Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Hello friends, family and followers! (as always, please ask if you would like to forward this email)

I have to apologize for this delayed final email! I arrived safely back to the U.S two weeks ago and since then have been catching up with friends and family and my incredible boyfriend who flew over from the UK to meet me. The travel home was hellish as always, but I have to say that for all the things that could have gone wrong, it was relatively uneventful.

After arriving in Kuwait and sleeping more of the morning I woke around 2 that afternoon, managed to get on the internet, suffer through a workout in the transient gym (which with AC only brought the temperature down to a lovely 100 degrees) and then all three teams, Baghdad, Kuwait and Afghanistan had one last meal together in the DFAC.

Saturday we had a roll call for our flight at 8:15am and then spent the entire day doing paper work, schlepping duffle bags, dumping duffle bags (for customs grrr), in lockdown watching movies and eating out of boredom. We finally took the two hour bus ride to Kuwait City around 5pm, and took off for the 6 hour Germany flight around 8pm. We had a two hour layover in Germany and then a 8 hour flight to Atlanta after which we were loaded onto more buses and taken to Ft Benning. We were made to sit through more briefings and then still with no sleep were taken to the Central Issuance Facility to return our gear. By 12:30pm I had finished everything and was technically finished with Ft Benning although my flight to Chicago was not until the next day, Monday, so all the Red Cross folks had an overnight in the barracks. I arrived home to the happy arms of friends and family Monday afternoon :-)

I can't begin to thank each and everyone of you for the support you have provided to me. Even just taking the time to read my time-consuming emails made me feel less alone, less tired. Your kind and thoughtful words gave me a boost each time I opened your emails and letters. Your encouragement has meant so much. I will never forget it.

Signing off....

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Just a short note to say that our team miraculously made it out of Afghanistan on the first try (although our flight did get pushed back about 9 hours!) We landed in Kuwait at 3:30am local time, schlepped our duffel bags off the plane and got signed into tents. We actually were coincidentally assigned to the same tent as the other two Red Cross teams which made for a nice reunion! I slept from about 6am to 2pm in the afternoon which is actually my normal "night" so I'm still somewhat on a sleep schedule. We bummed around most of the afternoon and then this morning met at 8am for a roll call for the Freedom Flight.

And right now I am in lock down after clearing Navy customs (always a miserable experience - 120 degree heat, no AC and I had to dump the two military duffels that I had perfectly packed, plus my back pack so that customs could go through every single pair of underwear and sock and item I had. So demoralizing :-(

But keep your fingers crossed for us - we should be on American soil tomorrow!

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

First off, a BIG thank you to the Stockton UU Church for the incredibly generous care packages! You are making a world of difference to the soldiers out here!

So! The incoming team is here and we've been transitioning for the last three days! Hoorah!!! :-)

The transition is always a bit stressful as the incoming team is trying to learn as much as possible in a short amount of time and we, the outgoing team, are trying to keep the shop running but turn over the reigns at the same time. Tonight we are hosting our last Timmy event and then on Thursday the incoming team will officially take over operations and our team will start the process of flying home!

This entails trying to get from Afghanistan to Kuwait by Saturday (plus whatever delightful time we get to spend in the transient tents in Kuwait). Then the Freedom flight out of Kuwait which is a 6-7 hour flight, a layover somewhere in Europe, then another 6-7 hour flight to the States with another possible layover before we land in Ft Benning, hopefully on Monday. From Georgia we have a 24 hour period at Ft Benning and THEN...home to Chicago on Tuesday!

And a small side story- I took my replacement to the hospital yesterday to teach her how to do hospital visits and in a crazy coincidence one of the civilians who I sent home on a Red Cross message for the North Carolina tornadoes was in the ICU Ward! I actually blogged about this gentleman as we had watched the coverage of the tornadoes together in the office waiting for his message to come in and when he got it, he kissed me goodbye on the cheek and thanked me for all my help. We were so surprised to see each other again and he actually got out his bed when he saw me and gave me a HUGE hug. One of the most rewarding moments of this deployment....

Sunday, 10 July 2011

The incoming team is in Kuwait!!! YESSSSS!!!

If all goes as planned they should arrive sometime in the next 24 hours. We will then have about 4 days to transition with them and ideally should be flying out of Bagram on Friday the 15th. The flight to Kuwait is only about 4-5 hours, but the problem is there are about a million factors that influence military travel and unlike commercial flights there are no "reserved seats" which means you can get kicked off the plane at any time, plus there are wind storms, dust storms, planes breaking down due to the weather conditions, rockets, mortars, bad guys, distinguished visitors bumping people off flights plus anyone going home on emergency leave gets priority. So yea.... keep your fingers crossed for us!

Also, I fun side story to share. On Friday my team and I got to go visit the Air Rescue Squad guys which was really cool. They are the soldiers who go out into fire fights and rescue the wounded. For a reference point... it's like The Guardian...without the water ;-) Their stories were fascinating and we got to explore the helicopter and learn how they lift patients off the ground. Definitely a great little field trip.

One last final story, this morning we got up to go to our last possible time at the Egyptian Hospital but it was still closed! That is three weeks in a row now the hospital has been closed due to the change over in unit. We were all quite disappointed as this means we will not have the chance to say goodbye to the kids we saw every week and I honestly regret this.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Wow, well tonight had me in tears at the office.

I got a call from a very high ranking enlisted officer calling to let the Red Cross know that he was in receipt of his red cross message. When I thanked him for calling back and asked if there was anything else we could do for him or his family... he asked me if I would pray for his son. I was so caught off guard by his request I was almost speechless. For a senior enlisted of his rank to express that kind of request tore my heart right of my chest. He told me his son's name and said that it didn't look good. I managed to get through my condolences without crying and then promptly hung up the phone and wept.

Please keep this man's sons in your thoughts if you can, I feel obligated to share this because his anguish was so compelling I think my heart is a little bit broken...

Monday, 4 July 2011

Happy 4th of July!

So today was not exactly a relaxing, lazy BBQ and sparklers kind of day, but at least it was felt a little bit special. I got up and went into the office about an hour before my shift started to meet Ingrid and Terra to stop by the USO BBQ and then attend a 4th of July re-enlistement ceremony in which General Petraeus was the distinguished guest.

Unfortunately, but the time we found our way to the correct entrance to the flight line (coincidentally right by the USO BBQ) all we really had time to do was wave hello to the folks who were grilling before we cleared security to get to the ceremony. The ceremony was being held in a hanger on the flight line so all though it was in the shade it was still 106 (plus wretchedly heavy military uniforms).

I really enjoyed the ceremony however. In addition to Petraeus were Senators John McCain, Joe Lieberman and Lindsay Graham, plus Ambassador Olson. The airport hanger was enormous and there were easily 500 people there. I was also pleasantly surprised at the speeches that were made. I was expecting a generic, jingoistic display of blind hoo-rah patriotism, but instead I found the speeches to be thoughtful and respectfully patriotic. They reflected the heroism and sacrifices made by the soldiers and were less about the war and more about what it means to be honorable and noble. I thought the theme was really unifying and the music was wonderful. Easily the best part was when Petraeus and his First Sergeant took the sword from a member of the 1st Cavalry drill team as part of their presentation and used it to cut the biggest American flag cake I have ever seen!

