Thursday, 31 March 2011

This morning I got up at 9:30am (after going to bed at 4am) to go back and volunteer with the Afghans at the Egyptian Hospital. The women’s days are Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday and although I likely cannot make every day since I need to get some sleep, I knew I couldn’t make this coming Sunday as we have a team meeting at 6am which would leave me with only two hours of sleep! I went to the office and got a ride with one of my teammates out to the hospital where I got the opportunity to meet the American Ph.D who runs the program. She is on what's called a Human Terrain Team (HTT) a team of sociologists and anthropologists who work with the Afghans:

Since we only toured the facility when we went last Sunday, the Doctor told me to just sort of sit back today and observe… that was frankly impossible thanks to the Afghan children! The children are adorably friendly, coming up and shaking your hand to introduce themselves. We colored and did English lessons which we “graded” with a smiley face. One military unit brought a bunch of yo-yos which was hilarious as the kids tried to figure them out. There were also a few card games going and then…since everyone seems to LOVE my hair, I pulled out some hair ties and started doing crazy hair styles. A pony tail coming straight out the top of my head, a side ponytail, two pig tails on either side, I even showed them rapidly how to do a French braid. It was such a hit actually that the Egyptian guards came over and started taking pictures (look for the crazy American on facebook ;-) I think that I may try and have some ribbons and bows shipped and actually teach the girls to do some things with their hair. Most of them are quite conservative and wear headscarves but they seemed so into playing with my hair that I think it’s worth a try!

It was also clear that all of the girls desperately wanted my necklace. I actually think I committed a cultural faux pas because they put one of their toy beaded necklaces on me and I thought they were just playing, but I actually think they thought we were going to trade so once I picked up on it, I was gently like, no no no, this one is mine, but when I tried to give the beaded one back, they insisted I keep it. I felt really bad actually… I need to learn Dahri pronto!!! So another idea I had was to have jewelry making kits sent over so we can make jewelry together. Let me know if you have any other ideas for games and activities we could play…especially ones that are somewhat learning based :-)

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Best phone greeting for a unit about to receive a Red Cross message...

"Hello Red Cross, now's not really a good time. Can you call back? We're having a rocket attack".

Sirens going off in the background...
Today was quite a rewarding, but really draining day. My teammate Terra and I went out to run some errands in the afternoon and we’re thrilled to find the home of the Combat Stress Dog. We found Sgt Timmy, the yellow lab, hanging out at the Freedom Restoration Center which is a little bit like Kanyon Ranch. Servicemembers who are having a particularly difficult time can “check themselves in”. They have 6 male and 6 female spots and they essentially “provide education and practical application of techniques focused on resiliency, adopting to stress reactions, enhancing communication skills and promoting rapid restoration to enhance management of combat and operational stress reactions.” Basically they hang out in a safe environment, play sports, play with the puppy and try to help people find themselves again. Terra and I stayed to play with Timmy for a while and then headed to the hospital for our daily visit.

At the hospital we ran into the female interpreter that was working with the Afghan women yesterday. We asked her if she was free to speak to us for a bit and so we went into a break and she told us about how she was raised in a very different Afghanistan that what we know now. She never wore a burka, had a college education and had lived in the US for 17 years. She explained to us how the Egyptian Hospital worked, that the women who came to see the doctor were so uneducated that they could only say, for example, they may have a pain in their stomach and it turns out to be a kidney stone. The women don’t know about nutrition or sanitation which is one thing the Hospital is trying to combat. I asked her if the women wanted to wear the burka and she said overwhelmingly no. The women complain of getting sick from breathing in the scent and fibers of the fabric. I could have stayed and talked with this woman all day long, but sadly we had to get back to the office.

Later that night, after my shift I went to help with an outbound/inbound Medivac, which are back to back flights to take the patients out on one bus , load them onto the plane and then wait for the inbound mission to arrive to take them to the hospital. The Medivac tonight was really very emotionally draining. There were maybe a dozen ambulatory patients, 4 litters and 2 CKats (on full life support). One of the CKat patients was a solider in the unit behind our office. He was the gunner in an MRAP which rolled twice and he was essentially crushed to death and brain dead. Four of the guys from his unit, who are friends of ours all showed up to carry his litter onto the plane, the closest thing to family this solider has out here. As rewarding as the experiences are, and there’s no doubt that I will continue with them, they are profoundly exhausting. They really test the fibers and substance of your heart and your soul.

