Monthly Archives: February 2008

Maybe There is a Limit

As of today, my team members and I have worked 114 days consecutively with the exception of one team member who was SIQ (Sick in Quarters) a few days on doctor’s orders due to a respiratory infection. Otherwise, we have each come into the office everyday.

I have calculated that during this period I have delivered over thousand emergency messages, and except for about a hundred birth messages, they were announcements of a death or illness. One day last week, the first message I opened when my shift started contained the news that a serviceman’s wife died in a car accident in the States. The soldier’s unit headquarters is just across the street from our office. That message seemed to hit close. The serviceman’s first sergeant came over and we gave him a phone card and a voucher good at the PX so the soldier could buy civilian clothes to wear home.

Debby passed a message from a nurse in an ICU requesting that a serviceman call the hospital as soon as possible to speak with his father. The father was terminal and not likely to live long enough for the serviceman to return.

I am not sure it is result of working so many days consecutively, or if it is the cumulative impact of the messages we pass, but our spirits have been low the last two weeks. We anticipated being especially cheerful at this point since we are in the last month of our deployment, but somehow we seem to be a little anxious and restless.

Since I usually find solace in music, one night after work I listened to some of my favorite pieces on my MP3 player. Midway through “Für Elise,” a plane flew close overhead, the buzz and vibration cut through the delicate piano melody, shaking my CHU . I wondered how often sounds of war have interrupted Beethoven’s music.

Valentine’s Day on COB Speicher was a bit anti-climatic. Debby decorated the hallway and our canteen which provides a respite, coffee, and phone lines for service members to call home. When the day arrived, however, the weather was bleak. It had rained heavily the night before. As dusk approached, fog gathered, and a small sand storm ensued. It was a gloomy evening with sand and fog hanging in the air. Further, free phone calls home were offered on the MWR upstairs but due to the high volume, or some other system anomaly, the computers went down.

I’m sure we will rebound, and I know many people have worked seven days a week for longer stretches than ours, but I am seeing some purpose to resting on the seventh day and look forward to doing so again in the near future. I won’t take it for granted.

Addendum: I have been unable to post this entry for over a week due to a continued computer outage in the MWR upstairs, which provides the only access to my blog website. In the interim, the base in Baghdad sustained a significant mortar attack, causing our colleagues there to take cover. Five people died and sixteen were wounded, providing a somber reminder of where we are.

Sleepless in Iraq

I haven’t slept soundly since I arrived at COB Speicher. No one I have talked to has either. A steady stream of Apache, Blackhawk, and Chinook helicopters make their landing descent over our CHUs. The roar of the engines comes so close the CHU shakes. I am convinced some of the pilots are having a contest to see who can fly the closest to the roofs of our CHUs without hitting them.

In addition to the aeronautical disruptions, the CHU walls must be made of cardboard. We can hear into each others’ rooms with startling acuity. Respiratory illnesses, like the sinus infection I had last week, are prevalent here, so we constantly wake each other up coughing, blowing our noises, and sneezing. We hear more than the loud noises coming from each others CHU’s; we can hear each other roll over in bed.

My colleague Nicole in Baghdad at Camp Liberty reports that UXOs (Unexploded Ordinance Devices) are often brought onto base there to detonate under more secure conditions. They tend to detonate them while she is sleeping. She reports that the she still jumps when they go off even though she knows what they are. And then she falls back to sleep.

All of this sleeplessness or unsound sleep causes bags under our eyes and contributes to a malaise and irritableness sometimes encountered on base among civilians and service members. The best way to avoid being grouchy is to stay focused on the mission, which has it rewards.

This week I passed several messages that caught my attention. The first was for a serviceman whose thirteen year old son was in the process of being medically airlifted from his small town in California to a children’s hospital in Las Vegas because of a respiratory problem that might require intubation.

Another case came from a mother who stated that she received a call from her son, a deployed soldier. During the call, he yelled that he had been shot and the line went dead. This seemed very unlikely. Unfortunately, we get calls like this that turn out to be pranks. This one was not a prank. We checked through the army casualty office in Washington DC whose job it is to notify next-of-kin. They had no record of any incident involving her son.

Just to be sure, we checked with his unit over here, and sure enough, it was true. The command told us that the unit was in a remote area where the soldiers were given the opportunity to call their families on a satellite phone when a sniper opened fire. Fortunately, the soldier was not killed, but was being transported to a hospital for treatment. As a mother myself, my heart went out to that woman, who heard her son being shot. I can’t imagine what the next hours were like for her until she received word that her son was still alive.

The last case relates to the floods and tornados in the States. We received a message from a family indicating that their house had been terribly damaged in the tornados in Kentucky. The family was okay and under the care of the local Red Cross, but they wanted the serviceman to know what had happened and how he could reach them at their temporary housing. The soldier was a member of a special forces team, and they are tough to find over here. They move a lot and their locations aren’t highly publicized, to say the least. Our Baghdad office had transferred the case to me, thinking the team fell under a command I cover.