The ceremony lasted about a half an hour and then we had to miss the re-enlistment BBQ to head back to the office since we'd left another station to watch for emergency messages and we'd been gone for sometime. Otherwise there were no fireworks for me (apart from the incoming alarms that went off about 2 hours ago - all's well though), but I hope today was a day full of family, food and fireworks for each of you :-)

Thursday, 30 June 2011

Last night was our Timmy (the Combat Stress Dog) Birthday event and it's safe to say we had another successful bash at the Red Cross. We baked 8 cakes in our little oven, and we are pleased to say most of the experimental ones were not only edible but actually enjoyable! At 4pm some of the members of Timmy's 44 Med unit came over to help with the set up. We did a very similar arrangement as we did to our Father's Day BBQ...only difference was we had a Dixie Brass Band show up to play! Honestly, no one knew they were coming, but they arrive half an hour before the party ready to play. We had hoped they could set up on our deck like the band at our last BBQ but unfortunately we were fighting a dust storm and the tuba player basically said he had to play inside or he would tip over!

This meant that the room where we were serving the food was quite cramped (and loud with the band playing!) but we still managed to feed around 200 people over the course of two hours. The highlights of the night were went all the guests stood at attention and this adorable, clueless yellow lab was promoted to the rank of Major by the President of the United States. Later the band played Happy Birthday to Timmy and he looked equally as clueless.

We were again so happy with our turn out and more than anything, so happy to see so many people come out to the Red Cross to hang out and have fun at a party. Times like these make everything worth it, when you get to provide people with a bit of an escape.

In other news I did a MedEvac Tuesday night which was rather crazy as my friends in the old unit are redeploying and flying home this week, so Tuesday was the first night the new unit ran the MedEvac and it was rather....disjointed. Then yesterday we were offered to tour a MedEvac helicopter which would have been super cool except they had to cancel because they had a last minute mission (can't argue with that!) We are hoping to reschedule for this coming week. And on another happy note- we've decorated the office as best we can in red, white and blue for the Fourth of July. Not sure what we will get up to yet, but hopefully something memorable :-)

Sunday, 26 June 2011

So today was kind of a crazy day.

Got up mad early for the Egyptian Hospital, only to drive all the way there and find out that it was not on! Obviously from the farewell ceremony yesterday we knew this unit was leaving but I had reconfirmed with the Commander that it was going to happen today. Clearly there was a miscommunication! So we were a bit bummed, took some pictures with the sign out front which we had always been meaning to do and then headed back to the office.

I went right back to bed once we returned because I had been invited to a demonstration of the military - working dogs (aka the attack dogs) at 4pm that afternoon. Let's just say that this was one of the most exhilarating and adrenaline - rush activities EVER.

Now we are planning the BBQ Party event for Timmy's Birthday this coming Wednesday and I thought I would share this email with you. Being out in a war zone we have no real access to baking resources so this is what my team leader proposed for Timmy birthday cakes:

Smore Cake: One pack of vanilla cake with cut up bits of Hershey bars,
marshmellows, and graham crackers inside

Hazelnut cake: One pack of vanilla cake with vanilla pudding/plain
yogurt drizzled with nutella

Coffee cake: Mix some fine ground coffee in with the vanilla cake batter
and ice with our remaining chocolate frosting

Red velvet cake with icing made from cream cheese and yogurt.

All of these ingredients are what we have through donations lying about in our office or what we can snag from the DFAC!

Saturday, 25 June 2011

So it has been a 24 hours full of surprises! Last night I went to do a MedEvac and it ended up being a back to back outbound/inbound mission. However, there were only 6 ambulatory patients and one litter on the outbound and only one Ckat (life-support) patient on the inbound so my help wasn't really needed. What came as a real surprise though, was when the unit gathered around me in the CASF and did an impromptu awards ceremony. They said a few words about the work that I had done with them and then presented me with a Certificate of Appreciation! Honestly, it was one of the most rewarding moments of the deployment.

Then today, an hour after billeting woke me up yelling that they needed to secure one of the rooms in our Bhut (aka make a lot of noise and let in a lot of day light for no reason), Ingrid came by and woke me up saying that we were invited to a ceremony for the staff of the Egyptian Hospital. I didn't catch everything Ingrid said in my sleep haze, but I got up and showered quickly and we drove off to the "Clamshell" which is a large recreation facility. Inside we learned that the staff of the Egyptian Hospital was redeploying shortly and wanted to present us, along with their other partners, with certificates of appreciation. So Ingrid and I braved the 110 plus degree heat as we watched a commemorative slide show about the unit's work and then a rather obvious video for Egyptian tourism (post-revolution mind-you. They did well to advertise that Egypt is now entirely democratic ;-)

One of the things I couldn't help but notice was how familial the Egyptians were with both each other and the other allied Middle Eastern soldiers. The officers are frequently embracing and holding each others hands or kissing on the cheeks and I commented that you'd never see such familiarity at a US ceremony. They also appear to be just mad for picture and video taking. Both Ingrid and I were taken aback at the number of pictures and poses and filming that was going on. You would have thought we were at a 25 year anniversary reunion. The majority of the soldiers had cameras and were nothing short of recording the whole event.

After the slide show portion finished the Commander of the Egyptian Hospital began to recognize partners who had made a difference in their work. When my name was called I honestly could not stop cracking up. I know only a very few of the Egyptian soldiers who work as guards on the compound, but the clapping and screaming and cheering you heard when my name was called you would have thought they were my biggest fans. I am going to wager that being the only blond at the ceremony may have had something to do with this reaction, but I couldn't help but shake my head and laugh as I went up to receive my certificate.

It is a recognition I will always cherish. I am very proud to have been a part of their work with the Afghans at the Egyptian Hospital

Friday, 24 June 2011

A couple of stories from this week...

Tuesday night I spent the evening with a Major who was waiting in the office for his Red Cross message to arrive. His wife was giving premature birth to twins and the babies weren't expected to survive. I spent the evening working with his command and the Pax Terminal (essentially the bagram airport) to try and get him out on a flight that night. He was a wonderful person, calm and courteous, while he had every right to be a wreck. He did end up getting his red cross message and I am thinking of him and his family.

Wednesday night was our weekly Timmy the Combat Stress Dog event and this week proved quite exciting when a newscaster from AFN (Armed Forces Network) showed up about half and hour before the event and said he was interested in doing a piece on Timmy's service career. He wanted to do interviews and then get footage of Timmy interacting with people. Then he is going to come by next week for Timmy's Third Birthday party and promotion ceremony. It's great coverage for the Red Cross plus Timmy deserves the credit! His handler is redeploying in a couple of weeks, but Timmy has another year out here and will get a new handler.

The final piece of news is that our replacements leave this weekend to start their training and travels to replace us! I'll be honest, this makes me very excited! :-)

Monday, 20 June 2011

Hi all! Sorry again for the delay!

First off, a HUGE thank you to the DeKalb Red Cross who shipped almost a dozen care packages for our Red Cross canteen and for the soldiers over here. Pleas know that your donations make a world of difference!

I am safe and well here in Afghanistan and I confess the reason behind the sporadic blog posts is simply that we are all exhausted and burned out. We have 24 days left on our deployment, have not had a day off in over 100 days and given the nature of the work we are doing, each day now seems to take everything out of us.

