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!!!