before, but apparently this was an emergency shut off.

Had I known that we'd be without water I'd have done one of two things: A. showered the night before or B. taken out several of the bottled waters we kept stocked in our fridge to warm up so I could wash my hair and brush my teeth. Since this was a sneak attack and I had not showered the night before my only option for personal hygiene was to use the positively frigid bottled waters from our fridge, and I mean icy--like the waters on the shelf closest to the freezer have ice shavings in them! In a helpless effort to warm up the ice cold waters I set a few of them on the steps to our CHU hoping the indirect sunlight would do the trick.

No such luck. Brushing my teeth was the easiest part because of minimal skin contact. Washing my face was exceedingly more painful as my face was burned and puffy from the cold. But washing my hair gave a whole new meaning to the term "brain freeze". It took me 5 full two liter bottles just to wet and shampoo (not even conditioner) my hair and by the time I was on the second bottle I had to grit my teeth as I poured the bottle onto my head, my hands stinging and once I finished I was literally dancing around the bathroom in pain rubbing my scalp to try massage away the needles.

I have to say this is way better than an alarm clock, but definitely not the most pleasant way to start your day!

Sunday, 26 April 2009

Are You Afraid of the Dark?

If you are currently, on COB Speicher I hope not! You may be aware that the military has come under fire in the last year for at least 18 soldiers being electrocuted while in the shower due to faulty wiring. You can read more about this here:

As a result, right after our arrival end of March electrical ground crews have been perpetually taping signs to CHU doors stating that electricity would be periodically and without warning cut to conduct inspections. While I was under the impression that this would just be in our LSA (housing neighborhood) the last few days the power has been going off frequently and without warning. Yesterday afternoon it went out for about and hour and a half in my room and then again later on my shift at the office, leaving the only light coming from my computer monitor running on it's battery. It went off again this afternoon for about an hour entirely shutting down one of the dining halls and then again tonight on my shift for just a few minutes.

Although only an inconvenience now, potentially delaying casework and resetting clocks, I'd rather go through this while the temperature is in the upper 80s/90s than when we hit the 120 mark!

Sunday, 19 April 2009

Fire on the Mountain

Although celebrity tours in Iraq are quite common, I have never had the opportunity to attend any of the concerts or meet and greets, apart from my aeronautical adventures with the WWE. Tonight, however, I finally had the chance to take advantage of one of the only perks in being deployed: free concerts from amazing performers... and the Charlie Daniels Band did not disappoint. I've discovered that if you've never heard of the Charlie Daniels Band I need only mention the song "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" which appears in a bar scene from the movie Coyote Ugly and most people in my generation recognize the singer with whom I'm referring.

Anyways! The concert was supposed to be outside at the stadium but we've been having these incredible mutant dust/thunderstorm combinations and apparently Charlie Daniels caught wind of one such dust storm in Balad and requested that his performance in Tikrit be moved inside. Our Red Cross team was lucky enough to have another station cover our queue of emergency messages so we all headed over to the gym and managed to snag great seats front and center on the bleachers.

The concert was really fantastic. Although it seemed like I was the only Yank in the crowd (the audience went ballistic when he played "A Few More Rednecks") his energy was amazing for a 72 year-old and he even played Johnny Cash's Folsom Prison Blue's which got everyone going. He also played the most superb rendition of the Star Spangled Banner I have ever heard. It was acoustic with Charlie playing fiddle accompanied by two guitars, drums and keyboard. The crowd stood and with so many in uniform, shoulders straight, heads high as the fiddle sang, it was quite possibly the most patriotic moment of my life. Nothing short of goosebumps. He closed with the Devil Went Down to Georgia and I couldn't get it out of my head all night.

Sunday, 12 April 2009

An Easter Birthday

My Easter weekend was exhausting and enjoyable. Saturday was my team's first experience with hosting the monthly birthday party for servicemembers and civilians. We took some risks with this event as previously the event was held in the MWR (Morale, Welfare and Recreation- essentially a Rec center) which is in the building where we work. The event was not very well attended according to the team we replaced so we decided to move the event to the DFAC because not only did we need to pick up the cake from the DFAC, but why not host the event where everyone already goes to eat?