That being said, we are still hard at work and doing our best to make a difference, it’s just that we used to be able to squeeze in time to do something small for ourselves and that just doesn’t seem to happen anymore. We are just too tired. Anyways! On a happier note, yesterday was one of the best days we’ve had in Afghanistan. The four of us at the Red Cross hosted a wonderful BBQ event with approximately 200 attendees! The BBQ was a combined Father’s Day/Recognition event for supporters of the Red Cross and it could not have been more successful.

Our food was donated by our volunteers or supporting military units. We had most of our desserts shipped from home including fudge, cookies, freeze ice pops (huge hit!) plus we baked several cakes and such in our tiny easy-bake style oven. The 44 Medical Brigade brought dozens of 6-packs of near-beer (since alcohol is prohibited). We had water guns and water balloons sent from home which were a blast. The First Cav Band played for over two hours and were just fantastic plus we had our good friend Chris manning the monster grill and cooking up steaks, burgers and hot dogs.

The event was such a success that we had people stopping in the office or coming up to us in the dining hall long after the event was over to thank us and let us know how much it was appreciated and most importantly, that for a short period of time they felt like they were just at a BBQ and not stuck in a war zone a thousands of miles from friends and family. The best compliment in the world.

Otherwise, every day brings the regular demands. The Fallen Hero Ceremonies occur so regularly that we are attending several funerals a week. I did a MedEvac last night which is always a rewarding though draining experience. I am still making those once or twice a week. We still visit the hospital everyday to talk to the patients there. Last week I had a young guy, 20 years old, in the ICU tell me I was the first female he’d actually had a conversation with in 6 months. He was stationed at a fire base with 150 other guys. Sadly we missed the Egyptian Hospital this week to prep for the BBQ but Ingrid and I hope to perhaps go tomorrow to make up for it.

And finally, I forgot to mention that I have initiated another weekly event at our office. We are having coffee and cake with Timmy the Combat Stress Dog every Wednesday evening and have had quite a bit of success with this event. In fact, the USO actually came over one night and said they wanted to start doing the same thing over at their place! Back off USO! ;-) It is amazing the number of people who will make the effort to come out and visit our office in order to play with Timmy and we have been very pleased with the response! Timmy’s third birthday is actually next week so coming off the success of yesterday’s BBQ I’m in the midst of planning another one for next week!

After that it’s just two more weeks until our replacements arrive! ;-)

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Yikes! Almost a week since my last post, sorry guys. I confess that with 5 weeks remaining, you can tell the team is getting tired. We've done almost 100 days without a day off and I think we are all looking forward to a break.

Today was definitely worth writing about though. Headed to the Egyptian Hospital in the morning and managed to give out some shampoo, nail polish and hair ribbons to the girls there. It never ceases to amaze me how desperate the women and children are. I offered out a nail polish to one young girl and a much older woman came by and snatched it out of my hand, wrenching it away from the girl and then tottered off. I desperately wish I had the language skills to keep more order among the children and I have managed to learn a few crucial words, but not enough to sort out disputes. The plus side of the morning was that the girls had mixed together a cup of henna and painted our hands. The hilarious part is that they all wanted to help so the girls kept grabbing my hand away from the girl drawing the design causing it to smear. All part of the experience! Now my hand is stained this crazy orange for the next two weeks. You could tell the girls were really proud of themselves though. Typically we are the ones offering gifts and you could tell they were excited for us to participate in something very common to their culture (almost all the women and girls are painted with henna).

Later that night we had another really scary incoming attack. I was at the office by myself when an enormous impact boom shook the office. It was as close as that one terrifying night I spent in the bunker after Osama was killed, so I was up like a jack rabbit, locked the office door and out the back door in 5 seconds. Everyone in offices around me had come out as well, waiting for the sirens to sound, but 30 seconds, 1 minute, 5 minutes later nothing happened. Turns out the impact from the rocket was actually outside the wire, which is only about 75 -100 meters from our camp. Because it didn't hit on base the sirens didn't sound, but it was incredibly close.

Then I went on a MedEvac last night which never fails to be an amazing experience. There was one guy who had the most extraordinary burns on his face, I've never seen anything like it and it was tragic to hear the nurses tell him to use Patient Controlled Analgesia (PCA) which is a device that when the button is pushed releases a controlled dose of pain killers. You can push the button as much as you want and the device self-regulates and cuts you off when you've had enough, but just to hear them say that really gives you a sense of how much pain the guy is in and how he will suffer on the flight.

The other disturbing part of the night was when an incoming MedEvac landed bringing in an EPW (Enemy Prisoner of War). That was another in your face reality check that there is no denying this country is still very much in conflict.

Monday, 6 June 2011

Yesterday we started the day with the Afghan kids at the Egyptian Hospital and it was the typical free-for-all that it is. This time Ingrid and I brought sidewalk chalk and two blow up beach balls. We tried to keep things calm as we handed out the sticks of chalk, and while we were able to keep control initially, inevitably, it soon broke out into chaos and the kids and even the women fought until all the chalk disappeared. I had better luck with the beach ball. Ingrid had the beach ball torn from her hands before we could play with it, but I actually managed to give mine to one girl who successfully blew it up and then several of us when out and tossed it about trying to keep it from hitting the ground. Then an interesting thing happened, some of the boys came over wanting to play and the girls immediately stopped playing and deflated the ball. My suspicion is that the girls thought the boys were going to take over and steal it, which in this extremely patriarchal society is probably a fair guess.

On a different note, the military has finally managed to fix whatever was wrong with their distro list for months, alerting the residents on Bagram of the "Ramp" ceremonies or the Fallen Comrade Ceremonies on the flight line. Now our inbox is full of them.

In the last 24 hours I have been to the equivalent of 6 funerals.

That is positively extraordinary. Last night was for four soldiers killed in a roadside IED. Tonight was two soldiers in a different unit, I don't know how they died. While I am pleased the distro list is now working and while I have every intention of attending every possible ceremony, it is confounding the number of soldiers that are dying out here. The truly incredible thing though is the number of people who thank us for attending. Yesterday we left the flightline with soldier after soldier acknowledging us "thank you Red Cross". I wonder how long I can last until I can't take them any longer with the frequency they are occurring.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Lots been going on this week!

RECAP: Tuesday our case work program underwent a massive upgrade, which had the system shut down around the world for several hours, meaning emergency messages all over the world were at a standstill. When the system came back up there were several changes to the program which caused caseworkers all over the world much confusion. The result between the shut down and the confusion has been an astronomical number of cases these last few days. On Thursday night there were 23 cases at one time in our queue waiting to be delivered. Absolutely unheard of on my three deployments... I typically do 23 cases over the course of my nine hour shift! To make matters more confusing, the reference numbers assigned to the cases pre-update started with 288- followed by four more numbers, say 2881234. But once the system went back up after the upgrade they restarted at 0. This has interestingly caused mass confusion all over Afghanistan as brigades think they have been given the wrong case numbers and the military airports who schedule seats for emergency leave think the messages are fake! Goodness.

