Homecoming

I’ve traveled a fair amount, but never before was there a live band playing at my homecoming. It took four days to return from Iraq. We waited twelve hours in a cold, damp hoop house for a plane out of COB Speicher. A severe thunderstorm, followed by dense fog thwarted our departure. I had no idea that dense fog could form over a desert. Julie and I were caught in a downpour and found ourselves jumping to avoid lightening at one point. I thought, good grief, I made it this far, this long, and now I am going to get hit by lightening.

After our first flight was canceled, a dispatcher notified us that an unscheduled flight would be landing in a few hours. We were welcome to take it to Kuwait, but we needed to be okay with flying with HR. HR? My face probably went blank as I was growing weary of military abbreviations. Someone whispered “human remains” by way of explanation. We were tired, eager to return home. If we missed another flight, we would miss our flight out of Kuwait. We agreed.

After breakfast, the sun came out and we saw muddy Iraq for one last time on our way back to the airfield. Water pooled and the thick syrupy mud stuck to our boots with every step. We climbed into the back of gray Air Force C-something and strapped ourselves into the benches in the open hull. An unmarked white truck backed up to the plane and two metal coffins were unloaded and strapped in next to our pallet of duffles. One carrying a U.S. service member bore the American flag. The other was plain.

It was a rough flight. There was turbulence, and they tend to fly high as long as possible and then make sudden, steep landings to minimize the chances of attack. We landed at one airfield, disembarked, and stood in formation while the caskets were unloaded. We then took a short, even more turbulent flight to the military base in Kuwait. Julie’s complexion turned pallid as she struggled with motion sickness during our combat ascents and landings.

In Kuwait we met up with Red Cross co-workers from the Balad and Baghdad stations. It was a warm reunion with hugs and pictures. We had our first non-DFAC meal in four and a half months at McDonald’s. McDonald’s never tasted so good. At 0100 hours we rose to catch the end of midnight chow before flagging down a four-wheeler to take our bags to the customs staging area. We waited there for four hours until the 0500 formation for a briefing. A Major standing next to me in formation kept asking me why we were processing so early when our flight wasn’t scheduled to leave Kuwait until 1700 hours. I told him I had only been around the military for five months and suggested that he would probably know better. He laughed, saying he’d never understand. He was a civil engineer in the reserves.

Navy customs personnel asked us to dump our three carefully packed duffles out on the counter so they could look through everything. I embarrassed myself by thrusting a Subway cookie at the inspector when I approached his station. We had been told during the briefing that if we had any prohibited items like fruit, tobacco, or any food not in its original packing, pornography, or explosives, we could just hand it to the inspector and no harm done. So I thrust the only prohibited item I had at him as I approached the counter, a cookie. “What’s this?” he asked. Maybe he thought I was trying to bribe him. When I explained, he told me I could keep my cookie.

About three hundred servicemen and women and various civilians waited in lock-down status within a fenced in area containing some benches and two tents. The air conditioning in the two tents was blasting at some temperature that felt like below zero to me. Outside, it was over 90 degrees and the sun was direct. I was getting sunburned, so I tried to take cover inside one of the tents where rows of chairs had been set up in front of large screen televisions that projected movie after movie. Exhausted, so I flattened empty cardboard water bottle boxes and tried to nap on them. The concrete was like ice and the cardboard provided a buffer. Nicole caught a photo of me trying to sleep. I resemble a homeless person, although I was in the care of the U.S. Navy.

Eventually we boarded buses and were taken after dark to our plane, which landed in Leipzig, McGregor Air Force Base in New Jersey, and then finally Ft. Benning, GA. There is where an Army band played as we debarked from the plane. As a chaplain and another officer greeted us, the reality that we were home, back in the United States, sunk in. I wanted to cry. I had made it. The dog tags that hung around my neck had not been needed. Now I wanted to see my family.

With amazing efficiency, the cadre at Ft Benning handled our equipment turn-in, and the following morning they gave us plane tickets home. Of course, there was a long shuttle ride to Atlanta, more delays due to bad in weather in Chicago, but eventually, at 11:30 pm (My life was no longer counted in military time) my daughter Kristina met me in tears at the Rochester, Minnesota airport. There was no sweeter moment.

I had seen many public service announcements on the military television stations about adjusting to civilian life. And it is pretty much like they said it would be, but it is still hard to prepare for feelings like this. There is so much relief to being home especially to see my daughter, mother, siblings, in-laws, and my seven wiggling, giggling nieces and nephews, who all gathered a few days after I returned. I was so relieved that everyone was okay, that unlike the 1,100 emergencies messages I had passed in Iraq, none of my family or friends had died or been diagnosed with stage four cancer or incapacitating depression. It’s selfish, I know, but I was deeply grateful. My dogs met me, wagging their tails to the point I thought they’d fly off. They slept next to me that first night. I can’t begin to describe the soft, perfect feeling of sleeping in my own bed again.

There are also adjustments. I admired my daughter for all of the things she handled while I was gone. There are little things that can wait and she let wait. I remember overhearing the conversations of servicemen trying to tell their spouses how to add oil to the car or how to unclog a drain. I wondered what sort of burden they felt trying to run all of the details of their home from Iraq. My daughter handled important situations (the toilet needed to be replaced in my absence and this is something that can not wait in a one bathroom house), and she left the little things. So when I came home I saw that the front lid on our mailbox had fallen off and that neither the washer, nor the dryer were working properly. She made do. But I inherited an immediate to-do list as I looked around our place.

