Monthly Archives: January 2008

Anticipation of Spring

Like when you are a kid at summer camp, mail is pretty exciting here. This week I received a box from friends at the college where I teach in my real life. They sent two pounds of my favorite coffee and, to my surprise and delight, seed catalogues. In Minnesota, my home state, those of us who garden spend hours during the cold, dark days of winter turning the colorful pages of marigolds, snap dragons, and tomatoes, choosing our favorites varieties from last year and picking something new to try this year. The bursts of color and planning for spring are wonderful diversions, or at least, they provide balance to the reality of being in Iraq.
Life on COB Speicher continues to be quiet, meaning no mortar attacks or IED explosions since our arrival. Sometimes it is so quiet, I wonder if we are really in Iraq at all. I have amused myself wondering if I am in something like “The Truman Show.” But I know it isn’t quiet everywhere and there seems to have been a small rise in causalities recently among the units we pass messages to. Julie and I have a tendency to open “Stars and Stripes” newspaper to the causalities, and like many people in the states, turn to the obituaries. In our case, it is merely a list of name, rank, unit and a brief description of the cause of death. We are saddened by all of the deaths, but are especially touched by those in some of the larger units we call messages to: 101st Airborne Division out of Ft. Campbell, 82nd Airborne Division out of Ft. Bragg, NC; 111 Engineering out of Camp Dawson in West Virginia, 1st Infantry Division out of Ft Riley, KS., and all of the Marines in country.

In addition to the military deaths, the civilian deaths persist. A study reported in “Stars and Stripes” indicates that civilian casualties maybe be much higher than the 41,000 previously reported. The new estimates have been released in a report sponsored by the World Health Organization and the Iraqi government and published in the “New England Journal of Medicine” suggests that an estimate of 151,000 civilian deaths since March 2003 may be more accurate. Such loss is absolutely mindboggling, difficult to even conceptualize.

In the meantime, the messages continue to flow here. This week I’ve seen many messages related to liver, colon, and renal cancer; the deaths of two young children, nieces of servicemen; and many wives suffering from adjustment disorders and depression. The toll on families continues to be significant. A bit of good news announced in “Stars in Stripes” is that the Army may be able to reduce its deployments from fifteen to twelve months by this summer. That will bring welcome relief, not only to the servicemen, but also their families. So, spring and summer offer some hope.

Battle Fatigue

We have hit the halfway mark of our deployment and all is well, although I must admit we are getting a little tired. After working sixty-seven consecutive days we are a bit weary. Computer problems continue to plague us. The computer program that we use to receive and send messages seems to require enough computer bandwidth to wrap around the earth twice. So the computers are always just various speeds of slow. At their slowest they kick us off. Repeatedly.

And the phones don’t work over here with absolute certainty. In the U.S. you pick up the phone in an office without considering the possibility that it won’t work. Many evenings I have to call and call and call a number before I can get it to go through.

And the military units move. I guess that’s what the military does. They roll out over and over. Units come into theater and units redeploy. Within their deployments, servicemen and women are assigned and reassigned to units. The whole place is in constant flux, and we are riding that tide, trying to find people when there is an emergency at home.

Usually it is pretty exciting and goes well, but when we hit a snag like the computer quits working, the phone line won’t go through, or we call about six numbers trying to find a soldier or marine, it can be grueling. During our training the instructors and supervisors kept telling us we would have to be patient. I didn’t realize they meant patience of the magnitude of Job’s. It is difficult to be patient when I have a message for about a ten year old boy who is going in for open heart surgery unexpectedly or a message about a wife who has given birth prematurely and the baby has just been air lifted to a neonatal unit.

All of this can make us a bit cranky and I hope our colleagues in the U.S. aren’t too offended when our epistles back to them are a tiny bit short when they send us a message we don’t quite understand and we reply, “What the –?”

The other evening, when I was just about at wit’s end, I went into our canteen to make a fresh pot of coffee for the soldiers waiting to use the phone. While I was there, a serviceman told me that he often sees me walking to work and has meant to stop and tell me thank you. He said he appreciates what we do and that we are out here with them. He said some the younger soldiers may not realize it yet, but it is very reassuring to know that if there is an emergency at home the Red Cross will find you. So, okay, I guess I can tolerate the slow computers and temperamental phones a little while longer. We do get the messages through, even if it does take longer sometimes. And they appreciate it.

The other part of our fatigue relates to the monotony of our surroundings. The MWR facilities try to have programs, dancing lessons, comedy contests and such, but our schedules don’t really allow us to partake of many of these events. The repetition of the same schedule of working, sleeping, showering, even reading and biking, day after day becomes a little tiring.

Not to be defeated, Julie and I varied our sleep schedules today and went shopping and sightseeing. We found postcards of Iraq at one of the bazaars on post. I bought a pair of inexpensive black wrap around sunglasses ostensibly so I can wear my contacts more often without getting dust in my eyes, but mostly I got them because I think they look cool on me! And sunglasses are one of the few fashion accessories allowed.

From there we stopped by one of the MP units on base and brought them Starbucks coffee that had been donated and some Red Cross coffee mugs. This is one of the units that goes outside that wire and trains the Iraqi police. It was interesting to talk with them about their mission and the encouraging progress they are seeing at the Iraqi police stations.