So we reserved one of the overflow rooms in the DFAC and I went over early, at 4:00pm, to meet some of the Air Force guys who wanted to volunteer for the event and we went crazy decorating the room with streamers, balloons, candy and posters. We set up a gift table where those with birthdays could chose a gift, a red cross mug or water bottle plus a calling card and the chance to win our raffle which was two fleece blankets, and two gift certificates to the PX. We put in an Eagles CD and had a beautiful cake with real frosting. We stationed the Air Force guys at the doors to invite people with April birthdays and their friends to attend. Although the room was slow to fill up (we need to do it an hour later and on a weeknight!), by the end of the hour the room was relatively full and people really seemed to enjoy themselves and appreciate the event.

After the party I was back at the office to work the rest of my shift and then again found myself staying up until 5:45am so that I could run the Easter 5k at 6:30am. Unlike my inaugural Tikriti 5k, this morning was clear and cool. I met my running buddy at the stadium and since neither of us was feeling in top shape this morning our understanding was simply that we'd run it to finish. The run was gorgeous with clear blue sky and sunshine off to the West and for once, the mountains were visible in the East with purple clouds rolling in above their peaks.

Although we kept good pace, you can imagine my shock when I crossed the finish and had dropped over a minute since the last 5k!!! That was a welcome surprise! Afterwards it was a walk back to my CHU and 6 hours of sleep before I was up again to work my Easter shift. I had received a few Easter packages from friends and family so there was no lack of chocolate eggs and jelly beans. After a quiet shift, the night worker and I headed out to midnight chow and were treated to a stunning electrical storm that was sweeping across the desert plain. Words fail to explain the awesome power and beauty that ravaged the sky, but we decided to pull off the side of the road and just sit and watch the brillance as another Easter came to a close.

Saturday, 4 April 2009

Promotions & Pools & Pups

So I've had an unusually eventful 24 hours. You may have heard me reference what's known as "Groundhog Day syndrome" which is used to describe the lack of variation in daily routine while deployed due to that fact that there are no days off and the weather rarely varies. Apparently the groundhog has seen his shadow cause he's nowhere to be found!

First off, Friday afternoon I was invited to a friend's military promotion ceremony. She was being promoted to First Lieutenant at the most prominent and secure building on base because it houses the Garrison. I discovered this first hand when I attempted to breeze through the security checkpoint with my military ID and got thoroughly blocked by the Uganda guards who insisted I could not enter without the necessary badge. Fortunately there was an MP who overheard our conversation and he managed to get me an escort inside. The ceremony itself was somewhat surprising. Before the ceremony, held outside in the expansive gazebo, everyone was lounging and socializing and then LT Colonel, who presided over the event, showed up and everyone snapped to business and it became totally no-nonsense while she was promoted. Then afterwards, people broke out the cigars and dug into the food and it was back to chilling out.

After the promotion, I headed to the office to meet my teammate and together we were going to bring some video donations out to Freedom Rest which is an extremely unique aspect of the base where I reside. Freedom Rest is the military's equivalent of a resort where servicemembers can go when they receive their 4 day R & R which is too short to travel to the States. When we arrived at Freedom Rest we were lucky enough to be taken on a tour of the facility and it truly is the closest thing I have seen to a luxury setting (excluding the pre-existing palaces in Baghdad). The floors are shiny and tiled, the cherry couches are a glossy leather. The servicemembers can go and place their meal order off a menu where it's then delivered to them by a waiter. There is a movie theater, the most up to date technology and best of all, two Jacuzzis and a pool! The highlight of the trip came when our tour guide, a KBR employee said that since the servicemembers come on 4 day cycles there are the occasional off days when no one is there and she promised to email when the next one came up!

Finally, today my teammate and I got up early to play with the Combat Stress dog. You may remember when I was in Baghdad I was able to play with the Specialized Search dogs. The Combat Stress Dog is a pilot program run by the Combat Stress Clinic where the pup, a Black Lab named Boe, is actually a therapy dog whose sole purpose is to ease the stress and increase the morale of the servicemembers. My teammate and I met the adorable "Sergeant First Class" Boe who immediately made my heart ache with happiness. How do dogs do that?