There are also bigger issues that are best left until everyone is together. Kris bravely decided not to tell me that my favorite dog (You aren’t supposed to have favorites, but I do) might have a kidney disease, which may shorten his life span. I am glad she chose not to tell me about his condition while I was in Iraq. Hearing the news at home, I could see him, hug him, and go talk directly with the vet myself. This news would have upset me more while I was in Iraq. But none-the-less, coming home means dealing with everything from the missing door on the mailbox to the ailing companion.

There is also so much hometown news to absorb. You come home expecting everything to be the same, and mostly it is, but restaurants and videos stores have closed. Apartment buildings have been demolished. Family and friends talk about events that happened in the last five months that you don’t know about. And then it started snowing. It has snowed, sleeted, and rained a lot since I came home. These are not the sunny, warm, dry skies of Iraq.

I know from emailing with colleagues like Julie and Nicole, we are all adjusting to a more chaotic world than our days of rather rigid routine. There we got up and did basically the same thing – deliver emergency messages from families to their serviceman or woman – every day. We turned our laundry into someone else to do. Someone cooked for us and maintained the vehicle we drove. We were focused on one mission. Here it seems like there are about a hundred things happening at once. I miss my uniform (I never thought I’d say that!). It was simple, no decisions everyday. Nicole is still wearing her boots. They are comfortable and familiar to us for now.

But don’t worry. I’m glad I am home and I don’t think I’ll leave again soon.

I read an article about a young Marine from this area in the local paper a few days ago. He said he wouldn’t trade the experience of being deployed in Iraq for a million dollars, but he wouldn’t go back again for a million dollars either.

A close friend of mine had the good sense to take me to a poetry reading shortly after I returned. We heard Mary Oliver read some of her most poignant poems about the natural world we inhabit. Her poems are like prayers, and they made me even more grateful than I already was just to be here. Jodeen typed up one of Mary’s poems and gave it to me in a frame:

“There is something about the snow-laden sky . . . that brings to the heart elation . . . Whenever I get home – somebody loves me there . . . Wherever else I live . . . in this world . . . which is falling apart now, which is white and wild . . . Don’t worry, sooner or later I’ll be home . . . I’ll stand in the doorway, stamping my boots and slapping my hands, my shoulders, covered with stars.”

Thank you to everyone who waited for me to get home, who nurtured and sustained me while I was in Iraq – personally by emailing me or sending me coffee or treats or seed catalogues – or professionally by being one of the thousands of Red Cross staff and volunteers who take in and verify all of the emergency messages that I relayed while I was on COB Speicher. And also to those of you who read this blog. Thank you. And thank you to the band that played when my feet first felt the tarmac in my home country.

Headed Home

Shortly after five every morning when it is still dark, I hear automatic weapons rattle across the base from a firing range somewhere. I am amazed at how accustomed I’ve become to hearing that tat-tat-tat as I sit in bed reading, waiting to feel drowsy enough to sleep after my shift. If it doesn’t begin at the usual time, I find myself checking the clock, wondering why it hasn’t started.

We no longer count the remaining time of our deployment in months or weeks. Only days remain. Our replacement team members have finished training and briefings in Washington DC . They have been “processed” at Ft Benning like we were, and their circuitous journey to Iraq has begun.

As our deployment comes to an end, I am beginning to ponder resuming life at home and making the transition to a civilian world. In addition to anticipating being back with my family, friends, and pets again, I won’t have to worry about keeping my pant legs tucked in my boots, — an almost constant preoccupation of mine for the last four and a half months — or wearing my cover (cap) everywhere outside, or showing identification every time I go in a store or dining hall (known in other parts of the world as restaurants).

My vocabulary is now saturated with phrases like “Roger that” and “Ready to copy?” I use the military alphabet: alpha, bravo, Charlie, delta, echo, foxtrot . . .” and military time: “Let’s eat chow at zero seven hundred hours.” I am going to sound like a character in the Doonesbury comic strip if I keep talking like this.

My daily routine has become deeply embedded in my life. Everyday for 135 days I have done the same tasks, in the same order. What will life be like when I wake up in the morning back home and have to decide what to wear and what to do first? Even the thought of going grocery shopping is intimidating. It felt chaotic to me before I left; now it will seem insane.

We don’t drive over 30 miles an hour on this COB. How will it feel to drive 55 miles per hour again in roads with multiple lanes? Street lights illuminating roads at night will seem dazzling in comparison to our darkened routes on base.

I have learned a lot about the military, our presence in Iraq , and myself during this deployment. I am tempted to try to draw conclusions about how the daily ritual has kept me focused on our mission or how being a conduit of news, usually bad, has made me more aware of the fragility and sacredness of our lives and the delicate webs that exist between parents and children, husbands and wives, grandparents and grandchildren.

I have some sense of what I have learned and the transformations I am experiencing, but more realistically, it will take time for me to fully comprehend the impact that this deployment has had on me.

As we wait for the new team and our departure begins, I do know I am thankful for the opportunity I have had to be here. It has been rewarding, challenging, and life changing in ways that will be revealed gradually over weeks and months in the future. I smile when I think about being able to tell my grandchildren in years to come that I was in Iraq with the Red Cross during the war.

I am especially grateful for the friends I’ve made with servicemen and women, and co-workers. We’ve shared a lot of ourselves, many frustrations (Remember the ship’s anchor that cut our Internet connections?!), and plenty of laughs. I’ve had an opportunity to work with people I hope to know for a long time to come, even though once we leave here, we’ll return to the Utah , Pennsylvania , Iowa , Tennessee , and other parts beyond we each call home.

It’s strange to think the vibrations from low flying helicopters and the rattle of automatic weapons in my life will soon be replaced with the sound of the March wind slapping through hackberry trees outside my house tucked in a corner of snowy Minnesota .

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!

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.

“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.