Monthly Archives: November 2007

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Every week, I download pictures taken on the camera I almost always carry with me, look at what I’ve seen and then try to come up with words to explain my experiences. It is like a photo journal. This week, the phrase “the good, the bad, and the ugly” comes to mind.

I have a shot of a beautiful sunset and serveral pictures of the few flowers on base: mums thriving outside the entrance to the main laundry, delicate but fiercely resilient desert flowers blooming along my walk to the office, and a rose in our Garden of Eden courtyard at the office.

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The flowers are a testimony to someone’s desire to create and nourish beauty in an otherwise stark landscape. Seeing a bourgeoning patch of mums or a single pink rose allows us pause and admire, and perhaps, escape our otherwise difficult surroundings for a few moments.

But planting something in the desert is an act of hopefulness, too. When someone plants, they have done it with the expectation that it will bloom at some later date and someone will be there to appreciate the colorful petals or the shade that has grown. A pessimistic person doesn’t plant seeds, especially in the desert.

This week, I also have a picture of dusk that is as disconcerting as the flowers are reassuring. Three green stars painted on a cement pillar — remnants of Hussein’s Air Force –, barbed wires, and debris fill the foreground as a dusty sun lowers itself to the horizon. Willa Cather set some of the most poignant scenes in her novels during twilight, the short window between day and night, a time of transition offering opportunity and vulnerability. We are at such a crossroads here.

“The good, the bad, and the ugly” also reminds me of our work delivering emergency communication messages. Many people think that with the Internet and cell phones, it is easy for service members to stay in touch with their families. This is simply not the case. Cell phones are not available in most locations due to security concerns and access to computers and land phones requires waiting in line. These types of messages can’t wait for the weekly call or email home.

Most of the messages are sad — the death of a beloved grandparent, the hospitalization of a servicemember’s toddler, a fire at a service member’s home. Some are worse: the breakdown in child care or the alleged abuse of a servicemember’s children, or the diagnosis of severe depression or chemical dependency of a spouse at home. The only happy messages are the birth notifications.

The other happiness or “good” on our deployment comes from our relationships with each other and the servicemen and women. We have become close even though four of us are in Baghdad on Camp Liberty, four are about 50 miles north in Balad on Camp Anaconda, and four of us are 50 miles farther north near Tikrit on COB Speicher.

Mike, a team member destined for Balad on Camp Anaconda saved me a seat when they were scarce before a formation at Ft. Benning, even when one of the team leaders wanted the seat. Mike justified his choice by saying that I smelled better than others mingling around looking for a seat– they were all male. This might seem odd and too personal under normal circumstances, but our staff bonded quickly while we were being briefed in DC and processed at Ft. Benning. Nicole, also now at Camp Liberty, calls me and the other women, “Sis.” Here at COB Speicher, Debby with her Southern kindness calls me “Miss Ginny.” And we have picked up each others’ phrases and mottos. Brittany, the recent college graduate, has us all saying, “Seriously!” in a long drawn out and dramatic manner. Jay told me in jest while we were in DC that he has trouble hearing unless he is wearing his glasses. So when our phones are acting up, and he can’t make out what I am saying, I shout into the crackling line, “Jay, for Pete’s sake, put on your glasses!” It occurs to me, with all of these gestures, we are trying to temporarily fill a portion of the void created by being away from our families and friends at home.

So with the few flowers, the generous friendship among colleagues, and each glowing sunset that graces this place, we are fortified to do the best we can delivering emergency messages one day at a time.

Thanksgiving at COB Speicher

Thanksgiving is probably my favorite holiday. The day encourages families and friends to gather without the complexities of religion or gift giving, and it isn’t overtly patriotic. Good food and fellowship is the focus.

Thanksgiving has been a special day here on COB Speicher too. Turkey, Cornish hen, ham, and prime rib were the featured meats in the DFAC served complete with dressing, mashed potatoes, gravy, and array of vegetables and deserts, including the traditional pumpkin pie. It was delicious, tasting amazingly close to home-cooked.