The best part is that I spoke with Boe's handler and we have plans to host a morale event nicknamed "Pool Party with Boe". Because she's a Lab, but never gets the chance to swim out here, (I can relate) we are going to purchase a kiddie pool and hold the event in our building's courtyard which actually has a lawn with real grass and access to a hose. We'll buy doggie treats and people food and advertise the event around base. Boe is so popular out here that I have hope the event will be a great success!

Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Fudge with a touch of Love

As far as living without the necessities in life, Iraq has really moved beyond that point. On the whole, we sleep in a bed with a mattress, we have hot showers, satisfying food and access to phones and the internet. We can run on treadmills at the gym, watch movies or play ping pong in the MWR and visit the PX for items ranging from gift cards, electronics, bedding, candy and souvenirs.

What continues to remain elusive however? Treats and reminders of home. You can essentially buy or find any dessert you might desire from the PX or the DFAC, but there is nothing like homemade baked goods to inspire thoughts of cozy kitchens, and family gatherings. This is part of the reason we have taking to baking bread in our Red Cross offices.

Yesterday, I got a box from home with 4 bricks of homemade fudge and it went like wild fire. I first cut up two slabs of the chocolate and went around to the various offices within our building. I thought that people might turn down the offer (although it was still perfectly fresh) seeing as how it had just spent a week shipping from Illinois to Iraq. But there is just something irresistable about Mom's homemade fudge. It was received so well that I printed up signs that I posted in our building to advertise "Homemade Fudge Today, Visit your American Red Cross" and people dropped by the office all afternoon to inquire after the fudge.

Despite having access to sweets on base, there is just something extra special knowing that it came from home. I'm trying to think of other desserts or inklings of home that I can share with the servicemembers out here. If you have any thoughts or ideas for items or foods that symbolize the comfort of home, I'd love to hear them...

Saturday, 28 March 2009

The EOD Memorial 5k...Iraqi Style!

This morning I participated in the EOD (Explosive Ordinance Disposal) 2nd Annual Memorial 5k. The run was intended to raise money and awareness for the families of those who had lost a servicemember of the EOD. The kick off was 6:30am this morning.

As always, working the night shift makes for some crazy sleeping adjustments and this was no exception. I got up yesterday at 1:00pm for my shift that begins at 3:00pm. I worked until 11:00pm and then had the unfortunate task of trying to keep myself awake for another 7 and a half hours until the race started. I decided it would be better to keep myself awake and active at the end of a long day, then to go to bed and get up in the middle of my "night" to run the race.

I headed to midnight chow with my teammate, went to the gym, biked 2 miles to warm up my legs and did some abs. Then I headed to my CHU and decided the best way to stay awake was to watch scary movies. I put on "Stay" and after it was over and my heart was racing, I put in my iPod, stretched and danced around my room until I went to meet my other teammates at 5:45am.

In true Murphy's Law fashion, what was once a clear night a few hours before, had developed into a full blown Iraqi sand storm. The wind was blowing fiercely kicking up tornados of dust that glazed your eyes like hubcaps, dusted your eyelashes like white mascara, caked your hair so it looked like a wig and infiltrated your lungs so you were coughing like an emphazemic. Lovely.

The guys drove me over to the start of the race which is actually a place of some historical significance in Iraq. For those not aware, Uday Hussein, the oldest son of Saddaam, had an affinity for beating and torturing the Iraqi National soccer team when they did not perform to his expectations. It is purported that the remnants of the soccer stadium on base are one of the those prior locations of evil. I will do a more indepth blog post on this soon after I can do some research, but suffice it to say that the bombed out stadium has a haunting aura and coupled with the impregnable haze of dust, the morning felt surreal.

Despite the eeriness, I was excited to race and having my teammates there to support me was a blast. My teammates acted almost as my coaches, carrying my water or my fleece and taking lots of pictures. We had some great opportunities to enhance the visibility of the Red Cross on base and our team leader even ran over to our office so that we could donate 25 calling cards to the raffle.

The race got started right on time and despite the quality of the air, I ran the best time of my pitiful distance running career. My last teammate, Deb, had gotten off the night shift a bit early so she could also watch the finish and take some pictures. Ultimately the entire Red Cross team turned out to watch me race which was really special.

