Wednesday, July 13, 2011

I left the Guard almost three years ago. Sometimes it feels like yesterday. I want to share a little story that has me feeling pretty satisfied right about now.

Our AMMO shop does this little thing where when someone leaves, they typically get tackled, duct taped to something immobile, covered in whatever filthy contents are in the shop's fridge, and then hosed off.

Exhibit A:



This is pretty timid compared to like, what the Marines or Army do to you, or so I hear. Except when you consider the fact that we once had bear meat in our fridge for over 3 months and no one would claim responsibility for it, so no one would throw it away based on (some abstract) principle.

SO. My previous posts mention a little rivalry I had with one of my supervisors, D. Rab, where he tied my bike to the rafters, etc etc. On my last guard weekend he was one of the primary guys who trapped me, duct taped me to a picnic table, and proceeded to water board me with 8 month old sour cream and salsa and ranch salad dressing.

I attempted to clean up and meet the rest of the gang out for the post-guard-drill obligatory beers in celebration of it being my last ever guard drill. I realized I was one of the last people left in the bomb dump. I realized D. Rab was gone. I realized it was August, a sweltery month in Wisconsin. I realized I had in my possession one soiled BDU uniform covered in rancid condiments.

I marched out to the equipment tent where we keep our gas masks and chem gear in big bags. I stuffed my soiled uniform in with his gas mask and chem gear, knowing he wouldn't discover it for at least 2-3 months, at which point it should have been solidly covered in mold growth and hopefully a great abundance of mice dung or other vermin.

I smiled, because D. Rab is a notorious one-upper. Anything you do to him, he'll do back to you 100-fold. There's no winning with this kind of unreasonable person. You always lose. But this time, I would be long gone, in Washington DC, and there's no possible way he could retaliate. This was so greatly satisfying I really can't even do it justice in words.

Except, i never heard about it. I regularly get texts from my guard people every guard drill weekend. usually some inside joke, or a gossipy update, or some complaining about some ridiculous new regulation. But I never heard one word about my soiled uniform getting discovered. Could it be that he actually found it, and kept it quiet? There was that one time I squirted ketchup and mustard into all of his work glove fingers, and I never heard about him finding that. That was greatly unsatisfying.

After awhile, I gave up, convinced he quietly disposed of it and didn't let anyone in on the fact I got the best of him.

That is, until I got this picture texted to me this past weekend. THREE YEARS after the fact:



WIN! I WIN!

But I am not sure what this says about the general maintenance and upkeep of Wisconsin Air National Guard equipment, if D. Rab has not examined his gas mask or chem gear in nearly three years.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

"How can God forgive us if we can't forgive ourselves?"

I've been thinking about forgiveness a lot lately, mostly because I've come across two stories lately that speak to the difficulty of combat veterans accepting forgiveness for their actions and finding peace after their experiences in war. Both of these stories happen to be relayed by men with very very Irish names, Patrick and Shannon. Although it's also called Catholic guilt, and I'm not Catholic, given my own guilt issues I think there really might be something to the whole phenomenon of Irish Guilt. I won't get into Patrick's story now, maybe in another post. For now I'll talk about Shannon.

I spent this weekend at a conference for a national security fellowship that I'm part of. This weekend marked a year since I've been part of this fellowship. Also a year since I've been continually humbled by how amazing and accomplished some people are. Some of the moments in my life when I've felt the smallest has been at events related to this fellowship. Mainly just because on one side of me is a White House speechwriter, on the other side is an Iraq war veteran who created an organization dedicated to helping Iraqi refugees, and we're all listening to CIA director Leon Panetta talk about being a first generation Italian immigrant. It's humbling stuff.

One of the sessions was run by my good friend Karen, a former C-17 pilot and a general ginger-haired firecracker, and our mutual friend Richard...a totally awesome guy who is a fashion designer and geospatial intelligence officer, who is interested in making art about surveillance (like I said, he's awesome). We broke out into small groups, were assigned roles like Secretary of Defense, Secretary of State, head of the Red Cross, Director of the CIA, and talked through the implications of drone use in Yemen. As a group, we basically concluded that drones are fine for surveilling, but things get complicated fast when you use them for strike capabilities (duh). I got to be the Secretary of Defense and had fun with that.

Toward the end, we got our groups back together and discussed what we came up with. Opinions were wide ranging on the legality and necessity of using drones for both surveilling and striking terrorists (which is one thing I really love about this fellowship--the ability to bring diversity together under the umbrella of ideology).

One guy piped up toward the end. I had noticed him because he looked kind of Army-ish, and when I looked closer I saw he had a metal bracelet on his wrist, the kind that's etched with a name and a date.Then I noticed that he had a tiny cochlear implant behind one of his ears, and I immediately knew he probably had a TBI. So when he spoke up, I paid close attention. Even if I hadn't already been paying attention to him, what he was about to say would have still hit me like a ton of bricks.

He started talking about the danger of the sanitization of war, which is one of my primary concerns with drone use. But then he said you can check all the boxes in person, and still be wrong. Just damn wrong. He stuttered a few times, and then explained that he had been a platoon leader in Iraq and came across a house they believed to be booby trapped. Rather then send his men to clear it and potentially lose them, he decided to call in a mortar strike. Boom. Obliterated.

Inside, an innocent family had been huddled. Boom. Obliterated.

He said he lived with it every day of his life. It haunted him. But that we needed to be careful about sanitizing war and not being able to see the consequences, even if it is easier that way.

I didn't know Shannon's story prior to this weekend. As far as I could tell, he spit it out with such emotion that it was the first time he was telling anyone about his ghosts. He is carrying his guilt, depression, and anger so bravely. I just want him to find his peace by speaking about his experiences.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Bright bright light




A fellow journalist who was in the triage tent when they brought in Tim Hetherington said he was bleeding heavily from his leg and was very pale. They called it 15 minutes later. Perhaps this is disturbing, but I can't stop thinking about his handsome face, so pale.