I must have made a dozen phone calls when finally I got a hold of a first sergeant, on a phone with a terrible echo. They were way out somewhere, on FOB Hope, I think. There was significant echo and delay on the line. The sergeant took the message, noted that they were a small unit. He knew the soldier and said he’d get the message to him right away. I really felt like this time I was talking to someone on the front line, not someone in a safe, semi-comfortable S1 office like I usually do.

At the end of our brief conversation, the sergeant said, “Thanks, we appreciate everything the Red Cross does for us.” That meant a lot to me; it made making the twelve calls to find them more than worth it, to know that the serviceman was going to get the message about his family’s situation and to know that what we do is appreciated, especially by the teams in remote, hard to find locations.

I called our Baghdad office to let them know I was able to pass the message on this case since they had sent it to me unsure. After I updated them, I thanked them for something. Nicole replied, “You, betcha.” I felt like I was home in Minnesota for a few moments, where I hear “You, betcha” all of the time. She reminded me of the good friends we have become while working over here.

Maybe I’ll sleep better tonight. I’ve found that watching movies helps. My current favorite is “Madagascar,” the animated film about four animals who break out of the New York City zoo in an attempt to seek adventure in the “wild.” I like it because it is funny and maybe it parallels what I am doing out here. The movie is a great tribute to the value of friendship when urbanized beings take to the wild and makes me thankful I’m out here with some really good people even if we do get a little cranky from time to time.

A Ship in the Night

Passing emergency messages becomes so routine one can forget the significance of what is being relayed. One message this week woke me from my robotic ways.

Even the format of our messages is uniform:

“Serviceman’s father (name and phone number) requests notification and presence due to the death of serviceman’s grandmother (name). Death verified by (name and phone number of representative from funeral home or hospital). Death occurred at (date and time) Cause of death. Serviceman is unaware and requested to call family direct with plans.” While the uniform nature of the messages promotes efficiency and accuracy, it can feel like a fill-in the blank procedure if one gets too mechanical about it.

One evening earlier this week, I was passing messages one after another: an illness, a death, illness, illness, birth, death, illness, death, death. I had a CD playing in office, the Italian vocalist group Il Divo. They were singing a song entitle “Mama” with lyrics I heard intermittently while I read the death message to the serviceman’s command over the phone. The song’s melody and lyrics wove in between the lines of the death message I was reading for the serviceman’s grandmother: Serviceman’s father requests notification and presence due to Mama, thank you for who I am the death of serviceman’s grandmother forgive me for the words unsaid Death verified by You showed me love, You sacrificed, think of those young and early days Death occurred at I owe it all to you, Mama. Serviceman is unaware and requested to call family.

At the end of reading this message, the significance of what I was doing struck me. I am announcing a death, the end of someone’s life. It felt like much more than a clerical task, it felt almost sacred. In the past, I’ve though about the sacrifices the servicemen and women and making here and the burdens that the families are carrying at home, but I hadn’t really considered the subject of the messages before. This woman, with a beautiful Latino name, had just died in San Antonio . I wondered about her, the life she finished, and the family she left. I read the messages a bit more slowly now with more focus on the content and consider it an honor to be a part of making the announcements: birth, illness, and death.

The rain was finally arrived at COB Speicher, not consistently or relentlessly, but intermittently over the last week, and finally we have experienced the infamous Iraqi mud. The water turns the light dust into a thick muck; some describe it as like syrup. Others say it is like peanut butter. It sticks to our boots and is impossible to scrape entirely off, so we inevitably track some of it into the office. When it dries it turns back to its fine powder form, which is impossible to sweep. It floats into the air and lands as a fine layer of dust all over the office. If I sit still long enough, it covers me too. But it doesn’t rain everyday, and when it does, it mostly reminds of us of how good we’ve had it due to the greatly abbreviated rainy season.

The big news of the week, however, is that our computer woes have returned despite the new systems that were installed a few weeks ago. Apparently a ship leaving Port Alexandria in Egypt forgot to pull-up its anchor (I am not making this up!). The ship dragged the anchor for a bit and cut through a fiber optic cable, disconnecting most of the US connections in the Middle East and Africa . It has severely hampered American Red Cross offices in Kuwait , Afghanistan , and Baghdad . So all emergencies for the Middle East are filtering through the Balad Red Cross office and ours here in Tikrit. We are all sharing a tiny portal out of here.

This would be challenging enough, but in addition, I am totally drugged up on anti-biotics and decongestants of a serious nature due to raging sinus infection. I obtained the medications during a visit to the med shed, where I saw a doctor who immediately impressed me with her competency, although I must admit she is the first doctor I’ve ever had treat me wearing a revolver! This place continues to amaze me.

I’m sure all of this will all work out. I am just glad I am not the one who forgot to pull up the anchor!