After that we drove to the south end of the base where a new Cinnabon shop opened. We sat in at one of their tables with coffee, a strawberry smoothie and two Cinnabons and pretended we were at home.

I realize I don’t battle anything more than the computers, phones, and monotony, and for that I am thankful. There is hope on the horizon.

The Commanding General on COB Speicher inadvertently asked my co-worker Debby how things are going, probably thinking she was going to say, “Fine, sir” in her polite Tennessee manner. But Debby, bless her heart, told him about our computer problems and next thing we knew there was a new computer with better access being installed in our office. Wonders never cease.

Color of My Landscape

I think all of the camouflage is starting to get to me. I had a dream the other night I found a bright, canary yellow blouse in my closet here and had an overwhelming desire to wear it. Definitely not a possibility in the midst of the sea of tan and beige camouflage on COB Speicher!

And when I wake up, sometimes it is strange to realize I am in Iraq, a place constantly portrayed in the news with photos of war torn streets after a bomb has exploded or veiled women and children walking along a path guarded by soldiers. It is hard to believe I am in that place, in Iraq, because all I see of it is within the boundaries of COB Speicher. Most of my impressions still consist of what I see and read in the news appended by a few conversations with soldiers who go outside the wire to train Iraqi soldiers and police, patrol the highways, or help with provincial reconstruction in one manner or another.

The war or conflict remains almost as fragmented in my mind as it was when I was at home, a series of events, successes, and setbacks. Even a letter sent out to the troops and civilians here from Commanding General Petraeus reflects this reality. Although there have some large suicide bombings in the last few weeks, the General’s letter does point to a recent trend of fewer attacks and reduced military and civilian casualties, which I can verify on Icasualities.org.

In addition to trying to gain a broader since of geography here, the messages I pass increase my awareness of places at home. The towns represented by the families and Red Cross chapters at home sending emergency messages are sprinkled across the US in places I had no idea existed.

Neither Julie nor I had heard of Celebration, Florida when she passed a message originating there. Turns out, Celebration is at the end of a road that originates in the Magic Kingdom at Disney World. Another town I had never heard of, Euless, Texas, population 51,000, exists between Dallas and Fort Worth. A message about a serviceman’s wife going into preterm labor came from there. Another message came from the small town of Tylertown, Mississippi, pop. 1,900. News of the death of a serviceman’s father came from central Mexico, the town of Zacatecas, which was a silver boomtown established in 1548.

While plenty of messages come in from places I know well like Detroit and San Diego, my curiosity is piqued when messages come from towns I’ve never heard of like Newtown, CT. I wonder about the families and Red Cross volunteers and staff who take the originating calls and verify the deaths, illnesses, and births with the doctors, funeral directors, and law enforcement officers in these places scattered across the country.

And while my world is getting bigger due to the messages I pass and my experience in Iraq, I wonder, in the middle of this camouflage laden landscape, if maybe, just maybe, General Petaerus has a rainbow colored beach shirt somewhere that he is dying to wear when he goes home, too.

Post-Holiday Refections

I admit that I am relieved the holidays are over, not for the usual reasons of being exhausted from shopping and celebrating, but rather relieved I survived missing my family, my friends, and our usual traditions. The sergeants, specialists, and captains I pass messages to during the night shift seem relieved, too. The yearning for life at home has returned to a pre-holiday level. We are intact, ready to continue business as usual. But Christmas wasn’t the only holiday that passed last week.

Eid al-Adha, the second most important Muslim holiday, occurred December 19 – 21 almost coinciding with Christmas. I learned about Eid al-Adha when I lived in Algeria in 2005. While being driven to and from the university where I was teaching, I noticed that sheep were accumulating in the boulevards in Algiers, the capital. At first I naively attributed this to liberal zoning regulations. Then my driver, Kamel, starting enthusiastically telling me about an important figure in the Islam faith. He was fluent in French, Arabic, and knew a little English. With my English, minimal French, and a lot of hand motions, I figured out he was telling me about Abraham.

I tried to convince him that Christians know about Abraham’s test of faith when God asked him to sacrifice his son and God’s grace by providing a sheep for sacrifice instead. Kamel insisted that Abraham was part of the Islam faith and we found ourselves competing to claim Abraham! Eventually we stopped debating and started laughing, realizing that Christians and Muslims share this great testament to faith and grace, it is a tenant of common ground.

During Eid al-Adha, sheep are gathered in Muslim neighborhoods, like pine trees accumulate on neighborhood corners in the Unites States before Christmas, so every family can easily buy one. The sheep are then slaughtered by representatives of the local mosque, as a tribute to the ram God substituted for Abraham to sacrifice instead of his son. Families share a feast and then give away two-thirds of the animal to those more needy.

Ever since, I have tried to focus on the similarities between different cultures rather than the differences. It seems that we only hear about the differences. I am honored to have celebrated Christmas on this little piece of land, COB Speicher, while outside the gates — beyond the wire — a Muslim country was celebrating Eid Al-Adha. Perhaps there won’t be a heavily armed gate, a wire, next year, or maybe the year after.