Another story for you, I did a Medivac last night. It was an average sized mission, 8 ambulatory, 6 litters, 2 Ckats, but I had an awful experience with one of the Ckats. Normally Ckats are unconscious, because they are on life support but tonight one of them was awake. I was inside the bus, loading them from the people on the outside of the bus and then securing them to the walls of the bus. I was at this patients head with another air force MedEvac attendant with two other people at this feet when we went to "rack" him (secure the litter to the side of the bus). Both head and feet are supposed to rack at the same time, but this time the feet got into the rack first and normally I would be able to get my handle in without much fuss, even if we didn't rack simultaneously, but unfortunately this guy had huge casts on his feet and another on his left arm, the arm up against the wall. Because of his casts, we couldn't get our end to rack and then the guy started yelling in pain which was absolutely horrible. He was yelling about his foot being in pain, but actually it was the cast on his arm that was preventing the litter from sliding into place. The flight nurse actually had to come over and readjust his arm cast so that we could get the litter in and none of this was our fault, but Jesus, knowing our actions were causing this guy to bellow in pain made me want to vomit :-(

Finally, we took incoming today which was a bit unnerving since I heard a huge boom of impact, and waited for the sirens to off, but when they didn't I thought maybe it was fire from the artillery range. 10 mins later the sirens go off and it's bunker time, but seriously 10 mins later??? Not comforting. Afterwards, I took the car out to run some errands and there were three Blackhawks circling low over one of the villages, I can only assume the two events were related. Also, we found out today that the unit behind our office had four Killed in Action (KIA) today. We were told their ramp ceremony (Fallen Hero Ceremony) will be sometime tomorrow which we hope to attend. It's also Egyptian Hospital day tomorrow!

Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Yesterday I was doing some research for a document I was writing on the Joint Theater Hospital and for the first time I learned why the Hospital is named after SSG Heathe N. Craig. I found this on one website:

3/9/2007 - BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan (AFNEWS) -- In 2006, Army Staff Sgt. Heathe Craig was holding on desperately to a patient as the two were hoisted from a ridgeline by a Blackhawk helicopter. Halfway to the chopper, the line snapped. Sergeant Craig and his patient fell to their deaths.

I tried to find more information about him, but I couldn't find much. I have to tell you though, I did a Medivac last night and when I think of how Sgt Craig died, holding on to one of the very guys that I was loading onto the C-130, it physically gave me the chills. Sometimes I can't believe how interconnected everything is out here...

Saturday, 28 May 2011

While on my hospital visit today I found myself literally speechless by the most incredible and tragic story one of the soldiers in the ICU Ward recounted for me. By the end of his story, three of the guys on his team were dead and another 4 were killed trying to rescue him. I hate to sound trite but his story was so extraordinary it was like something out of a movie, similar to Lone Survivor if you are familiar with those events ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lone_Survivor:_The_Eyewitness_Account_of_Operation_Redwing_and_the_Lost_Heroes_of_SEAL_Team_10 )

He told me that this attack made the news and while the article barely does the story justice, this is the information that has been released to the public:


The more this soldier and I talked the more we realized how much we had in common. Both from Chicago, the same age, both attended schools in the Patriot League. He will leave on a Medivac for Germany some time in the next few days and I will likely never see him again, but I will never forget this articulate, calm and and insightful soldier who had every right to be emotionally shattered but instead there I was by his hospital bed, alternating between the story of his unit dying around him and discussing Bill Maher's talents as a comedian.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

This is an excellent article worth reading on the incredible work of the Joint Command Theater Hospital in Bagram:

And on a related note - Tuesday night I had gone over to work out at the hospital gym and on my way out I stopped at the CASF, the unit that is in charge of the Medivacs. They presented me with their unit military 455 CASF patch that can be sewn on a uniform or a bag to recognize all the work that I've done with them. I was really surprised and even more honored.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Today was another really big day over here in Afghanistan. I arrived at the office at 2pm and Ingrid informed me that there was a “ramp ceremony”, more formally known as a Fallen Hero Ceremony on the Flight line at 3pm to honor four soldiers from a unit we live with who had died in combat. Although we did not personally know them we decided to go as we have wanted to participate in these ceremonies since our arrival. The ceremony takes place on the flight line with much pomp and circumstance as the flag-draped caskets are presented and saluted while a band plays and the pall bearers, usually members of the same unit, carry the coffins onto the plane.

The day was exceptionally hot, over 100 degrees Fahrenheit/37 degrees Celsius. We were given pretty poor directions to the flight line and what could have been a 5 min drive and a short walk to the flight line turned into a mile walk in the wicked heat and our thick, cumbersome military uniforms. I was already thirsty on the walk over and in hindsight I should have paid more attention to this. By the time we got to Delta Ramp we were halfway down the air field and drenched in sweat. We found ourselves over an hour early for the ceremony so we stayed in the shade as much as possible and chatted to the others gathered for the ceremony. About 30 min later we assembled in formation in preparation for the ceremony. One of the members of the color guard, the soldiers who create a walkway to the plane, fainted after standing out in the sun for about 30 min waiting for the ceremony to start.

We stood in formation for 20-30 min before the ceremony got underway, but sadly by this point I was done for. The band started playing and we snapped to attention as 4 Humvees with the caskets back loaded approached the General. The first time we – the visitors on the flight line - saluted the caskets my vision started spinning and I started seeing stars. I was furious with myself at this point, not wanting to disrupt the ceremony and be disrespectful by dropping out of formation, so I told myself to man up and hang in there. I managed to rally for a few minutes before we saluted a second time, my chin dropped to my chest, I felt like I was going to vomit and I was certain I was going to faint which I decided would be a 1,000 times worse than to just step out of formation. I whispered to Ingrid I was going to faint and with the last of the consciousness I had made it over to the airport hanger and dropped to the ground where a Medic came over and gave me a bottle of water. I was somewhat relieved to see that I wasn’t the only one who was with the Medics.

I felt a bit better after drinking half the bottle and I managed to stand up again and at attention while the caskets where loaded onto the plane, but I only stayed up for a minute or two before I thought I was going to drop again. Overall, I was angry with myself for missing the ceremony and I felt like I was disrespecting the fallen, but I was also completely overwhelmed by the whole experience. Many people in the crowd were crying and I found myself close to tears several times and I had never even met these soldiers - and never would which I think was the larger reality. I have never witnessed a celebration representing the honor and dignity and sacrifice of an untimely death. Standing on the flight line with the Hindu Kush Mountains guarding the base and the fighter jets taking off in the background and the military band playing against the drone of the plane engines, it was impossible not to recognize there are few times in a person’s life when they have the chance to be a part of something so… for better or for worse … profound.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

The Armed Forces Day party today ROCKED! (And the world didn’t end :-)

I am so pleased. I took the lead on this event and really had to throw it together last minute and without a lot of resources because we were denied food service support from the dining facility. I had already booked the Combat Stress Dog for the event so we wanted to still do something to celebrate the day and in the end, the party was a huge success and we ended up with far more support and resources than expected. I think we probably had somewhere between 50-60 people over the course of the two hours.