After two weeks here, my life is settling into a routine and everyday is starting to feel like the movie “Groundhog’s Day” where everyone must repeat the same day over and over until they get it right. My routine of working from 5pm until 2am, reading for awhile until I fall asleep, waking up, showering, running errands like dropping off my laundry, going to the PX, and then going to work again began to feel as if my life was like a needle in the groove of an old vinyl LP. This is not a bad thing – even the weather has been beautiful, sunny and in the 70s everyday, a slightly dusty version of California.

I am living on a base that is made of up dilapidated buildings remaining from the Iraqi air force base that operated here before the American invasion. In addition to sand colored cement barracks and office buildings, it includes a stadium, pool, and tennis court, none of which are operational today. Most buildings are surrounded by cement barriers up to 15-20 feet high. Everything is covered with a fine coat of dust, which appears like light brown powdered sugar. It is light and puffs of it rise in the air with every foot step. You image what it looks like when a humvee passes by.

I have adjusted to being one of few people unarmed on the base. The chaplain at the CSH (Combat Support Hospital) is also unarmed, but a talented armed assistant is assigned to him. The assistant can shoot, type, and bake (breads, presumably for communion). All servicemen and women are required to carry their weapons with them at ALL times and they mean everywhere. I have to be careful when I am walking through the dining room with my tray that I don’t trip on an M16 that has been laid on the floor while the soldier eats. Imagine and entire dining facility full of soldiers with weapons on the floor. All of this has become normal for me.

The highlight of my day was calling home and talking with my mother, daughter, sisters, brother, brother-in-law, one of my nieces and three of my nephews. I don’t think it seemed odd at all to my niece and nephews that I was calling from Iraq. When I was little, calls to Canada had to be made through an operator. My sister was busy checking the turkey while the children played energetically. It was snowing lightly outside.

After the short fifteen minute call, I returned to my work and delivered a message requesting that the chaplain be present when a soldier is told of his grandfather’s death and notification to an another soldier about his wife’s illness. Five hours remain in my shift, before I go to midnight chow, return to my CHU to read before falling asleep . . . .

Arriving at COB Speicher

13 November 2007

I was struck with an eerie feeling when I walked past the ruin of a tile fountain in on my way into an office building on base. COB (Contingent Operating Base) Speicher has been built on the remnants of one of Saddam Hussein’s most prized air force bases near Tikrit, his hometown. Hussein himself undoubtedly walked these same hallways and sidewalks. He was eventually captured along the Tigris River less than 20 miles from where I now live.

Until that epiphany, I had been busy finding the DAFC (dining facility), laundry, the PX (Postal Exchange – the military version of Wal-Mart on bases) and the post office on base. I needed to get patches sown on my uniforms, get access to the computers, and obtain my security pass. I had to learn to locate my CHU (Compartmentalized Housing Unit) in the LSA (Life Support Area) in the dark at 2 a.m. when my shift ends. The streets lights have been inactivated and most windows including the ones in my CHU and our office have been covered to prevent light from revealing locations, so it is dark, dark when I leave. The only light comes from the headlights on our white Ford Explorer, occasional flood lights usually being used for a night project, and the moon. I hadn’t had much time to think about where I am until now.

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Two weeks ago, we left Ft Benning on a large commercial aircraft that was contracted for military use. It was strange flying with 230 people armed with M9s and M16s. I can’t imagine what that flight weighed with all of us, our duffels and weapons. The poor plane seemed to strain on take-off. After a six hour flight, we landed in Leipzig, Germany for a short break, which became longer when they discovered the need to replace a valve. Our flight to Kuwait lasted another six hours and after some obligatory military waiting, we took a bus to the military airstrip, where we were “processed” and manifested.

