Monthly Archives: December 2007

“If the Army Didn’t Issue it to You, You Don’t Need It”

I am faring reasonably well with my three duffle bags of equipment issued to me in Ft. Benning. I use the uniforms, t-shirts, and boots daily. A dark green camouflage poncho liner serves as my bedspread. We were told to bring our own PT (Physical Training) clothing, underwear, and toiletries. And that’s it. The saying goes, “If the army didn’t issue it to you, you don’t need it.”

Although I pass many emergency messages requesting that the service member return home, I know that few leaves are approved because of the need for personnel here. It isn’t like a unit can just call a temp agency for a replacement. I overheard a soldier say that he thought the Army was frustrated with dealing with families and all of their problems. Since many members of the National Guard and Reserves have been called to duty, the services consist of older, married personnel with more dependents in comparison to years past when military service was mandatory and most recruits were young and single. Laughing about the dilemma, the soldier said the saying can be extended to “If the army wanted you to have a spouse, they would have issued you one.”

Person does sacrifice a lot by coming here. Even though I admit to bringing several books and DVDs, and I know the servicemembers bring IPods and computer games, we leave behind daily contact with family and friends, our favorite chair, alcohol (Someone forgot to tell me this during the Red Cross recruitment process! So no wine with dinner, no Friday night martini!) No wearing favorite clothes – only uniforms, PTs, and occasionally one set of civilian clothes. We can’t drive our favorite cars. A lot of things are left behind.

Henry David Thoreau’s years living at Waldon Pond come to mind when I think of our simple life on COB Speicher, a life stripped of amenities. I am also reminded of life in a religious order, especially in the past when people established a community outside of their families and gave up material luxuries, wore uniforms, and adhered to strict routine schedules. I am intrigued by the similarities between religious and military life. I better understand the benefits of a living with fewer, far fewer, material belongings, wearing the same uniform everyday, and having the same schedule every day. This life frees me of many concerns. I don’t have to think about what I am going to wear each day, if it will be appropriate for the occasion, if it matches, etc . . . . This routine and simple life allows a person to remain tightly focused and fully dedicated to the mission, incidentally a word used by both military and religious organizations.

Holiday decorations started appearing at the DFAC and in offices shortly after Thanksgiving, but now – a week before Christmas – tension seems to be rising and I’ve overheard some tempers lost. This is the second Christmas away from home for the soldiers who have been deployed for over twelve months. A friend from home sent an email saying she hoped we wouldn’t experience any suicides. Too late. By the time I received her note, we had received a message about a serviceman’s seventeen year-old son, who had been critically injured by a gunshot wound to the head, allegedly self-inflicted. Later in the week, we became aware of two servicemen who committed suicide. Overall the volume of messages remains relentless in all categories of emergencies.

Last night I relayed a message about a servicewoman’s father who had been hospitalized and diagnosed with an acute, terminal form of leukemia. This happened to my husband and that dark November night was the beginning of the last eight months of his life. I could visualize the hospital room and found myself reliving a chapter of my own history when I read that message over the phone.

But it is not entirely grim here. Coworker Debby has working miraculously to raise spirits. She began by wearing antlers and a red nose to cheer those around her. I have a picture to prove it! She also put her skills as a photographer to use six evenings in the various DFACs taking portraits of servicemen and women in front of a Christmas tree that they could then email home. Around a thousand such pictures were sent back home to families. Today she donned a Mrs. Santa outfit that she sewed out of a red fleece blanket and hosted the carolers who sang for us this evening.

From email and a few phone calls, I hear about my family getting ready for Christmas, ready to share gifts, a meal, and a day together. I am thankful that they are all safe and well. I hope for you and all families a simple Merry Christmas that allows you to keep focused on your mission.

River of Messages

I am numb at the end of a week of relaying many, many emergency messages. It had been quiet around Thanksgiving. A week later, Julie and I are passing record numbers of messages for our time here.

Each one is unique: the death of an uncle who raised a serviceman in West Virginia. A wife having complications with a pregnancy while trying to care for five young children and two have the chicken pox. A sister scheduled for cardiac by-pass surgery in California. A teenage daughter has run away in Georgia. As I pass each one, I hear the names of the deceased, ill, injured or lost person and the detailed verification that is provided by a nurse, doctor, funeral director, or police officer. Each message is very individual and real.

But by the end of my shift it is like I have been sitting on the bank of a fast, rushing river full of names, diagnoses, hospitals, and funeral homes. I feel badly hours later when the serviceman calls our office to verify that he has received the message, I cannot remember if the message was about a birth, death, or illness.

In the midst of this work, some messages come through requesting that the serviceman or woman leave her post and unit in deployment to return to the States to support a family member having a bunion repaired, a tummy tucked, or a few teeth extracted. I am frustrated in the flurry of passing so many true emergencies that we have to service some messages that technically meet our definition of emergency, but look almost ridiculous in comparison to the severity of most messages.

These messages probably reflect the loneliness families are feeling, especially at the holidays with their loved ones stationed far away. And this isn’t the first deployment for most of these soldiers, most are here on their second or third deployments, and each one has been for a longer term. In the Army, the first deployments were for six months, the second deployments were a year, and now they are being assigned for fifteen months. The Marines started with six month deployments and now are assigned are for a year at a time. These multiple and extended deployments are bound to cause families to stretch out and try to get soldiers home, especially for the holidays. We may be in for a very, very busy next couple of weeks.