Sunday, 27 March 2011

Another eye-opening day in Afghanistan. We were offered a tour of the Egyptian Hospital by our friends at the American Hospital. I got up at 9am (the middle of my night) to meet my team at the office and drive over to the American Hospital. There we met up with the new American medical unit who was taking over the relations between the Americans and the Egyptians, and all of us were going over to tour the Egyptian Hospital.

This Hospital is particularly unique as it is Egyptian run for Afghan men, women and children. They keep the men and women on separate days so today was a women and children day where they can come to the facility (which is on base) and receive free medical care, donations and English lessons from volunteers. When we arrived the place seemed rather chaotic, but in turns out the women who runs the women's days was on business in Kabul so there were no organized lessons or games.

It was utterly profound to intermingle with the women shrouded from head to toe in their pale blue burkas, even their eyes masked by the lattice fabric. The children were very friendly, introducing themselves, holding your hand, playing with my hair. One boy was hit by an American MRAP vehicle and lost his leg. Another boy was in a wheelchair and had to hooks for arms. He looked so lonely. I cursed the language barrier. I would have liked to have gone up to him, but without words you can't use humor to help ease a situation. With looks alone it always comes across as pity.

I lost count of the number of times I was asked for money, shoes, food. I was asked several times to have my picture taken. To be honest, the whole experience was far too voyeuristic for my liking. I felt like the privileged American do-gooder who simply came for a tour of the camp, moaned about how terrible the was the Afghan plight, and then left without doing anything tangible or endearing. It made me feel sick, to be honest. I felt like such a poser. They have the real need out here. We were told by one official that the Afghan women line up outside the door of the Egyptian doctor, without real medical ailments, to beg him to do something about their husbands, who beat or mistreat them. He is the only male they can have permissible contact with. Honestly, everyday I experience what I think will be the biggest reality check I can face...and then without fail it seems that the next day brings an even bigger one.

After the Hospital, two of my teammates and I took a trip out to the Afghan Bizarre which is by the main gate. They have some really beautiful items for sale out there. I was particularly impressed by these hand-carved wood trunks which you can have custom designed. There was also some gorgeous jewelry- lapis lazuli is the most famous natural gem out here and you can find it in almost all their craftsmanship. There were also beautiful scarves and rugs and trinkets. I was mostly window shopping today since all the items there are for barter, but I suspect there will be another trip in the future.

Saturday, 26 March 2011

So a few items to share! Last night Ingrid, a Sergeant friend of ours and I went looking for the mythical FOB Warrior which is the camp located on the other side of base, cut off from our half of the base by the airfield. We had heard that Warrior had all of the good food places and true enough, after a 15 minute drive through some rather unsettling rural scenery, we found....PIZZA HUT. The wait for your order at Pizza Hut was 55-65 minutes (and there were over 50 people ahead of us on our order number), but miraculously, the guy taking orders asked if we were "on duty" and thinking we doctors, I believe, told us to wait off to one side and he slipped us our pizzas in under 10 min. I had heard that they used goats cheese here which wasn't as tasty, but frankly, I couldn't taste the difference. It was glorious.
Then I worked my shift and hoped to help with a 2:30am Medivac but as I pulled into the hospital at 2:25am the bus was already pulling out onto the Airfield! Alas... :-(

Today, as I was walking through the hospital for my visit, I was flagged down by the Armed Forces Blood Services guy who said he would be really interested in working with us to start a more public campaign about the need to donate platlets at the hospital. I gave him my card and told him to contact us and we'd look into it.
Then I found out that there was a Medivac mission later this afternoon so my team leader and I went back to the hospital to help with that outbound mission. And perhaps the highlight of this post, as Ingrid and I were walking back to the office I practically crashed into one of my best Air Force buddies from my time in Tikrit. We both started yelling and hugging and jumping up and down. I had no idea he was even in Afghanistan, let alone Bagram...unbelievable how small the world can be sometimes.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Man, I am having the busiest day! When I got to the office Ingrid hadn't been to the post office or the hospital yet and we couldn't drive there because there was an Afghan New Year event at one of the most cental DFACs on base so they closed the main road to all non-essential traffic. My teammate and I decided to walk to the hospital for our visit. We ran into a K-9 unit leaving the hospital so we got to pet a chocolate lab and a German Shepard who were a specialized search dog (IED detection) and an attack dog respectively.
Then we went in to do our visit, but everyone in the ward was asleep so we left them in peace. Next we went to the ICU and the only guy in there was in a bad bad way, he was missing both his legs from the knee down and one of his arms from the elbow down. I spoke to the doctor and he said they had finally got the guy sedated and settled down (I can't begin to fathom how you react to three missing limbs?) and that it wouldn't be a good time to talk to him right then so we left without really speaking to someone.
From there we walked to the Post Office to pick up the mail. Two of our team members got boxes and the office got something huge like 12 boxes worth of care packages for the troops so we told the guys we would come back tomorrow with the car. Then we went to go check out our new place and sighhhhhh, it's definitely not what I would choose. We are on the second floor of an office building, in a more central location of the base for sure, but honestly, I don't know why you would ever choose to just sort of chill in that space, versus other more comfortable options. Oh well, stop thinking negatively Michelle!