Thursday, 26 March 2009

Back in the Saddle Again

It has been just over a week now that my team "The 4:18 to Tikrit" assumed ownership for the Red Cross office in Tikrit. Initially, I wrote about the difficult adjustment to small-base life in Tikrit, but I have settled into my new routine and am finding myself increasingly satisified.

Part of that stems from a lot of changes that we have made to the two rooms that make up our office and canteen. As I mentioned earlier we are located in a communal building with several other offices and we have been allocated 2 rooms, one for our office and next door, a space for our canteen. I talked about how the lack of ownership for the office space contributed to a sense of detachment from our services and relatioship with the troops. Well, we've really attacked the rooms in this last week which I think has provided us with that missing sense of ownership. We've rearranged the furniture in the canteen to open up the room and make it more inviting (it is only 12x12, approximately the size of my CHU). We've put a table cloth on our coffee table and acquired some plastic covering from one of the dining halls to protect it. We put this really neat little table in the center in the room to serve as a coffee table. It is a wooden table painted white with the words "We were with you then...we're with you now" inscribed in red paint with a hard plastic cover on the surface. All in all, we've had people stopping us over the past couple of days relating how much they like the changes and we have noticed an increase in the number of people trafficking the canteen.

We also bake bread here two times a week with a bread machine. Bread night has been established on Wednesday and Friday and it happens on my shift so I get the pleasure of playing baker twice a week. The bread is all prepackaged so last night I made Hawaiian Sweet Bread and added a dash of cinnamon which had the entire hallway smelling like French Toast!

Sunday, 22 March 2009

The Retreat

Initially the adjustment to this deployment has been a bit difficult for me. Everything about the station in Tikrit is very different from my last deployment to Baghdad, for better or for worse. I loved the assignment is Baghdad because it was very urban. The Victory Base Complex, made up of multiple smaller bases was international and bustling, the hub of military affairs in Iraq. The base contains a number of Saddam's beautiful palaces and the artifical lakes and canals provided for an unusual reprieve from the desert landscape.

The Red Cross office in Baghdad was also it's own entity. We had our own trailer with canteen space for a flat screen t.v. with a viewing area and a library, we had several phones available to servicemembers and an internet cafe. My evening shift was always the busiest in terms of emergency communications messages to relay and people trafficing the canteen.

Tikrit is very much a remote, country base that has a small town ambiance. Our office and miniature canteen are located in the MWR (Morale, Wellness and Recreation) Building which is also shared with nearly a dozen more offices. We only offer 2 DSN phones and do not have a lot of service to offer, plus the space is seriously limited (12x12 ft). I guess the best way to describe it is that there's no sense of ownership of the space. We are one of many in a communal building and with the MWR upstairs the basically over all the morale needs you could want. There are also almost never any "incomings" which for my own personal safety is a benefit, but they made the deployment in Baghdad feel more real.

It's not necessarily that I'm unhappy, it's more that for a girl that was raised in Chicago and DC I'm used to a fast-paced enviornment with bustle and action. Tikrit feels like a country retreat.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Luck of the Irish

Iraq! So good to be back in the dusty barreness. By the luck of the Irish we arrived in Tikrit on Tuesday (yesterday) after a rather tumultous trip from Ft. Benning, GA.

Our flight departed Ft Benning on Friday afternoon a few hours earlier than the last time I left for the Middle East. My spirits were high as the first 6.5 hour flight, the 6 hour layover in Ireland and the second 6 hour flight passed by painlessly. I should have known that nothing involving Iraq and the military can be so seemless.

When we arrived in Kuwait City on Saturday night, we took the familiar blackout convoy to Ali Al Salem base where it was confirmed than our team was NOT manifested for a flight to Tikrit. Lovely. As we watched the teams around us depart for their respected stations (Baghdad, Balad, Bagram & Kuwait) we became passengers traveling on the dreaded Space A list. Essentially this is like flying standby in the commercial world, but unlike United, American & Delta, in the military world people who are mission essential or who out-rank you bump you off the list for standby spots. To top it off, it rained off and on the entire night and our ridiculously heavy duffel bags were piled up outside and we were to exhausted to schlep them inside!