So I did most of the set up from 5-6pm. It took us a while to get the grill going because of this STUPID wind storm that won't quit so we started the grill around 5:15pm. The Special Forces guys learned that our food service request was denied and as such had told us they would supply whatever we needed. Around noon today they dropped off tons of steak and burgers and hot dogs plus all the condiments. Then once we realized the amount of food we had (when we had advertised the event as a dessert party) one of our volunteers stepped up and purchased 5 bags of chips, 4x dozen cans of pop, plastic plates and silverware! So pretty much all we provided was the desserts. I made up plates and plates of Girl Scout Cookies and then we baked a chocolate cake and an apples strudel in the oven we have in the office. Our team leader was experimenting with recipes since we don’t have access to things like eggs out here and we managed to put together some pretty creative desserts (the ingredients for the strudel came from oatmeal packets and little individual butter servings taken from the dining facility. The Chocolate cake was frosted with chocolate pudding that came from a Snack Pack! )

I had one of my teammate’s iPod speakers hooked into my laptop and we were playing music and the combat stress dog was a huge hit, tearing around and playing fetch and slobbering all over everyone. I had advertised the event with flyers that I put up around the base and then I went through the military Morale, Welfare and Recreation (MWR) to advertise the event on the base website and to the base wide listservs. A ton of our friends showed up and it was SUCH an international crowd, there were at least American, British, Kiwi, Australian, Norwegian and UAE that I managed to count, plus a bunch of civilians and contractors. Our office is very difficult to find in our camp so I got at least one email from a friend saying he couldn’t find it and had to give up which makes me wonder how many others might have showed.

We had our emergency message queue covered by the other stations until 8pm and then from 8-9pm I was going from watching the queue and working cases to cleaning up the mess. Easily one of the best nights I’ve had in Afghanistan. Nothing like hosting a party to make the war disappear :-)

Friday, 20 May 2011

Yesterday was the one year anniversary of the attack on Bagram where insurgents actually got on base and instigated a firefight between Taliban and US forces http://www.foxnews.com/world/2010/05/18/insurgents-launch-complex-attack-bagram-air-field/ . There was a cake at the Dining Facility last night with an In Memorium inscription for the contractor who died. This made for an eerie ambiance when the incoming sirens went off this morning at 3:30am. My team leader and I trucked out the Bhut, me in my sandals and dirty workout clothes (being the only thing I could find to put on in the dark) and we huddled in the bunker with about 6 other guys, one of which ran back to his room directly across from the bunker and brought blankets out for Ingrid and I. As the sirens continued to sound I doubt there was a person among us who wasn’t thinking about the attack on base last year and wondering if perhaps this was an anniversary attack. We were in the bunker for an hour before the all clear sounded which was ample time to let your imagination run…and picturing insurgents charging straight for the bunker was not a particularly pleasant thought.

Then today I got up at 12pm and had to permanently move to a different Bhut room on the other side of camp for a reason apparent to no one but the military. So I showered, went over to billeting, got the key to the new room, packed up all my old room, drove the stuff over to the new room, unpacked and rigged up my bed- tent again. Made of sheets and blankets, I’ve taken to completely tenting in my bed to try and make it easier to sleep during the day. Compared to my old room this one is downright huge. It doesn't have a wall locker however which is disappointing because my clothes are going to get all dirty (dust storms like the one we are having now blow straight through all the little cracks and just coat the room). Speaking of cracks the other thing I am concerned about is that there is nearly an inch between the door frame and the door itself which means that the Bhut will never actually be "night time" dark during the day and the air conditioning escapes out the crack. Ahh well, it’s all part of the experience!

Tomorrow we are having a party with the combat stress dog to celebrate Armed Forces Day which should be fun! Originally it was going to be a BBQ but we were denied food service support from the dining facility so we changed it to a “Desserts in the Desert” event. Then some of our wonderful Special Forces friends offered to sponsor the food for us and it looks like we will indeed be having a BBQ. I just hope this dust storm dies down some! ;-)

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Halfway into my shift and I am dragging!

The Egyptian Hospital is always a rip-roaring mass chaos start to the day and between the hyperness of the kids and my getting up in the middle of the night, I am seriously hurting with 5 hours left in my shift. So take it for what you will, but my teammate and I were the ONLY two volunteers at the Egyptian Hospital today, apart from one US solider in full battle rattle which was unsettling. The only other Western civilian person was a woman who works for the State Department in Women and Gender Studies. I had divided several of the bulk beading kits that you donated into smaller plastic bags, each with a section of plastic string, so that each kid could make their own jewelry. The State Department civilian who speaks Dhari, my teammate and I got all the kids settled down after they started circling me like hyenas when they realized they were doing to get a gift. We were able to maintain order about half way round the circle and then maddness broke loose, honestly when the Afghan women started clambering for the bags. Chaos ensued and one of the women actually made off with the remaining bags! Fortunately she only got away with a few. I honestly wasn't too bothered by the whole thing. Most of the kids got a bag and many of them quietly settled down and started making their bracelets and necklaces together which really made my heart smile.

It was a good learning experience though. It is almost impossible to distribute things in an orderly fashion, especially when the Afghan women become involved. The civilian told me that it killed her to see the Afghans, the grown women in particularly, fighting the children to get whatever they could for free, even a plastic bag full of beads for making jewelry. She was fascinating to talk to as well, and I hope to spend more time with her. She told me that she has been tasked with “empowering women” but she cannot even begin such a task for how foreign this concept is to the Afghan women. She said that their lack of education is so profound that the concept of empowerment does not even exist.

So after the hospital it was back to the office for a team meeting which went surprisingly well. I think our team leader was ready for tears with the upcoming housing move, but everyone held it together. The meeting went a lot longer than we had anticipated but we still managed to go scarf shopping at a new bizarre which made the day seem more like a weekend!

Now I just have to get through the rest of my shift, past the “witching hour” when they like to launch things at us, and I am ready for bed!

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Sorry for the hold up the last few days. Wednesday and Thursday nights were so busy with case work I was ready to drop after my shift ended.

Here' s brief recap for you:

Friday the 13th brought an unwelcome start to this already ominous day. I was in the shower when the "Incoming" sirens went off. This solicited a major string of obscenities as I turned off the shower, threw my clothes on dripping went. I headed for a bunker and didn't hear any booms of impact so after waiting a few minutes by the bunker I decided my current state of disarray was more important than the unidentifiable attack so I headed back to my room. Then after the "all clear" siren sounded several minutes later I went to the office for accountability to the find the door locked. My teammates had gone shopping on their lunch break and weren't even in the camp! So it was back to the room again to dress and officially head to the office for work.

Today we got some unwelcome news. We are definitely going to be moving offices as I've mentioned before, but our housing is not available near the new office so it appeared we were just going to stay in the same housing we have now. Unfortunately, they are consolidating those of us still living in camp Cherry-Beasley which means that two of my four teammates have to move to a different hut to ensure that all the rooms are full so they can start tearing down unused housing and my team leader and I who share a Bhut will be getting a new roommate. This is causing some distress for the team as sleeping schedules and routines are being disrupted. The deployment is already stressful enough without having your routine and minuscule private space taken away.

And finally tomorrow we are heading back to the Egyptian Hospital for the first time in 3 weeks. I am very excited to see the Afghan kids again and cannot wait to share with them all of the generous donations you have sent! I promise a blog post for tomorrow! :-)

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

It’s been a week since the news of Bin Laden’s death broke around the world and in that time, our base in Afghanistan has been attacked more in one week than it has in the last year. That attack last Tuesday resulted in a crater the size of a bunker less than 100 meters from our office. Although our new circumstances out here are unnerving, keep on keeping on. We have taken to running for the bunkers when the alarms sound and then afterwards returning to the office or to sleeping or to the gym, whatever the activity may have been. There have been noticeable changes to base operations and we do our best to look out for our own safety.