I stopped by the hospital this week with coworker Debby to deliver some Comfort Kits to three soldiers injured a few hours earlier by an explosion. The first soldier, Christopher, was a broad shouldered, dark haired young man who looked a lot like my future son-in-law, whose name is also Christopher. A lump grew in my throat as I thought about my Christopher safe at home in southern Minnesota, where he is finishing his teaching degree. The Christopher in the bed with dirt, perspiration, and blood dried on his forehead and arms belongs to a wife and a four year old daughter in Texas. He said he has had hardly spent time with his little girl since she was born. His leg was broken badly enough to require surgery, and he hoped they would send him back to the States to recuperate. He has served five years, and after the day’s explosion and a brush with death that killed the driver in his vehicle, he was ready for a break.

With regard to the holidays, colleague Julie and I went shopping Sunday to a spot along the front gate, which because of its proximity to the perimeter of the base requires wearing armor. So we donned our helmets and vests. And you thought holiday shopping in the states was rough. Check out the picture of us headed to “the store.”

Oh, yes – I almost forgot – we had entertainment on base. Male and female WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) wrestlers performed at COB Speicher. A couple of weeks ago the Washington Redskins cheerleaders were here to boost morale. Before that, a country singer performed. I missed all of these opportunities due to either sleeping, working, or washing my hair. My entertainment choices would be opera, symphony orchestras, a play, or a reading by a famous novelist or poet. I realize that my interests probably wouldn’t draw a large crowd here, but wrestling and cheerleaders?! Where is Bob Hope when you need him?

“If You Didn’t Put It Down, Don’t Pick It Up”

When we accepted our deployment assignment, we knew we would probably be in more danger than living at home in Utah or Iowa. When I first heard I was assigned to COB Speicher near Tikrit, I asked an Air Force Reservist who had deployment experience what it would be like. He replied, “Don’t worry, they’ll probably have someone assigned to take the bullet for you” . . . What bullet?

Red Cross staff are assigned to offices on military bases, and in deployed locations, we are forbidden, absolutely forbidden, to leave under any circumstances. Before we arrived, the only danger I had heard of would come from airborne mortars (referred to as “incoming”) As far as I could tell, these attacks have been few and ineffective in the last couple of years at COB Speicher.

What I didn’t know until we arrived is that an undetermined number of IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) and UXOs (Unexploded Ordinances) were buried here by the former owner, Saddam Hussein. At Ft. Benning, we received a briefing on these explosives, and even though I knew I would not be going out past the wire — the military expression for leaving the base — I paid close attention and even took notes. Pop cans, watches, and cell phones are often used to lure someone into picking it up. We were instructed to never, ever pick an object up off of the ground – never. The rule from that point on has been, “If You Didn’t Put it Down, Don’t Pick It Up.”

I learned about the existence of these hidden explosives within hours of arriving at COB Speicher. Everyone was talking about the soldier killed by an IED on base the day before. Although the grounds were scoured by bomb detection teams when the base was first occupied by U.S. troops, some devices have emerged over time as the ground is disturbed by weather or construction. Rumors circulated for a few days about what the soldier might have touched and whether he had followed protocol. Had he done it on his own? Was he assigned to clean up an area? I never heard for sure, but again we were warned not to touch anything on the ground that doesn’t belong to us.

For the last two weeks, crews have been digging trenches near our CHUs to lay improved plumbing lines. I am all for enhanced plumbing, but I was nervous about the backhoes working so close to our living quarters. I was reassured that the area had been screened extensively when our troops took over and not to worry.

Last week, as I was walking to the office from our CHU, several Humvees raced past me with their sirens blaring. I didn’t know that Humvees have sirens. Apparently some do. They stopped at our block of CHUs. By this time I was over half a mile away and couldn’t see clearly what was happening, so I continued on to work without giving it much more thought.

My colleague Julie was in her CHU asleep. She is our late night case worker and comes in near the end of my shift. According to her, a soldier pounded on her door and shouted at her to run 150 yards beyond the garbage dumpster. A rather startling awakening, but she did as she was told. No questions asked. She stood there shivering until the all clear was called and she went back to bed.

Julie assumed an explosive of some sort had been found in the garbage dumpster. At work that night, she said she would be apprehensive about throwing anything away after this.

We later heard that two live grenades were uncovered by the back hoe. The EOD (Explosives Ordinance Disposal) team removed the live items without incident. For the most part, no one talks anymore about the incident that killed the soldier before our arrival, and the news of the grenades was only news for a day or two. We move on.

We still laugh a little though, thinking about Julie’s new fear of garbage dumpsters. Until she learned that the explosives were in the trench and not in the dumpster, she was in the process of developing a new approach to taking out her garbage. Step 1 Approach dumpster and lift lid very carefully. Step 2 Toss garbage in. Step 3 Run like crazy. This would look strange enough around here, but imagine people at home observing this behavior when she returns.

All of that was days ago. It rained yesterday for the first time since we arrived. The air smells chalky, and our attention has turned to the advent of the rainy season.

P.S. To my family; Julie’s family; and Carolyn, our supervisor in DC; please do not be worried by this account. We promise: we won’t pick anything up!