He was so vibrant, earnest, and full of life. He was a warrior for warriors, striving to tell stories of those in the most remote corners of the world. The ones that most Westerners don't care about: Liberians. Child soldiers. Rebels. Filthy American soldiers. I am so thankful I got to attend one of his lectures on Veterans Day last fall, when he shared stories behind his frighteningly beautiful pictures from Liberia and Afghanistan. I think a little piece of me fell in love with him that day, it didn't hurt that he had a charming British accent, was over 6 feet tall, had striking eyes, and spent his days seeking out danger not as a killer but because he clearly loved other human beings.

Tim Hetherington did not have to repeatedly travel to the most dangerous valley in Afghanistan, just to be able to tell a story that wouldn't otherwise be heard. He didn't have to walk miles on a broken leg, so that the men he was with could get off the mountain safely. He didn't have to dodge bullets and RPGs, completely unarmed except for his hand held camera, just so that we could catch a glimmer of war from the comfort of our suburban sofas. He wanted us to understand. He wanted us to care.

We lost a light yesterday. A bright, bright light who strove to shine on the stories of the forgotten and the voiceless. I'm thinking of the men of the 173rd today, who shouldn't have had to lose yet another brother.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Fair winds and following seas.

I heard some very bad news yesterday. A man named Clay Hunt took his own life.

I didn’t know Clay. Our paths crossed once last year, we were introduced, and I remember thinking he had a really great smile. But I had heard of him before I met him. Several years ago my friend told me about this blog that a Badger football player was writing. A former Badger football player named Jake Wood, who enlisted in the Marines after graduating from the University of Wisconsin, and was deployed to one of the most volatile parts of Iraq. Interest piqued, I checked it out. This guy wrote well. Really well. And not just for a football player. Or a Marine. His writing was visceral, relatable, funny, and raw. I checked in on him regularly, prayed for him and his platoon often.

He wrote several times about his close friend Clay Hunt, who had been shot in the wrist by a sniper and had gotten involved in veterans advocacy during and after recovery. The veterans advocacy world is actually quite small. And let’s be honest, Clay Hunt is a really great name. It sounds like an invented pen name. It just stuck in my head. Clay had inspired Jake to also get involved in advocacy, to DO something to help change the world after their mission in the Marines had run its course. Jake founded something called Team Rubicon, an incredible humanitarian organization comprised of an unlikely partnership between Jesuits (some call them the Special Forces of the Catholic church), doctors, and Marines.



When I read my friend’s message that Clay had taken his own life, I couldn’t believe my own eyes. Clay Hunt? Not him. Not the one I met. Please let it be another Clay Hunt.

It was the man I met last year. Clay killed himself after wrestling with the demons of depression and PTSD, the demons of feeling displaced and disoriented after returning home from combat. His story could be the story of so many I know, close friends that wrestle with those same demons on a daily basis. After throwing my laptop on the ground and breaking into sobs, my next inclination was to call up every veteran I knew and make them swear to call me when they found themselves in that dark place again.

My grandfather once wrote, “War is one stinking, terrifying hell. There are no heroes in war. There are only the survivors, the dying and the dead.” I’ve had long conversations about whether or not there are heroes in war. I believe that there are. But they are not superheroes who gallop through a hail of bullets and bombs because they are “brave”. They are simply human beings who selflessly love the man or woman next to them. And the brave things they do are driven by that one simple rule of humanity: love for your brother.

Today my heart goes out to those who love Clay as a brother, who stood with him but ultimately could not save him from the battle. May he find the peace he so desperately sought, and may his loved ones find comfort in this time.

In a disturbing, seemingly cruel twist of irony, Team Rubicon announced a new initiative designed to help veterans readjust upon return home from combat…on the very same day that Clay killed himself.

There is so much work to be done.

Donate to Team Rubicon here: http://teamrubiconusa.org/


Read another blog post about Clay here: Blackfive

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Medal of Honor.



Tim Hetherington’s pleasant, calming British accent prompts Sal Giunta off camera, the only time his voice is heard in the interview. “What went through your head when you heard you were going to be up for the medal of honor?”

Giunta doesn’t flinch. His eyes narrow almost undetectably. Without hesitating he replies,
“Fuck you.”

And in an instant, I feel Giunta’s visceral pain.

Fuck you for singling me out.
Fuck you for saying I’m brave.
Fuck you for making this political. Fuck you, I lost my friends.

Obama called it a joyous occasion. I have to disagree. It is the nation’s highest military honor. It is a very, very big deal. It is, purely, the essence of greatness. It stands for characteristics that we pray we exhibit if we are ever given the opportunity to do so. But I do not feel joy watching this, I do not feel joy watching Giunta stand quietly, enduring the camera clicks, knowing that inside of his head he is thinking only of his friends, and probably wishing he wasn’t up there in front of all of us. I feel something else. I feel somber, but I think more importantly great sadness, and a twinge of anger. A little piece of me cringes when I realize that we are capitalizing on this young man’s experience, using it as a moment to feel good about ourselves for recognizing his valor, commending him for his bravery. We make him recant that horrible, tragic day over and over again so we can clap him on the back and shake his hand.

I think it sums it up that it wasn’t important enough to bump Prince William’s engagement out of the top story spot on CNN.

Fuck you.

Monday, September 13, 2010

September 13

I had no idea how much September 13, 2001 would change my life’s trajectory. This September 13 marks nine years since I joined the Guard and two years since I’ve left it. I didn’t mean to join two days after September 11, it just happened that way. I made the decision over the summer of 2001, and conveniently enough all my paperwork came together the first week of September. There was a small delay at the beginning of the week, and they asked me to come back on Thursday to get sworn in. Tuesday was September 11. Thursday was September 13. Only a few weeks prior, my recruiter had laughed in my dad’s face when he inquired, as any good father would do, if I would ever be called up.