We also hope to be able to return to the Egyptian Hospital this weekend for the first time in three weeks. Many of you have sent such amazing donations for the kids and I cannot wait to visit again and start distributing the supplies. On a brighter note, we celebrated Mother’s Day by taking advantage of free calling that was provided by Morale, Wellness and Recreation (MWR). My sister happened to graduate from her Master’s program on Mother’s Day so it was nice to be able to speak to the family all at once.

Staying busy is certainly no challenge, but we are now twice as motivated to arrange morale events for the servicemember’s since life here has gotten more difficult. Armed Forces Day is on Saturday May 21 and we have submitted a food service request for support from the dining facility to have a BBQ for the soldiers. We have also requested that the Combat Stress Dog, Sgt Timmy, make an appearance. I actually got to play with Timmy today when I went to extend the invitation and that was a pleasant distraction. Meantime, life goes on and we still visit the patients at the Joint Theater Hospital, support the Medivacs, brief incoming units of red cross messages and deliver over 300 messages a week.

Keep thinking of us out here. Even though Bin Laden is gone, the danger out here is anything but.

Saturday, 7 May 2011

4:00am Afghan time and it's been a cautiously quiet night for us.

I'll tell you one thing though - I going through chick flick films like a kidney on dialysis. I think I have watched every single girlie movie in our DVD library. Between delivering messages of death and dying all day and visiting patients in the hospital who are missing limbs and listening to the servicemembers vent their anguish in the office and then running for the bunker amidst the rockets every night...I am craving all things pretty and girlie. Hence the yearning for mindless romance movies where the endings are always happy :-)

Friday, 6 May 2011

Repeat Tuesday night. Goodness.

Still safe and well though!

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

These are the events that happened to me on Tuesday Evening 3 May 2011:

At approximately 8:45pm I was on the phone in the office delivering a case, when I suddenly felt two successive tremendously powerful booms that landed to the left of my office which shook its foundations. It took me about 2 seconds to realize that this was the real deal and I needed to get to a bunker immediately. I quickly told the solider on the phone I had to go. I set down the phone and ran out the back door to the office as I saw the two other soldiers who had been watching TV in the office bolt out the front door. As I stepped out onto the deck, the sirens went off. They sound like air raid sirens punctuated by the announcement “IDF Impact, IDF Impact, Shelter in Place, Shelter in Place, Don IBA, Don IBA.” As the ominous warning sounds over and over I can hear booms hitting around me through the drone of the siren. As my mind attempted to process which was the safest bunker in relation to where I could hear the booms, I saw soldiers with guns and body armor sprinting in every direction.

I finally ran as fast as I could to the bunker behind our office in the courtyard. Inside there were probably about 20 people already and due to the location of this bunker it continued to fill and fill until a soldier yelled for every second person to take a step forward so that we could fit more people in. This same soldier was yelling for soldiers with guns to remain at the two entrances of the bunker for protection. I found myself squashed into the center of the bunker with a woman suffering a head wound leaning into me. I still have the blood on my uniform. She had hit her head running into the bunker and blood was running from the wound down her face. Because of my position I ended up being the one to provide whatever basic care for her I could. People handed me some tissues and I called for a bottle of water and I did what I could for her in the circumstances.

The sirens stopped wailing after about 10 minutes and the air became eerily quiet. Because soldiers needed to report in for accountability people became brave enough to start sprinting to other buildings and bunkers. Our office was only about a 10 second sprint so I ducked and charged back, ran in and got on the phone to another Red Cross office to tell them to watch our emergency message queue because we were taking incoming. Then I ran back to the bunker and settled down to wait. The sirens sounded again and continued going off successively for another 20-30 min. I didn’t know where my team was but I could only hope that given all the noise they had all made it into a bunker.

Once the “All Clear” siren sounded, I went back to the office and waited for my team members to report in as was designated in our emergency action plan. Everyone was safe and had made it to a bunker. We did a short debrief and listened to each other recount their experiences. And then, typical to a deployment setting, everyone departed and I went back to delivering cases.

That was yesteday. Today is Wednesday 4 May 2011 and I’ve already been back in that same bunker once today.

Monday, 2 May 2011

The best way to sum up this historic day from Afghanistan is that I’ve spent it “in the dark”. First off, it’s worth noting that as I was trying to fall asleep last night, about 4am Afghan time, I remember thinking to myself, “What the heck is with the fighter jets?!” I have never heard so many F-15s taking off, circling and landing before at the same time. It went on for about an hour. Then because of my crazy sleep schedule I woke up to about 25 emails in my inbox from friends and family commenting on the death of Bin Laden and asking after my safety which was exceedingly kind of so many of you. Having slept through the breaking news, I hurried onto CNN.com and read as much as I could before I had to shower and get to the office.

I had hoped that I would be able to learn more from the Armed Forces Network (AFN) which supplies our TV news coverage over here, but I was dismayed to see that a bunch of servicemembers had already commandeered the TV and were watching a DVD. So I started my shift not really knowing what was going on in response to the news. My team leader and I agreed that when the movie was over we would turn on the news. This did not happen however, as 5 minutes into the start of my shift, we went into a rolling blackout that lasted an hour. In consisted of 10 minutes blackout, followed by 5 minutes of everything reloading, followed by another series of beeps and pops and everything would go dark again. These blackouts have continued throughout the day.

I can tell you one thing I have observed. I would not describe the mood out here as one of relief or celebration. In fact, in my opinion and in my experience, I would describe it as somber accompanied by heightened caution. As many of you are likely aware, both the Taliban and NATO released news statements just a few days ago acknowledging the start of a new offensive by the Taliban. On Friday morning, Billeting went round our camp and checked the smoke detectors in the Bhuts. On Saturday I did my daily hospital visit and there were so many people in the Ward, they were doubling up beds in the curtained off partitions. Running errands on the base today there were numerous changes evident from just the day before.

The death of Osama Bin Laden is undoubtedly a significant event. But in my own opinion, the news does not resonate the same way for the Americans and Allied forces in Afghanistan as it does for those so geographically far from the conflict. The fear of retaliation that the news is reporting is not a whimsical threat for those located in the midst of the conflict. I will have to continue sleeping with my gym shoes unlaced and set out like a Tri-athlete finishing the swim, but instead of a bike, I’m throwing on my body armor and Kevlar helmet and running for a bunker and not the finish line.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Amidst growing “excitement” in Afghanistan, we managed to have an enjoyable and uneventful Sunday afternoon. Our team leader’s mother-in-law shipped over Bisquick, cherry pie filling and a recipe for how to grill shortcake on our outdoor grill. Despite the 100 degree heat we gathered round the grill to cook shortcake and roast leftover Peeps (which seemed kind of cruel as their faces melted) and relax a bit in the calm. The day was also a success in that earlier in the morning, while I was still sleeping, our team and some volunteers set up two bookshelves, one at the Pax Terminal, one at the Green Bean Coffee, for a project we started to help give away more of our donated books. We are going to stock the bookshelves at each location weekly and hope that in this way, more people will be encouraged to take and/or leave a book!