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

I had a really interesting experience at the hospital today. The ward was packed when I arrived for my afternoon visit, almost every bed was full. I tried to spend 10 min or so with each patient, talking about home or sports or whatever topic seemed to interest them. I try to avoid talking about why they are in the hospital unless they seem to want to talk about it. Yesterday, for example, there was a very young marine who had stepped on an IED and he very obviously wanted to talk about his experience. He said he kept replaying those last few seconds in his mind over and over again, trying to make sense of what had happened.
Well my last visit of today was to a Loadmaster (the Air Force pilots) of a C-130. We started sharing "battle stories" and our conversation moved into the stresses of a deployment and PTSD. He shared with me a rather incredible story... he was the pilot who actually flew former NFL football player turned Army ranger Pat Tillman to FOB Salerno. This loadmaster said that after Pat was killed and his death made the news, he began to wonder just how many of the guys he had brought into country never came home. It was such a candid, honest conversation. He said quite frankly he didn't know when you reach the point that you just can't take anymore.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Just a short note to share a few stories. Last night we found the BBQ dining facility on base. It is literally a giant tent with long tables inside (much like at summer camp) and the DFAC serves all the foods you'd find at a BBQ, hot dogs, hamburgers, BBQ chicken, pasta salad, corn of the cobb. It was a fun change from regular chow. My team leader and I also located where the combat stress dog lives and we intend to visit there really soon! We have also been advised that we are officially moving offices and housing. Our section of the base, Camp Cherry Beasley, is all moving so we are going to get a much more central office location and housing, but unfortunately will not have as much space as we do now. This move will take place very soon. This is somewhat disappointing as we'd had hopes to expand the office if we moved, not shrink it. But we are trying to think positively and rationalize that our new location may get a whole lot more visits...they just won't have as much space to lounge :-(
We want to plan a going away BBQ as a farewell both to the units leaving and to our office. It can be very difficult to order raw meat over here so we are hoping to get a head start on that before we have to move! On a different note, we are all going to take "flightline" training to get a flightline badge which will allow us to attend the Fallen Comrade Ceremonies that take place on the flightline for those who have been recently killed.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

The Medivac mission that I participated in tonight was, without exception, one of the most incredible experiences of my life. Whereas my first mission was transferring wounded soldiers from Afghanistan to Germany for further recovery, tonight I was with a group of volunteers that met the C-130 on the flightline to transfer soldiers who had literally just been wounded. Their injuries had just been inflicted and they were being transported from the frontlines to the Bagram base hospital to be stabilized. Fortunately, I am not faint of heart when it comes to blood or injuries, but it is truly difficult to even describe the experience of carrying a litter with a 250 lb man wrapped in bandages and blankets who has lost his hand, or who's face has been brutalized or who has a metal device holding his arm in place. You want to cry for them and hold their hand and tell them everything will be alright or you realize that you can't think of anything to say at all because things are so bad that you can't bring yourself to lie or to speak the truth. I always tried to smile at them, since my smile is sort of my default expression but somehow even smiling seems cruel. Does your smile reassure them? Or does it mock the tragedy of the situation? I really don't know... to be honest, I'm still trying to make sense of what I've just seen and to sort through the onslaught of different emotions I feel...
Man, I am having the wildest day, I am getting the sense that I am going to be saying that a lot! First off...I did my first errand run by myself using a manual car!!!!!!!!! GO ME! Before arriving here, I had driven a manual twice in my entire life and our retro truck over here is a stick so I have been practicing at 1:30 in the morning when people can't wince as I stall over and over again. But today, after only three days of practice I drove first to the post office where I picked up at least a dozen care packages and then I drove to the hospital to do a visit in the ICU. Today was unbelievable. They had a lot of guys in there but in particular they had a vehical that had been hit by an IED and the guys inside of it were all in ICU. The driver was in the worst way and I asked the nurse if he could hear me (he was intabated and semi-concious and couldn't speak). She said yes so I took his hand and started talking to him and when I started talking he actually opened his eyes and was squeezing my hand in response to the monologue I was saying. It was just incredible. Then I went and talked to the 2 other guys, and one was trying so hard not to cry. Broke my heart.