People often ask if I miss it, if I’ve thought about going back in. And I do, and I have. But I know it’s over and done with, and it doesn’t need me any more than I need it. But that doesn’t stop me from reflecting deeply about my experiences every year around this time.

Fundamentally, what I miss most about the military is what I thought I would miss. I miss the discomfort. I miss witnessing and experiencing human adaptability to an environment that is less than ideal. A world that is not only uncomfortable, but is downright hostile…in many senses. The hostility of other human beings launching explosives in your general direction, the hostility of the men who are supposed to be on your team but demean you when they think you aren’t listening, the hostility of your family members back home who are vehemently against the war, the hostility of your friends back home who adamantly believe in the war for all the wrong reasons. The hostility of loneliness when you return.

When you are challenged to your core, you grow. That is the biggest lesson I learned in the military, and the biggest noticeable void in my life since I left. When you don’t think you have a friend in the world, when you are legitimately fearing for your life, when you are holding the hands of handsome young men with their legs blown off, you grow in unimaginable ways. But it’s not just the extreme challenges, it’s the little things too. Not being able to open a fridge when you want. Not being able to kiss the boy you think is cute. Not being able to take a shower when you’re filthy. Not being able to seek cover during a ferocious dust storm, because you have to inspect and re-load bombs on a trailer. Your lungs turn to fire and you hack up black phlegm for days. And you deal. You just deal. Because you know that other people outside the wire are suffering much greater tragedies than coming down with The Crud.

So many have suffered the unimaginable hell that is war, but it is a very small fraction of America. And I think that’s why I gravitate toward people who have served in the military initially, when I meet them. It’s not that I think I can automatically relate to them. There’s nothing more annoying to a veteran than a stranger’s futile attempt to relate to your personal experiences, and I try hard not to be that person. It’s more that I am drawn to the fact that at some point, they have probably gone through something extremely challenging, and came out on the other side changed.

A few months ago I was neck deep in Sebastian Junger’s book War. Just about every chapter I had to stop, dog ear the page, and calm myself down. My heart raced and my hands clenched. I don’t know why this happens. Most of my fellow Air National Guard members walked away from multiple deployments and didn’t give it much of a second thought. It was not that hard. It was not that violent. It was not that dangerous. It was not that tragic. But I can’t shake it. I think Junger’s book really brought this out because I personally know so many people that went through experiences like the soldiers’ experiences chronicled in his book…but I saw the aftermath of their suffering, not the combat.

For a good chunk of the last decade, my closest friends were nearly all veterans. By nature of my line of work, most of my acquaintances were veterans too. So sometimes when I try to fall asleep, I am haunted by their stories. Their stories follow me. Sometimes they make my mind race. I don’t know why I can’t shake other people’s stories. Am I too impressionable? Too weak? Too soft?

The stories are sickening, tragic, infuriating. My friend who kept a loaded 9mm in her bedside table drawer years after her deployment. Watched my friend literally hallucinate the appearance of an M-16, as we sat on a deck on a cool night drinking beers. He realized it was not there and became ashamed. Cried when another friend told me he was going back into the military because he felt he couldn’t function in the civilian world and felt more at home in war. Flinched as another friend told me he had indeed killed people. Consciously told myself to keep breathing as another recanted watching a little girl get blown up by a rocket propelled grenade.

There are my own experiences. The dying children. The special forces guy drooling blood into a pan. The Marine I will never be able to speak of. The staples, stitches, bandages, iodine, wound packaging material. When you get blown up, your body looks like a giant bloody chicken cutlet in shrink wrap.

To be honest though, I rarely think of the hospital. My memories of the hospital bother me much, much less than the experiences of the men and women who have confided in me, who have felt so alone with their grief and tragedy. Most veterans are not broken people. But some of them are hurting, and I have this consuming desire to reach out to them, to tell them they are not alone, to try to do something small to help them. I caught a glimmer of the misery and that was enough. For lots of them, the misery is blinding. I know I can’t carry this burden alone, and I know there are others who are carrying it far more bravely than me. But the place where I find the most peace is the place where I know I have done some tiny thing better to make one tiny step a bit easier for a veteran.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Treasure Hunting.

I’m in New Mexico right now, visiting my friend Katy. It’s a refreshing respite from what sometimes seems like the needless hustle and bustle of Washington DC.

Katy and I have been friends for over a decade, which is a little bit less than half my life. We grew out of our awkward stages and into woman-hood together, which was traumatizing enough to firmly bond us together for all eternity, I think. We discovered boys, faith, love, booze, Weezer, Scrabble, and Flaming Hot Cheetohs together.

I followed Katy into the National Guard. The military was something I had never considered, never even thought about. But Katy’s dad was like my second father, and I considered him to be the wisest man I’d ever met, after my own father of course. He was gentle and kind and funny and charming, and he was a command chief master sergeant at the local military base, and he always said joining was one of the very best decisions he had ever made. I never really knew what the military even looked like until Katy joined up, and I flew down to San Antonio with her mom and dad to watch her graduate boot camp. It seemed like a strange world, but it seemed like a lot of fun, it seemed similar to playing high school sports: the discipline, the respect, the emphasis on physical fitness and doing things right. There were also sixty other women in her graduating class, and they all seemed to be having a ball. Suddenly the military seemed like an option.

I did some thinking, talked it over with my parents. My parents were really supportive of the idea. I signed up a few weeks later, in the same career field that Katy was placed. I don’t really remember my decision making process, at all. I remember thinking all the people were really fun and nice and smart, and if they could all do it, why the hell couldn’t I? Having college paid for was a perk. Having complete financial independence from my parents was a bigger perk. Let freedom ring.