Thursday, 28 April 2011

Summary of the day:

-Storms with thunder that rivaled the Artillery range

-Peaking down suspicious holes for Cobras

-A Blackout in the office while I was by myself that took out the lights, computers and phones

New story to add though:

Tonight, after the blackout I had a contractor, obviously upset, come into the office and request the status of a message. His family had been injured in the tornados and his home was destroyed. His family was currently at the hospital after having been in a Red Cross shelter and he was trying to fly out tonight. The Red Cross was trying to verify the situation with the doctors, but only one caseworker was handling all the military and disaster calls at this chapter in Alabama and I advised him it might be some time before we saw the message ready for delivery. But he had just flown in from an outlying FOB and had no place to stay so I told him he could wait in the canteen until his message came in. Together we watched the news coverage of the tornados as he worked with his family in the States to have the doctor call the Red Cross to provide the verification instead of the one caseworker trying to track down the doctor. We waited about two hours before his message came in and when it did I delivered it verbally straight to him so he could take his message and case number to the PAX terminal to try and get on a flight tonight. Before he left he came around the desk, hugged me, kissed me on the cheek and gave me the most sincere thank you. That is why I love this job.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

So less than an hour left on my shift tonight, with the crackles from an electrical storm hanging over the mountains, I hear a voice weakly calling “hello? Hello?” into the office from our back door. I get up and make a move to the door as it swings open and in shuffles a soldier with blood dripping from his hand. He is sweating bullets and tells me he needs to sit down because he's so dizzy. So I pull out the chair at our second desk and run to get him some water as he drops his head to the desk. I ask him if he thinks he’s really going to faint and he says the water is helping. I ask him what happened and he said he was putting his helmet together and a screw went through his finger. I ask him if I can see his finger to assess if I need to take him to a hospital. He’s says he doesn’t think he can look at it so I tell him to close his eyes and just hold his hand out so I can see it. Gently I removed the paper towels he used and while I could see it was a good sized rip, it was obvious he wasn’t going to bleed to death on my floor. I told him to keep drinking the water and keep breathing deeply. I went over to see if we had anything better to use for bandages and I kept him talking to me the whole time. As he was telling me about what had happened it dawned on me that I probably should take him to the hospital for evaluation since he told me that it was a jagged rusty screw with WD 40 on it that went into his thumb. Sounds like maybe a tetanus shot to me! I was also worried about how woozy and sweaty he was so, better be safe than sorry. I quickly called another red cross station to cover our emergency message queue since I was the only one in the office, and together we walked to the car through this crazy lightening storm with the purple sky flashing like a strobe light every few seconds.

When we arrived at the hospital I took him in the emergency entrance since he had never been there before. Once we found a nurse, I made a move to head back to the office and as I turned to go he says “Hey wait… I don’t know how to get back!” Poor guy, apparently he was a transient trying to get to an outlying FOB and didn’t know the base. So I asked the nurse if he would have access to a DSN phone and she said yes, so I handed over our business card and said “I’m up all night, just call if you need a ride!” Once back at the office, I was just up and running again when an NCO from the soldier's unit came in and said, “I heard you took one of my guys to the hospital!?” I confirmed this and he said he would head over now to stay with him and bring him back. So I guess the whole thing worked out, but a bloody guy stumbling in in a electrical storm? Always something out here...

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Quite the start to the day over here in Afghanistan, picture this… 15 min into my shift. I have just accepted an emergency message to work on and deliver, Ingrid is on the phone with someone who is trying to start a message on their uncle (which we do not do except with extraordinary circumstances) and one of our volunteers is in the office sorting through the at least dozen packages of abandoned mail that we picked up from the post office yesterday. As you may recall we have been accepting the abandoned care packages from the post office and shipping them out to the Forward bases, many of which do not even have a base exchange (any kind of store). Then iIn walks a contractor from Flour, agitated and in a hurry saying he needs to know exactly where to put our new books shelves… err bookshelves? Since Ingrid is on the phone I leave the case and go outside to realize that he is trying to deliver two 3x5 and 5x5 bookshelves for a joint project with the Green Bean coffee and the Pax Terminal to our tiny office instead of their respective locations at the Green Bean and Pax Terminal. Since I am not the lead on the project I couldn’t tell him where they needed to be taken at the other locations, but he is insistent that he is dropping them off here. As the situation escalates I go back inside and ask Ingrid if she can deal with the bookshelves and I will take over her call. So pandemonium ensues and she tries to figure out the shelves while I try and convince the person on the phone that we cannot pass this message for a non-immediate family member. Amidst all this, the volunteer is quietly trying to attract our attention. Since I’m preoccupied on the phone she finally manages to snag Ingrid from the book shelf debacle (which the guys are preceeding to unload onto our back porch…and mind you three men are struggling to move them).

The volunteer motions to Ingrid what she’s found in the box and suddenly a new sense of urgency settles over the room. Ingrid picks up the other office line, looks at me and asks, “Are you almost done there? Once I make this call we are going to have to evacuate right away.” Errrrr WHAT?! I distractedly manage to finish the call, peer over the desk and into the box…inside is a pale army green ammo box with the word “Pressure Release Valve – Do Not Open”. The thing could not have looked more dangerous if it had the words “bomb” written on it. I quickly started gathering my things from the office as Ingrid called the MPs and they told us to evacuate. We called the Baghdad station to cover our messages and then we proceeded to assemble our team and alert others out and about in the camp that they needed to evacuate.

Fortunately, we did not have to wait as long as we did with our other evacuation before the verdict came back…the box contained radios. Delightful! So after an hour’s fun, it was back to the office to set up shop again (and I suspect that will be the end of our accepting the abandoned mail!) and then Terra and I left to run some errands for the day. We went to the PX and picked up our pressed uniforms, some charcoal for a small BBQ we want to have, did some window shopping at the jewelry store and then headed to the post office to pick up the day’s mail. Once we arrived we realized that the shopping cart we had ordered to carry items around the hospital had arrived so we had to haul that mamma jahamba to the truck. Easily the best part of the day was the care package from my boyfriend that survived it’s multi-ocean trip from Scotland to the U.S. then back across the ocean and through the Middle East to Afghanistan. And still the Cadbury eggs made it! Because the APO label on my mailing address is technically a US address all my mail, no matter where it comes from in the world will go to the U.S. first before coming to me, hence the multi-trans Atlantic crossing.

Knock on wood things are quiet at the office now (and relatively uneventful – apart from the fact that I went to smell the new conditioner I bought at the PX…and ended up squirting it up my nose :-)

All in a day’s work I guess?!

Sunday, 24 April 2011

It is Easter Sunday!