After six more hours and a cheeseburger and fries at the 24 hour McDonald’s on the Kuwait base, we took off on a C150, an open belly plane built and used during the Vietnam War. About twenty of us were strapped into the center of the plane. It was just like in the movies.

During the flight I got up to look out of the tiny porthole window. I knew this was my only opportunity to get a view of Iraq. Once we landed I’d be on the base the entire deployment. After all of the reading I’ve done and all of the news coverage, I wanted to at least get one glimpse of the country. One of the flight crew invited me up to the cockpit. What a view. The sand had been very white when we left Kuwait. In the portion of Iraq I saw, primarily the Tigris River bed, the sand was pale pink or light rust. I couldn’t help but think of all of the blood that has been spilled along that region since the beginning of time.

The Tigris River winds back and forth, sometimes gently but often at sharp angles. It is an ancient river that has been utilized extensively for irrigation. I could see neat, square fields. Still the landscape looked more like sand than soil. The rows in the fields looked like someone had neatly raked the sand like around a golf course green.

I felt euphoric as that plane approached Al Sahra, like an explorer, not that I was seeing something no one else had ever seen, but because it was new and foreign to me. Iraq was no longer the cliché’ it has become in the news, a war-torn street. It was a vast country of sand and two ancient rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates. A place of beginnings; perhaps, according to some, the very place of beginning of humankind. And I am there.

At chow (the term for all meals – breakfast, lunch and dinner don’t exist as such), my colleague Julie reminded me that long before Saddam Hussein walked where we are walking, others like Abraham may have. This brings to mind Milton’s Paradise Lost set in the Garden of Eden and thoughts of history repeating itself: our lives in the midst of angels and fallen angels.

Being “Processed” at Ft. Benning

We left Ft Benning GA in white chariots, large white buses with school bus interiors. My adrenaline soared as we drove out of the CRC (Continental Replacement Center) after a week of being “processed” there. I was thrilled to be leaving. As we bumped along the rough roads through the base, it occurred to me that military bases are separate sovereignties. They look like any other place with jack pines, asphalt roads, water towers, and stores, but I came to learn that military bases have unique and separate traditions, laws, and languages.

Perhaps most readily noticeable on the base is the communal living arrangement. I ate, slept, and showered with strangers. Most of them were strangers. My eleven Red Cross colleagues and I were drops in the bucket of 400 military, Department of Defense, Department of Army, and private contractor personnel that arrived at the CRC that week to be processed for deployment to various area of conflict overseas, referred to as “in theater” and “down range.” Most of us were headed for Iraq – Kuwait — Afghanistan.

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Our daily routine included morning and evening formations, meaning we lined up in four rows to hear announcements and to be directed to various processing stations. The cadre, young soldiers in charge of herding us, read off lists of who should go were. We were identified by the last four digits of our social security number. All week, I responded to a number. A cadre would yell the last four digits of my “social” and direct me to go to the SRP to input my ISSOP, then eat an MRE for lunch before reporting to the CIF. And I was supposed to understand that.

At TSIRT (Theater Specific Individualized Readiness Training) we were trained – one day the courses lasted thirteen hours – on first aid, explosive devices, hostage survival, the laws of land warfare, and sexual assault prevention and reporting. Our medical records were reviewed at the Med Shed. We had blood drawn for DNA records, we received vaccinations for a variety of maladies including anthrax, small pox, and the flu. Our vision was checked and females gave a urine sample for pregnancy testing.

We were shuffled through the CIF (Central Issue Facility), a massive warehouse, where staff pulled items off of a pick list for us. When I told my family that I would be issued everything a soldier gets except for the weapon, my brother asked, “Isn’t that the one thing you really need over there?” Our DCUs (Desert Camouflage Uniforms), three pairs of boots, body armor, a Kevlar helmet, a sleeping bags, a fleece jacket, a Gortex jacket, rain gear, socks, thermal underwear, a canteen, and a laundry bag were among the items pushed at us across a counter faster than we could stuff them in our duffels.