Last night Katy and I drank hot toddies around a campfire, wrapped in blankets. New Mexico is surprisingly chilly. The warm bourbon hit our tummies and after several hours the conversation eventually turned to the military. We did two of our three deployments together. We mused about how the military has changed us as people, how it has shaped our perceptions and beliefs and behaviors. We both agreed that we had never laughed as hard at any other time in life as we did at guard drills. We also agreed that we had never been so frustrated, angry, or humiliated as we had been in the military. We remembered many stories, most of which had been buried in the dustballs of our memories. We choked back tears and laughed until we almost fell out of our chairs.

We reminisced about the time we were bored and went hunting for crystals out in the desert on our first deployment. This story is one of our favorites. I had seen several rocks by the roadside that had these massive clear crystals that glinted in my headlights, and after I told Katy about them, we were determined to make them ours. We acquired a small pick axe and a hammer from one of the toolkits, and when the guys asked us what on earth we needed a pick axe for we flirted our way out of the conversation and left them in our dust. We borrowed one of the trucks and when they asked where we were going, we charmed our way out of that conversation too. We had several hours to kill, we had tools and flashlights, we were well on our way to going crystal hunting in the pitch black night. We found them right where I had last seen them, in a large rock pile by the “front gate”. I use quotations here because the “gate” actually consisted of a rope. A rope that we had to lock and unlock every time we passed in and out of the bomb dump. It’s true, we had to lock and unlock a ROPE. There are many other equally asinine “security” measures they made us take but I will save those for another time.

Back to the crystals. After hammering away at the rocks without much progress, our frustration grew. We could NOT crack these rocks, but the crystals were so large and beautiful that we refused to be stumped. Finally, after some cursing and bickering over the best way to break them open, we hurled one of the rocks at the giant concrete barrier that labeled the entrance to the bomb dump. It was kind of our unit's pride and joy, this sign painted on a concrete barrier that told all who passed that they were entering a forbidden, dangerous area. It was adorned with a hand painted Ammo pisspot. We hurled the big rock at the concrete barrier and CLUNK, we cracked off an entire corner of the pride and joy, the concrete barrier adorned with a pisspot. Oh, shit. They’re definitely going to notice that a corner of the concrete barrier is missing. How are we going to explain this? There is no feasible answer to the question “why is the corner of the concrete barrier missing?”. They weren’t going to believe we were crystal hunting, that’s for sure. They were almost certainly going to think we crashed into it with a government vehicle, which is an offense practically punishable by death in the military. I started to panic. Katy, what do we DO?! I run over to the concrete chunk. We have to hide it! But where? Should we bury it?

Liz, it’s not a dead body! she replied. After a lot of discussion, we each grabbed an end and lugged it to a sand dune off in the distance. After tossing it over the edge, we were satisfied that the evidence would not be recovered. We said a small prayer that no one would notice the missing corner and trekked back to check out the crystal situation. They had been significantly loosened up, which distracted us from the crisis we had just endured. After a bit more chipping away, they were ours. We stuffed our pockets full of them, our newly acquired treasure. We returned the tools quietly and slinked in the back way, pretending like we’d never disappeared. No one seemed to notice that we’d be gone. To this day, I don’t know if anyone in a position of authority noticed the missing chunk of the concrete barrier, but we never heard about it. Sadly, the crystals ended up not being as pretty in the daylight as they had been at night…but the fiasco of acquiring them is what has made them invaluable little treasures that I will keep forever.

Monday, May 04, 2009

absence makes the heart grow fonder

I've been really missing the guard lately and it's kind of freaking me out. Because I DON'T really miss the guard, but I do. I am not really sure what to do with myself without that one screwy weekend per month where everything is not really "real", it's like your own separate alternate universe that no one understands except the people you are with.

I get text messages on guard drill weekend that really take me back. Messages like:

"Must. Cram. Meatball. Into. Donny's. Beer."

I miss Meghanism's, invented words like refreshness and perfemation, and completely false factoids like 'did you know that a McDonald's hamburger bun has as much sugar as a McDonald's shake?' (no it doesn't!)

I miss the smell of bacon and eggs on Sunday morning and Johnny O's dimples.

I miss building BDU-33's, even if it were 8 boxes of them, and even if we did have to tear them all back down again the next guard drill weekend because we never had to build them in the first place. (That's about 5,600 practice bombs)

I miss shaking out our dusty chem gear once a year and grumbling about having to put our sour gas masks on for fit tests.

I even miss getting made fun of for not once, but TWICE leaving my car running with the keys locked in the ignition.


There are plenty of things I don't miss. Lots, and lots, and lots of things I don't miss. But it's funny how those things fade away, and you are left with the parts that you do miss, and you wish you could just go back for a weekend and have it all be the same. But, it never will be.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Air Force commendation medal

I received an Air Force Commendation Medal from my unit in the mail the other day. It was a nice surprise. My boss at my job in DC is a former Marine, and he laughed at me for getting it in the mail...but that's kind of how we do it in the Air National Guard. Not quite as much "military bearing" or whatever you want to call it. I've actually seen promotional stripes simply handed to people before.

Actually, come to think of it, the medal wasn't included, I have to go buy that myself, but I got the certificate that allows me to claim I am a recipient of it. Which apparently carries some fierce penalties!

"Any false written or verbal claim to a decoration or medal or any wear, purchase, attempt to purchase, solicitation for purchase, mailing, shipping, import, export, manufacture, sale, attempt to sell, advertising for sale, trade, or barter of a decoration or medal authorized for wear by authorized military members or veterans is a federal offense punishable by up to six months in jail and up to a $5,000 fine."

Monday, November 03, 2008

New York Times article

Here is a sweet article about the new GI Bill and returning veterans. Virtually everyone I've worked with since I've been in DC and some of my good friends were quoted in this article, which was a Sunday NYT article and ran over five pages in a special insert.

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/02/education/edlife/vets.html

Sunday, August 03, 2008

making sense of things

I just finished reading Love My Rifle More Than You. I related to a lot of it, though not all. I think the author and I are very different girls, but some things are the same. Many things are different. I never experienced any guy physically grabbing me, I didn't watch anyone take their last breaths, and I always got to piss in a port-a-john.

