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.