So there was a flight out that Sunday morning at 0500 which we waited up for all night to find out we didn't qualify for a standby seat. We then had to wait another hour and a half to make the accountability roll call before we could head to billeting and receive bunks in a tent for our impending wait at Ali Al Salem. If you recall from the last deployment, there are 16 people in a tent with no pillows or bedding, you have to perpetually guard your belongings from theft and the lights are on 24/7. I slept on the airplane pillow I snagged from the flight and my poncho liner which spreads out like a blanket. I then took every piece of cloth I owned, T-shirt, towels, sweatshirt and strung them up around the bunk (thank heavens bottom) to cave out the light.

I slept amazingly from 7:30am to 3pm, got up, showered and the team went to dinner at 5:00pm. We then headed back to the terminal tent for another roll call and discovered we had a shot at getting on a flight at 3:00am. So I slept from 9:00pm to 1:30am and was back at the terminal at 2:30am. They announce there are 15 standby seats available. Hallelujah! We check out of our tents, drag our duffels back to the terminal to wait for the flight briefing at 4:00am. At that time we palatized our bags (assembled them to be loaded on the plane) and went back for our last briefing at 5:30am. 5:30 rolls around...."Ladies and gentleman there's been a change of plans. The flight to Al Sahara has been scratched." :-(

Alas. Back to billeting. Back to the tent. Back to sleep. Later that evening we went to chow again and showed up at 8:30pm for the accountability roll call. At that point we learned that the team currently in Tikrit was able to space block us (reserve us) a flight for the next morning! Wahoo! The flight wasn't until 9:30am and the prospect of a good chunk of sleep was exciting for all, but sure enough, I was wide awake at 4:30am, my body's sleep schedule too messed up to understand I could get more than a few hours.

We got off easily enough on our flight and to top it all off, we ended up sharing the fly with the USO's celebrity tour guests, a contingent of WWF and WWE wrestlers! Greg "The Hammer" Valentine, Jimmy "Mouth of the South" Hart, Brian Knobbs and then two female wrestlers SoCal Val and Traci Brooks flitted around taking pictures and cracking jokes. It was hilarious to watch them travel with us on a C-130, a totally legit military flight. The Hammer looked too stoned to know he was in a war zone, the girls periodically reapplied their lip gloss and Brian Knobbs kept raising his eyebrows and winking at me. All and all a great way to cap off the crazy last 4 days.

We've been in Tikrit about a day and a half now and it's extremely different than Baghdad...night and day, but I'll save that for my next entry. Thanks for reading!

Monday, 16 March 2009


Just a short note to say that after a very uneventful trip to Kuwait, I am now stuck at a military base just outside of Kuwait City until further notice due to a series of debacles. I am safe and well, but am living in a tent with no bedding where there are 16 other bunks, the lights are on 24/7, I am in dire staights for clean clothes living out of duffel bags and we are in the midst of sand storms.

Such is the nature of the assignment (and truth be told I am perfectly content minus the Jumangi sized mosquitos) but we have no timeline on when we might be heading to Iraq!

More to come...

Thursday, 12 March 2009

A New Beginning: The Breeze at Ft Benning


Thank you for stopping by to check out my blog and read about my travels. I am about to begin my second tour to Iraq as an Assistant Station Manager for the American Red Cross. I will be stationed in Tikrit for this assignment from mid March 2009 to the end of July 2009.

When I began blogging about my first deployment I sort of breezed over the week spent at Ft Benning in preparation for deployment overseas. This time I wanted to start my adventure from where it begins at the Conus Replacement Center (CRC) Ft Benning, GA. Although I am not going to go into too much detail about the week spent at the CRC, suffice it to say that my experience the second time around could not have been more different than the first, and I say that with a smile of relief on my face.

In part, I know the ease of this past week came from knowing what to expect and how to cope, but I cannot discount the cool, calm, collected attitudes of the team leaders on this deployment. Their patience, self assurance, and go with the flow mentality has made what was a hell week my first deployment, a cinch this second time around. The days at Ft Benning can be long and tiresome, filled with hours of paperwork, vaccines, computer based training and a lot of "hurry up to wait" but here we are nearly done and the week was a breeze.

If this week at Ft Benning is any indication of how my coming deployment will be I am more than ready for it to start!!!