But she talked a lot about withdrawing, because she didn't want to deal with advances anymore, and I could relate to that. Just completely shutting down, shutting everyone out, because you are sick and tired of being taken advantage of if you open yourself up to some of the guys you work with. You don't smile, you don't make eye contact, no small talk, no friendliness that could possibly be misinterpreted for an open door for an advance.

She had her waking dreams, as did I. The ones that consume you after the fact. The medic flirting with me my first time volunteering in the E.D. (me thinking "is this really happening?", trying not to be rude but trying to make it stop) and they wheel in the bloody, hairy Latino guy, kind of stubby, mostly I remember him being really bloody and everyone snapping into a frenzy, shouting and pointing and waving and working. I'm standing there, kind of stunned, tossing gauze and blankets and syringes at whoever yells loudest. And suddenly one nurse flips the guy on his side and jams two fingers up the guy's ass, a cavity check. I reeled. I was not expecting that. My stomach churned. It was a lot all at once, a very salient, bloody memory that I have never really spoken of until now.

Then they wheeled they guy out, on his way to xrays and surgery and the ICU and Germany and home. And the medic immediately resumed flirting, and I remember feeling angry and indignant, sick to my stomach, like screw you, screw you all, you animals, did you even feel ANYTHING watching that guy bleed all over the floor.

In hindsight I know it's a coping mechanism, how else could we deal, other than to pretend life is normal? It's all part of the job description, we maintain our cool and calm and plow through each day, flirting with the new female volunteers no matter what crosses our paths in the meanwhile, attempting to retain a sense of normalcy.

But I couldn't make sense of it, never have.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

shaking things up

I testified.

Working with veterans' issues makes you wobble between hyper sensitization and desensitization. What a dichotomy.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

End of an Era

So, I'm out in September. Dunzo.

The past few weeks I have been spending at my Air National Guard base here in Madison, making up guard drills. I leave for DC around the first of May, to work for Student Veterans of America (or rather, to get paid for working for SVA...), and my AMMO supervisor agreed to let me make up all the drills between now and September so I wouldn't have to fly home every month to drill. I am flying back for my final drill in September, to finish outprocessing and to say goodbye to my family (AMMO family, that is).

So basically I started outprocessing this week. It really is awfully breezy to get out of the Air National Guard. You just bop around to different offices and they type something into their computer and then they sign your sheet. The problem is that it's such a small base (about 1,000) that after 7 years, everyone is familiar, and even if you don't recognize them, they recognize you. So this is how it goes:

Me: "I need to turn in my ______". I hand them my sheet.
Them: "WHAT! You're leaving??? Why! How long do you have in?"
Me: "7 years."
Them: "But you're so close, you can't quit now! You quitter."

Close? Close to what? Retirement? HA!

And then they say: "Well, if DC doesn't work out, you can always come back. We'll take you back."

Awww. Thanks guys. There's always that, I guess.

So I made my final journey onto the flight line yesterday. I am not going to lie, I felt pretty weird. It's a job I've spent the most time in my 7 years doing--ducking under the jets trying not to smack my head, goofing around with the munitions loaders, driving around trying not to get in any of the jets' way with all kinds of live stuff pointed at the back of my head.

The tarmac has an unusual feel to it. It's always stifling, it always feels like you're cooking a little bit. The heat rises in waves off of it and there's nothing but cement as far as the eye can see. The jets are always parked perfectly aligned, poignant symbols of America's military prowess. Their "remove before flight" flags flap in the wind, their cockpits open, waiting for their pilots. Sometimes the flightline hums with activity, the hustle and bustle of prepping a jet for flight, and sometimes it's you and five guys for miles and miles, the machines frozen in time like giant statues.

I want to say goodbye, I want to formalize the moment, I want to take a picture leaning against the F-16 and frame it under the caption "last trip out to the flight line". I know there will be no equivalent to this experience in the civilian world, ever. But instead I just sigh, lean back in my seat, look over at my driver, and tell him I'm going to miss this place.

Because for as much hell as it's been, really, I am.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Neat little packages

The other day I struggled down to the local post office to mail care packages back to the guys still in Iraq. Usually carrying three boxes into a crowded post office and filling out customs sheets is enough of an ordeal on its own. This time even getting to the post office was a ridiculous hassle because of the Public Enemies movie being shot downtown. The general hysteria that Johnny Depp provokes everywhere he turns up creates quite a mess to navigate..the barricades, the crowds, the Range Rovers cruising like maniacs down tiny, previously serene side streets.

I collide with a guy on my way in and finally throw down the three boxes and proceed to fill out customs sheets. I wait my turn. I hand the boxes over to the clerk, relieved to be free of them finally. She takes her time. I feel slightly agoraphobic, being out of the house. Also slightly claustrophobic from all the crowds.

The clerk makes an attempt at small talk.

"You sending these to the troops on your own, or as part of an organization?"
"On my own. I have some friends over there."

I have adopted this strategy of telling the truth to strangers if directly asked, but generally I skirt the issue in small talk with people I don't know. Saying "I just got back myself" to that clerk would have kind of been like saying "Yo, I just got diagnosed with cancer!" No one ever knows what to say back to you.

"My women's auxiliary group sent a bunch of stuff over," she continues. "We only had one girl. It's funny what the girls ask for, you know like conditioner and body spray and good lotion."

Mmhmm. Yep. Mmmhmm. You don't say?

These kind of interactions are frequent, interactions where I am not really divulging much about myself and in doing so, I feel a little shady, or like I am tricking the poor stranger who probably only means well. I feel like I am accidentally overhearing a conversation that I am not supposed to be overhearing, like when you realize the people in the next room are talking about you and they don't know you are listening. It's the kind of thing that makes your skin crawl a little, makes the prickles on the back of your neck stick up a bit.