I also learned there is another Medivac mission after my shift ends so I am going to head back over to the hospital to assist...

Saturday, 19 March 2011

So I just got back from another eventful trip with my team leader. We went to pick-up mail at the post office (and sadly there was none :-( but the weather is so bizarre here right now that afterwards we actually went driving around the base for a bit taking pictures. We are in the middle of crazy windstorms that sound like freight trains ripping through the BHUTs, but they are also causing the craziest cloud formations over the mountains.
Also, I found out today there are landmines in the middle of the base! We drove right by the section all marked off with warning signs and we're told that no matter what you should stay only on the pavement of that road. Then we also discovered that there are little Afghan villages no more than 200 meters away from the rickety chain link fences that protect our base. In one place, we could see a guy sitting against the wall of his house not more than 50 meters away from us. I heard stories about the Afghan children coming up to the fence to receive chocolate from the soldiers, but they no longer do this as it's too much of a security risk for everyone involved.

Now it's back to the office where, knock on wood, there haven't been too many emergency communication messages and there is a crowd of guys in the canteen watching The Fifth Element.

Friday, 18 March 2011


Today ended up being such a remarkable day...

Ingrid, the team leader and I went to run some errands on the base. Our first stop was the PX (grocery/convience store) where we bought dozens of sandals for the ward hospital patients because that is what they indicated they needed the day before. As we were leaving the PX we ran into Timmy, the yellow lab Combat Stress dog (who's only job is literally to make people happy) and his handler. We got their contact information to hopefully coordinate some events together. From thePX we drove to the hospital ICU to do visits and distribute the sandals AND THEN we discovered that there was a Medivac mission (airlifting wounded soldiers to Germany) leaving in two hours and they were in need of volunteer help so Ingrid and I agreed to do it. We ran to the post office where we had to pick up almost a dozens boxes in comfort care kits, hurried back to the office to store them and then went back to the hospital to get trained in loading and unloading hospital litters with wounded soldiers onto the back of a school bus for transport to the flight line! After the training we had about a half an hour before we started loading the wounded soldiers onto the bus. There were 26 total and one of them was a C-Kat meaning he was so injured he was in a drug induced coma for the flight and he traveled with all his medical equipment, ventihlater etc, loaded onto his litter. It was one of the most incredible things I have ever done in my life. Then we bussed with them to the flight line where we unloaded the patients from the bus and onto a C-17. I tell you, with the mountains and the storms clouds and the fighter jets taking off in the background, loading these wounded soliders onto the plane was just... indescribable.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Welcome to the Mountains

Greeting from the Hindu Kush Mountains! I'm just going to jump right in with this crazy adventure!

So this past Friday March 11, we went into lockdown at Ft Benning early morning and after lots of formations and roll calls we were bussed to the Airfield where we were kept in an airport hanger until the flight, which they kept secret until we actually boarded the plane. From there it was an 8 hour flight to Leipzig, Germany, a two hour layover and then a 4 and a half hour flight to Kuwait City. The flights were largely uneventful apart from the Silverback gorilla in the seat to me who protruded into my seat at least 3 inches. And sitting on my left was, no joke, a Major Restrepo! I asked him if people always asked if he was the soldier from the documentary and he said I was the third person today to ask! And added though that he could always tell who had seen the movie because they asked "Are you the same guy from the movie?!" Gotta love the black humor ;-) (Restrepo was a documentary about the US in Afghanistan and the little outpost was named Restrepo in memorium for one of their soldiers).

