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!