I had several questions during the process, but there wasn’t much time for discussion. The DCU’s are desert tans and beiges obviously to blend in with the landscape, but the duffle bags they gave us to store and haul all of this gear were still Army green. Why wouldn’t the bags be camouflage too? All in all, we were given enough gear to fill three bags, probably 120 pounds worth.

At the SRP (Soldier Readiness Preparation) site we received laminated identification cards with a tan checkered background and black lettering with a grainy black and white photo. The result looks like a WWII spy ID card. So far this is going to be my favorite souvenir from this assignment. The days were long as we repeated the same routine: call to formation, divide into groups, and be shuttled or march to the designated destination. I use the term marched loosely. Our mostly nonmilitary group looked more like a dizzy caterpillar meandering down the road than a military unit moving out smartly.

We ate in the DFAC (Dining Facility) which was, as one might expect, like dorm food, or perhaps similar to summer camp. A large flat screen television projected the daily news and it was hard to ignore. While we were there we watched San Diego burning while we ate. Standing in line for breakfast, lunch, and dinner allowed me to met people who were also headed in theater, the military term used for primarily Iraq – Kuwait Afghanistan. One man from upstate New York is headed to Iraq to work for the company that staffs the PX on each base. He signed on so he could add a little to his retirement, maybe go on a cruise, and buy a large screen television set. Another man, David is an Assyrian born in Iraq. He has lived in the U.S. for many years and is an interpreter for one of the generals. He said the work is interesting, “too interesting when the general’s Black Hawk helicopter is being shot at.” The Assyrians are Christians and he said that Islam is not like the other religions because it advocates violence in order to convert people. He warned me to be careful around Tikrit because the people there are anti-American and really only like themselves.

I met another interpreter, a Kurd from Fargo North Dakota. He has lived there for ten years. I met dentists, a neurosurgeon, and a psychologist. Most people deploying out of this center are small replacement units or individuals or they are affiliated with contractors. The larger military units deploy out of another military base.

Much of our time at each processing station was spent writing the same demographic information on form after form: name, social security number, date of birth, category of service, destination, next of kin. The forms looked that they had been typed on a typewriter in the 1970s and never revised since and then copied on an ancient copy machine with a toner cartridge that deposits black speckles across the pages.

One of the highlights of the week was the packing party Red Cross staff held outside under one of pavilions. We dragged our duffels out and repacked the gear in a more organized manner than it was first stuffed in the bags. Three of our team members are former military members and they were a great help teaching us how to assemble certain critical pieces like the body armor. They also gave us a crash course in how to put on the gas masks, a detail not covered in any of the training we received from the CRC. Eventually, shortly before we departed, our packed bags were inspected by a K-9 unit for contraband. Fortunately none was found.

One of the most somber moments of the week occurred when we were given our dog tags. Someone asked why we wear two tags. A former military guy said rather glibly, “When you kick the bucket, they put one in your mouth and tie the other one to your toe.” There was lots of laughing. Someone said, “Not likely to happen.” But I couldn’t help think of the 3,000 servicemembers and civilians who had gone before us and ended up using those tags. I am not really afraid; the odds are really on our side, but still some people don’t come back. What were they thinking when they put those new shiny tags around their necks when they were being processed at the CRC?

The total loss of privacy and control or even influence over my daily schedule was difficult but it was probably necessary to get 400 people processed in a week. The frequent errors like shuttling us to the wrong destination or changing my gender to male on the last day were frustrating but also probably understandable given the small number of cadre and the 1970s sort of system that was employed to manage such large groups week after week.

One of my sisters asked me if I had signed on the wrong line. There were moments during this week when I wondered if I had. After the white buses collected us, we were transported to the airstrip and boarded a plane for Kuwait via Leipzig, Germany. We would be in Iraq 24 hours later.

Check out my pictures of this experience in the album. In a couple of days I will report on our arrival at COB Speicher in Tikrit, Iraq.