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!