They don't know I am here, right there in front of them, because I don't fit into their little box of whatever they think an Iraq vet looks like. Shh. And sometimes I like to teach them a lesson, by abruptly informing them that yes, I was just one of those girls asking for good lotion, that we are normal people and we blend right in, but usually they can't hide their surprise and the conversation sours quickly while they attempt a recovery.

Ah well, such is life so far away from the military, I suppose.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Home Sweet Home

Well, I've been home for an entire week now. Things have been pretty good. I've been at my parents house, which is where I'll be staying until I get a real job...hopefully in May I will be relocating to Washington D.C. to work on veterans education issues.

Being at my parents house is kind of weird, I feel very isolated but also it's very relaxing. There's food and drink abound, and my sister is here and she keeps me company during the day. I am not sure what would have happened if I was alone all day every day right when I got back. I think I may have gone insane.

I haven't really been doing anything interesting. Mostly lounging in sweatpants. Also working on the internet/phone pretty extensively with SVA (Student Veterans of America) trying to get myself caught up on what has been happening with the organization while I was gone. It turns out lots, and lots, and lots happened while I was gone.

I went out for St. Patrick's Day with my roommate from the desert, Kathryn. You'd think after spending every single second together for 2 straight months we'd be sick of each other...well after 5 days I was missing her something terrible. We went out to dinner together. It was weird to be out and about in downtown Madison, I felt really discombobulated by being around something so familiar after experiencing something so bizarre. I think being at my parents house has been a nice way of letting me sink back into the real world slowly. But dinner was good, and we talked about the trip a lot, and the people we missed, and laughed about inside jokes that no one else would think was funny.

We then proceeded to get absolutely smashed, it was St. Patrick's Day and neither of us had really celebrated being home yet. It was a really good, funny night and I saw a lot of random familiar people out and about.

Sleep has been interesting. It's been hard to fall asleep, it's been hard to relax in general. I think I am back in some sort of rhythm but it's not really a dependable one. I am sleeping through the night pretty well which is a good thing.

I sent out care packages to the guys still over there. I feel strangely guilty for being able to leave while all the active duty guys had to stay. I sent them all the things I wished I had had when I was there, plus their favorite junk food. The post office is right down where Johnny Depp is filming his new movie, Public Enemies, so it ended up being a HUGE ordeal and a big frustration. I've been kind of anti-people upon my return and masses of spectators is not really my cup of tea at this point. At any rate it is kind of cool that Johnny Depp is cruising around this small tiny town.

It feels really, really good to be home, but still a little bittersweet I guess. Not many people experience an environment stripped of all comforts from home, in a hostile environment at that, with complete strangers. As sucky as it was at times, I think I am going to miss being directly challenged to adapt to situations as extreme as that.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

For posterity's sake

Home sweet home:


Lookin' out my back door:


Combat loading HEI (High Explosive Incindiary) 20 mm bullets:


FUBAR'd HEI round:


My name's on here from last time. And yes, we did:


Geek Squad:


Some of my crew:


The flight office:


Nothing like a jet engine laying around:


Doom and gloom in the bomb dump:


Line-D South Cookout Night:


Get me the H out of here:


Oh boy.


Fuzing bombs:


Free stuff courtesy of the Ravens:


BLU-126=30 lbs of explosives="low collateral damage"


Me and my 5"4 supervisors


Stress relief AKA AMMO vollyeball:



Sisters:


In your eye:

Zombie

I am home. I am a zombie. Will recap the weird past three days soon.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

I am a rock. I am an island.

Trying to pass the time by napping isn't working. I crawl out of my bunk and stretch. The wheels in my mind are cranking so hard it hurts, and I just want to release tension. It's 4 a.m. in the morning. I pull on my crinkly crackly PT gear and head out for a run. Despite the fact the base is pulsing with activity 24 hours a day, it is usually dead around this time. I am alone. Technically, I am breaking many rules by running alone around the base, we are supposed to have a wingman between certain hours. One, so we don't get hit by a mortar and end up in a ditch and no one knows where we are. Two, so the Army doesn't eat us. I don't care. Tonight I am taking my chances. I need this. The occasional Stryker, Bradley, MRAP, Humvee clanks past in the otherwise desolate silence.

The flight line lights up miles of open space behind me, coloring everything a dim fluorescent ashen in front of me, enough so I can avoid the gaping potholes and random electrical wire. My shadow trods steadily in front of me, bobbing against a foreboding barbed wire fence. I am quietly pattering away on the dusty pavement. I feel like I am floating. I feel tension melting. I am alone. I am a rock. I am an island.

Friday, March 07, 2008

A Bittersweet Symphony

My time here is rapidly coming to an end. I had my last day of duty the other night. It was a light night of work and I volunteered for most jobs as a "last hurrah" type thing. I even volunteered to "get the gate", the dreaded job of all AMMO troops, unlocking the padlock and swinging open the finicky gate for the vehicles to pass through. (It's really quite amazing to see what great lengths people will go to to get out of "getting the gate", it is the bane of our existence here even though it is not a big deal, usually left for the lowest ranking individuals who nearly always try to squirm out of it).

I have not really said goodbye to many people. The time after you finish your final duty day is spent in total limbo, since you no longer have a dependable routine and are given time to pack up and get all your stuff in order. Sometimes they give you too much time. It just stretches out the waiting, so a bunch of us volunteered to go on duty even though we didn't have to, simply because it makes time pass faster. Plus we like the guys we work with and wanted to spend a bit more time with them before saying goodbye. There has only been one goodbye so far, my best buddy that I made here took a helicopter down to Baghdad to deal with some AMMO accounts he is responsible for. I felt really heavy hearted after that goodbye...time is so bizarre here, how you can bond so quickly after only a few short weeks of working together. Usually people make their goodbyes short and sweet, like it's no big deal that you will never see each other again, ever. That is, if time allows for goodbyes. Many times goodbyes just aren't said because the mission doesn't allow for it. The military doesn't really believe in closure.