Once in Kuwait City took a blackout convoy to Ali Al Salem camp, a.k.a Tent City. Ali Al Salem is a transient camp for those coming in and out of the deployed zones- Iraq and Afghanistan. We checked into the camp around 7pm and then proceeded to haul the 600 duffel bags that had been loaded into flatbed trucks from our flight off the vehicles. You'll be amused to know that I'd had maybe 5 hours of sleep since Friday morning (it's now Saturday night) but I was on my 600th wind at this point so I was literally throwing these duffel bags at the 6-2, 220 contractor standing behind me in line causing him to have to take a step back each time I heaved one at him. He found this hilarious and starting yelling at everyone that he had muscles standing in front of him, hehe ;-) We spent that night in delightful dusty open bay tent with 10 other women and a mandatory 24 hour lights on rule.

We were manifested on a flight to Afghanistan for Sunday at 1:45pm but we unfortunately got bumped off for soldiers returning from R & R which meant, wahoo...another day at Ali Al Salem :-/ The next morning, Monday the 14th, we managed to get on a flight that left around 10am. We palletized our duffel bags (the military equivalent of "checking bags") loaded up in body armor and were bussed to the airfield where we boarded a C-17. We buckled up our seat belts and after sitting on the tarmac for an hour... were informed that the flight was going anywhere and we needed to de-board and bus back to Ali Al Salem. Sooo back to the PAX terminal to try and get on the next flight (they were having problems with the radar). We did fly out later that day, a 3.5 hour flight to Bagram. The most exciting part (apart from flying in the belly of a military aircraft where you can see the organs of the plane) was the evasive maneuvers the pilot took to land in Afghanistan. All of a sudden this transport aircraft has turned into Top Gun swerving sharply to the left, then dropping down like a rollercoaster making your stomach scream, then veering left, then dropping again. Easily the best part of the flight :-)

After arriving in Bagram at 10pm Afghan time, we met the current team leader in the terminal, and shlepped out duffel bags to the Red Cross truck. After a few errands, we went to the office where we got the keys to our rooms and made calls home. At 12:30am I headed to my BHUT which is the most rugged, cobbled together housing I have ever experienced on deployment. The BHUT is basically an outer skeletal structure with one room inside that has been divided into four "sections" using plywood or whatever the military could find. The walls don't go to the ceiling so there is 3 to 4 feet of exposed room before the ceiling making the room totally communal. I have a bed and a wardrobe and about 5 feet of walking space in the "room." I am also sharing with three other women. It's definitely an experience - it's like living in a construction site... with cobras, rats, and scorpions for neighbors.

Yesterday, our first day, the whole team had to be up by 8am to get a tour of the base and do lots of administrative things. The highlight of which, let me tell you, was the military postal class I had to take at 9:30am to get certified in picking up mail! You had to sit through a class and then take a test. I was so tired I can't really believe I passed, but when we were grading each other's papers at the end I had mis-graded the guy's next to me because I was so tired! :-( My shift is normally supposed to be 3pm to 12am, but since we'd had no sleep and a early start, my team leader let me go back and sleep so I started half way through my shift. It was a good night and I'm getting settled. I will leave it at that if you've even made it this far!

Thank you for all your replies and kind words. Hope to speak to you soon and I promise pictures to come! If you are interested in learning more about the base here is the wiki link!

Across the miles :-)

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Let the Games Begin

Hello friends and family :-)

This will be my only email message from the States before I travel to the Middle East! I have spent the last two weeks in training, first at the National Headquarters of the Red Cross in D.C. where we met our team members for the first time and discussed the specifics of our work. I am on a team with three other women and as it stands now, will be working the swing shift in Afghanistan, 3pm to 1am. After D.C., it was on to Ft Benning, GA (aka summer camp) where I have been for the last week, living in the communal barracks, completing a beaurcrat's dream worth of paperwork, every medical test known to man, plus several theater specific training courses like what to do if you are taken hostage, first aid and identifying weapons and explosives (family member disregard that part! ;-)

I will send out another message once I am in country, no doubt regaling you with the joys of traveling with 3x70 lbs duffel bags plus 30 pounds worth of body armor and many layovers in different countries. If you are interested in mailing something, just contact me and I would be happy to send you our mailing address. Letters and packages take about a week to arrive and I have found the mail to be pretty reliable. I also wanted to thank you all for following my stories and wishing me well. I think of you all often when I am so far away and I never feel alone when I hear from you. Your kind and thoughtful words make all the difference at the end of the day.
See you on the flip side :-)