This morning I woke up every early to volunteer with the Afghans at the Egyptian Hospital. I was all excited because I had received several donations of beads and jewelry making supplies and I had spent the week dividing the beads into individual bags which also contained a necklace length and bracelet length piece of plastic string. My teammates and I had plans to teach the kids the words for “jewelry” and “necklace” and “bracelet” and “bead”. When we arrived at the Egyptian Hospital however, we pulled up to find no cars outside and the place deserted. We jumped out and just peeked into the open courtyard area where everyone normally gathers but the place was a ghost town, and honestly, out here, when places are deserted like that? You relocate…quickly. We asked the Egyptian guard on our way out of the facility and he said that it was cancelled today and tomorrow, but as to why we can only speculate.
Because we found ourselves with some extra time and we were in the area we decided to head over and visit Sgt Timmy, the Combat Stress pup. Playing with Timmy was phenomenal. When we approached the Bhut where the Freedom Restoration Center is located, the door was standing open so you had to sort of come around it to look into the entry way and there was Timmy, front paws hanging over the first step, head resting on his paws. He gave us the world’s greatest dog greeting (FRIENDS! I love you! Where have you been!? Have you come to play with me?) and somehow life gets simpler and happier and lighter. He spent the entire time eating our water bottles till he had gone through everyone's and left a mess of saliva dripping squashed bottle all over the deck :-)

We stayed about a half an hour before heading back to our festive office. We had been stocking up on Easter candy and spring decorations to make it look like the Easter bunny came over night and given the combat environment, I think we did pretty good! Since then I confess I have looked at the Country Living magazine mom sent me about 10 times today because it’s full of all these gorgeous green photos of plants and grass and professional dyed Easter eggs and it reminds me of Easters back home in the States.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Today I met our new volunteer at the hospital so that he could shadow me on a hospital visit. We had met a few weeks prior, both of us volunteering on a Medivac. After hearing about the work we did, he was very interested in helping out at the hospital as well. Today was a quiet day at the ward with only two patients who were asleep. There was far more activity in the ICU, where two of the three patients had been hit by an IED and were both missing their legs. We spoke briefly with the third solider who had a gunshot wound, but mostly today we chatted with the staff and did our best to provide them with an outlet to discuss their work, which really does take its toll.

After the hospital I picked up Ingrid and together we went to pick up the post which we had been tipped off the day before was going to be excessive…and that wasn’t a lie! There were at least a dozen boxes for the office and the team members (Mom sent more fudge and Easter candy whose weight in my stomach is keeping me trapped at my desk). The highlight of the mail today was easily the abandoned mail. We open the abandoned care packages that we receive from the post office to ensure that we are not shipping forward something inappropriate… like bottles of beer! Alcohol is against General Order #1 in theater and grounds for some serious repercussions. Because it was abandoned mail the Red Cross was completely innocent in the whole ordeal but the non-commissioned officer in charge (NCOIC) of the post office had to come over and document and take pictures. And the best part…? It had been shipped by a police department back in the States! The irony of the whole thing was pretty hilarious, and we managed to ship forward 5 care packages to outlying FOBs which was great.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

The last few days have made for some fun at the Red Cross! On Sunday we hosted a Pizza Party for the ICW staff at the hospital. The Intensive Care Ward is the area where patients who are not critical enough to warrant a bed in the ICU but still require round the clock care, stay during their time at the Joint Command Theater Hospital. We work quite closely with the staff at the Ward, because these are the patients that we primarily visit at the hospital, typically conscious but unfortunately stuck in bed, often times with debilitating, sometimes life changing injuries. The members of this staff work so hard on the medical care of these soldiers, but also find themselves in the difficult position as the people the wounded turn to for moral support. That is part of our goal in visiting the patients is to provide a bit of relief for the hospital staff.

Yesterday also proved to be an exciting day at the Hospital as I was invited to watch a Purple Heart Ceremony. I happened to be in the right place at the right time as I ran into the military press representative who asked me if I’d like to watch. I wasn’t sure what to expect but the ceremony was not exactly what I had imagined. It was very informal and took place in one of the hospital hallways, but at the same time, because the General was presiding, all the military personell were at their most formal. It also wasn’t quite as I pictured because the two soldiers who received the award were obviously still suffering from their wounds, but they were doing their best to be as professional as possible for their ceremony and their General. Mostly though, I really had to actively stop myself from crying ( I was the only woman there and I would have shot myself if I’d actually lost it) but I couldn’t believe how emotional I found the whole experience. I couldn’t help but find the ceremony representative of all the soldiers I had seen and met since the start of the deployment who had lost their arms or their legs or their hands or their hearing, and I found myself wanting to cry for them and for the two who were being honored that day.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

Early this morning was the Bagram Air Base "Shadow Boston" Marathon. Exactly 367 runners signed up to participate and our team decided to help out and volunteer. We were assigned to work the finish line which ended up being a really cool spot to cover because the course was three laps around the base so we got to help out with times and see all the runners throughout the race and the finish. Unfortunately because Friday night/Saturday morning is our busiest day of the week we had to take shifts to volunteer to ensure the office and message queue were covered. Because my shift ends at 11pm it made sense for me to take the first shift from 1:30-3:00am but that meant that I only got to see the preparations and the start of the race before heading back to the office to put in some overtime so that everyone could participate. One of the coolest things about the race was the start because they actually coordinated with EOD (Explosive Ordinance Division - Hurt Locker anyone?) to have a controlled detonation to signal the start of the race. I didn't end up getting to bed until 6:00am and then it was back to the office by 2pm. It's shaping up to be a mercifully quiet Saturday, the highlight of which was a postcard from my youngest nephew. I also had a semi-awkward/entertaining moment when I went to the hospital for a visit and when I entered and introduced myself to one guy in ICU he goes "Ma'ma you kind of caught me at a bad time. I'm trying to pee at the moment!" Whoops! I couldn't have known he had a catheter in but I offered to leave the room all the same!

Friday, 15 April 2011

When I came into work this morning I was pleasantly surprised to find out that I had been tasked to make dozens of Easter goodie bags for the troops from donations that we received. This cheery and somewhat mindless activity was definitely needed after the night we had last night at the Red Cross.

Many people do not know this, but in addition to passing Red Cross messages on behalf of families amidst an emergency, the Red Cross actually acts somewhat like a 911 emergency call to prevent suicides. Technically we refer to these “messages” as SPAs - Suicide Prevention Action. Essentially, if a deployed servicemember is communicating with family back home and expressing suicidal ideations, the family can call the Red Cross and initiate a chain of events to intervene and protect the servicemember. Our Red Cross station in Bagram will get a direct phone call from a station in the States briefly explaining the situation as well as the soldier’s personal information so that we can accurately identify both the military command and the servicemember. Once the correct command is located, we call and ask to speak to the highest ranking officer in the unit, whereby we explain the situation and ask that command locate and secure the servicemember, hopefully before any harm comes to pass.

Last night was just such a night here at the Red Cross, although circumstances were made even more precarious due to the fact that the entire computerized message system was inoperative at many stations around the world, including all the deployed stations. We had not had access to the system for two hours when we got a call from National Headquarters advising they had a SPA for us. Fortunately I was still in the office after my shift because my co-worker took the phone call from National and stayed on the phone with them to receive the information while I called the unit and spoke to the only night solider in the office who had never handled a suicide prevention action before. I talked him through what he needed to do while National was relaying the information to Kami who was relaying it to me while I was relaying it to the command all in an effort to ensure that this servicemember was located, secured and given help.

The worst part about SPAs however is the waiting…after we’d passed the information to command they act immediately on their end to get in contact with the servicemember’s actual unit and then to the servicemember himself. This leaves us at the Red Cross office on edge waiting for a call back to hear if we made it in time. I waited another two hours at the office to hear back from command, but by 3am they still could not give us any information and I was exhausted.

Although suicide prevention action is nowhere near as common as the regular emergency message we pass, every now and again a SPA comes through that jolts you into a actual life or death situation where your actions maybe save someone's life and provide them the help they need.