Katy asked if I was doing ok afterward. I think she noticed that my eyes were beginning to brim. "You alright?" "Yeah. That one stung a bit."

Anyway, I spent a few hours cramming all my stuff into bags. We have to go through customs soon and I know from previous experience that it does no good to pack things neatly since they will just be ripping through it looking for war trophies anyway.

There are a solid 3-4 people that I am going to miss really bad. I will not miss the work that I do. I am proud of the work I do here, but I also know mechanical, technical work is not really my forte, and I don't really particularly enjoy wrenching on things. They never wrench the right way for my anyway. In hindsight, I am making it out of here without getting into trouble, and only screwing up a few very minor things...although there is one incident that happened that makes me look like a total jackass, but that cat isn't out of the bag yet.

Tonight we went and had a cookout with Line-D South. We wore our Physical Training (PT) gear and not our uniforms and steel-toes. We sat up on top of a HAS (Hardened Aircraft Structure) and cracked a few near-beers, watching the lights flicker on the flight line, it was surprisingly quiet. The chicken got dried out, the kabobs were chewy and iffy, and the near beer did not make my innards warm, but it almost felt like home and I almost felt happy.

I am relieved to be getting away from mortars. We had one the other day that was fairly scary but on the off chance an insurgent finds this blog I don't want to give them any hints about the success or lack thereof in their attack. This asshole knew what he was doing, more than most. I am really excited to be able to eat fresh food. I am really excited to take a long hot shower and have an ice cold beer. I am excited to wear sweatpants and hang out with my family. I am not excited to see drunk college kids, I am thankful I am not going back to Madison because I just might lose it. I am excited to feel like a girl, and not feel guilty for putting on good-smelling lotion. I am excited to come home and have Johnny Depp filming Public Enemies in my hometown of 3,500 people. I am excited to possibly be testifying before the U.S. Senate about veterans education issues in April. I am excited to move on with my life and have my last deployment ever behind me. I am really sad to be leaving the Air National Guard. I will miss the structure and the routine this place has provided me with, strangely enough. I will not miss the toxic smoke that envelopes us on a daily basis, the smoke they tells us contains elements of cyanide, Styrofoam, human body parts, and rubber tires.

I came down with The Crud a few days ago. I avoided The Crud for nearly the entirety of my deployment, and then a mere few days before I depart this hellhole, I come down with The Crud. Congestion, coughing, sore throats, phlegm, etc. It's because I did postloaded a bomb in a dust storm, I spent about an hour in the dust and when I came inside my lungs felt like they were on fire, like someone was sitting on my chest. The Crud. It's better now, I'm just hoping it doesn't get worse when I show up in frigid Wisconsin.

Freedom isn't free, they like to say. Well, freedom feels frightening at this point, a vast open space that I am not sure I will know what to do with. I pray that I will adjust quickly and adapt a strategy that will enable me to feel refreshed by life, and not overwhelmed.

Anyway. That's what's on my plate for now. A lot of changes and adaptations, mutations and adjustments. A bittersweet symphony.

Friday, February 29, 2008

Alright, the guy next to me here at the "cyber cafe" (the name is deceiving, there is nothing 'cafe' about this place) is alternately giggling to himself, burping, and smacking his lips. It's driving me BATTY. Fortunately I typed this entry up ahead of time, the other night, so I am just going to cut and paste and get the hell out of dodge.

I volunteered at the hospital the other night. There were virtually no Americans, a good thing, but there were plenty of Iraqis in the ICW. I am not sure if they were all part of the same IED blast or if they were injured in various different tragedies. I read a couple days ago about a mortar that was aimed at our heads but instead fell short, falling into a field of Iraqi children playing soccer. I am not sure if the kids were the same, but there were three little Iraqi boys, must have been about 7, in the ICW. So tiny, so adorable…it’s almost more painful to look at them when they are conscious than when the kids here are unconscious. Those giant jaded brown eyes shuttered with long lashes. These kids did not seem vacant or haunted, like some people think all wartime children ought to be. But I didn’t really interact with them, I just watched from a distance, as I dutifully stocked supply cupboards next to patient bedsides.

I interacted with the most Iraqis I have ever interacted with tonight. Stocking the medical supplies took forever, the drawers were just chaos and none of them had the right amounts of the right things. I spent almost four hours reorganizing about 40 beds’ medical supply drawers. Tourniquets, iodine swabs, burn pads, guaze, bedpans, IV start kits. One Iraqi guy looked to be about my age, maybe a few years younger, he wasn’t hurt too badly. He was really friendly, through a great deal of hand signals and quizzical looks I managed to figure out his name, that he was probably an Iraqi policeman, and that he was injured by an IED that hit him in the leg twice. He liked to play guessing games and flirt with the nurses. Getting blasted by an IED didn’t seem to dampen his spirits much. I saw him drop a water bottle on his own thigh accidentally and he winced and slapped himself on the forehead before grinning over at me.

Another Iraqi guy had a skin graft on his lip, and about half of his mouth sewn shut. You could see burn marks from fragments of whatever hit him all over his head and face. I was trying to be quiet stocking his bedside table but he woke up and started motioning that he wanted something…I have learned that if they want something, the nurses and med techs often do not have a much better idea of what they want than I as a volunteer can figure out, so I usually try to figure out what the situation is before I go drag someone into it. So this guy is motioning about his blanket, like he wants it covering him more. So I try to cover him more with his wool blanket that’s all bunched up on his side. No, hot!!! Too hot!! He gestures. Ok, I pull it down. Sheet, up! Ok, I pull the sheet up. Over head! Ok, pull sheet up over head! No, bad! Feet are uncovered! Really swollen, bruised feet covered in stitches peeking out under the sheet. “Beeeeg”. He says. Aha, got it! You want your sheet to be big enough to cover your face because it’s too bright and you want to sleep, but long enough to cover your toes because they get cold. You want a bigger sheet. Ok, problem solved. I get a thumbs up, a smile (as much as he can muster through his stitches and skin graft), and a firm handshake for my eventually successful attempt at decoding his desire.

There were some detainees there, more than usual. They are shackled to the beds and they are not allowed to see, a curtain gets pulled around them and they have bandages wrapped around their heads to cover their eyes. That’s all I’m going to write about that. Except that a few of them looked really young. I couldn’t help but wonder if these guys were actually insurgents or if someone just wanted to make some extra dough from the Americans so they handed these guys over. There’s no way for me to tell, of course. That’s above my pay grade. Young Army guys guard them in shifts, looking bored out of their skulls. I have to say though, the resilience and resolve of the Iraqi civilians in the ICW is unreal, I can guarantee that if some American civilians had injuries similar to these Iraqi civilians, there would be a great deal of moaning and groaning and general scene-making; for the most part these people seem to have accepted their fate with a tenacious quiet fierceness. The guy making the most noise was a detainee, wailing strangely in English but not saying much more than “oh my God”, and he wasn’t even that bad off compared to the other guys in there. I asked one of the nurses what was wrong with him and she said he was “generally unhappy with his situation at this point in time”.

I went to go get a cup of coffee and ran into one of my favorites from home. He looked tired. He told me he was working out on the helipad and brought in a two year old, who he then watched die. He was there when they broke the news to the child’s father. I suspect that experience will haunt him for years to come...but then we talked about how important we thought it was for people to volunteer at the hospital, to get out of our little routine of 12 hours of work and then go work out and then go to bed. We talked about how important it is to remember that you can guarantee someone here legitimately has it worse than you at all times, and how important it was to get ourselves out of our little “H-6 Bubble”, our Air Force compound bubble You think you have a bad day, no you did NOT have a bad day, go take a walk through the ICU or the ICW in Iraq and then try to tell me you had a bad day.

I think therein lies a great deal of the world’s problems, that the people making a lot of the big decisions in the world do not take strolls through the ICU and the ICW here in Iraq on a regular basis. I just finished reading Three Cups of Tea. Greg Mortensen talks about being in the Pentagon to brief some military intel about the situation in Pakistan and Afghanistan after September 11, and all he could remember about the Pentagon was that everyone ran around with laptops, surrounded by concrete, and that Rumsfeld had really shiny shoes. He calls the war on terror a “laptop war”. And these are the individuals making huge decisions affecting millions of impoverished, uneducated Pakistanis and Afghanis and Iraqis, dropping thousands of bombs and not following through with the aid we promised to repair what we destroyed with pushes of red buttons from 8,000 miles away. The quickest way for Americans to make enemies out of Muslims, Mortenson points out, is to make promises and then break them. Lord only knows how many promises have been broken here.

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
--W.B. Yeats, “The Second Coming”

My People.

Here is a very basic rundown of a few of the folks I work with. These are the ones that have left the largest impression on me and are the ones that I communicate with most often while here. I don't really have their permission to be writing about them so I am using anonymous initials to describe them, and staying away from anything too personal that I have learned about them.

Sergeant A: A really fresh faced kid we affectionately call “Mouth”. I have had the pleasure of serving with this loudmouth for all three of my deployments to the Middle East. He is from the middle of nowhere Kansas, but he is what we refer to as a “Guard Bum”, a guy who is in the National Guard and volunteers for 90-150 day deployments, then lives off that money for several months, then deploys again. Some people make a lifestyle out of it. Shrug. Anyway I first met Mouth when he was 18 in Qatar. He noodles for fun and he was once in coma for two weeks after a car accident. He is an extremely hard worker. He makes every day slightly more interesting than it should be. He’s a very animated storyteller and he also thoroughly enjoys pissing me off. I really like the guy, he is one of my favorite people that I’ve ever met in the military, although we bicker constantly.

Segeant B: A rough, tough tattooed guy with a buzzed head and really intense brown eyes. This guy is seriously the kind of guy you believe when he says he has killed people (he hasn’t; I asked). He is from a rough part of San Diego and he’s been through a lot in his short life, I think. He’s a genuinely nice guy, but do not cross him, because holy crap, he might actually kill you. He really likes to fight and this has gotten him into a bit of trouble in the past. He says he is big on treating women respectfully but is also a self professed “player”, which doesn’t really jive, but he has a way of making it seem like it should and I think he is pretty good at making ladies see things his way. He owns a pit bull and really likes restoring cars. I think he is the most interesting person I’ve met here, I am frightened and completely intrigued by him.

Sergeant C: The kind of guy I hope is still single when I turn 30. Well, his kind anyway, this one is engaged. Sergeant C is a really nice guy from PA. He walks with really slow, high knee steps, like Woody from Toy Story. He is usually really friendly but sometimes really cranky, I never know quite the response I am going to get when I smile and wave at him. I think he misses his fiancee a lot. He is a paramedic back home and told me he grew up fast, at a very young age. I think he's seen some pretty horrible things. He is the kind of guy you would want to rescue you though, he has that levelheadedness/compassionate combo that is so important in people that save lives for a living (or on the side). He looks like the kind of guy your mom and dad would want you to marry but let me tell you, this guy has a surprising potty mouth. He has a really distinct laugh that doesn’t sound like it matches his physical appearance, which almost always makes me laugh when he laughs.

Sergeant D: I went to tech school with Sergeant D in Wichita Falls, TX in 2002! I walked onto the bus my very first day here in Iraq and I hear “Hi, Liz.” Huh? It’s Sergeant D! (When I knew him he was Airman D, not a Sergeant, obviously). Sergeant D was one of my buddies that I used to break all the rules with in tech school. He was married then, not anymore. He is a really sarcastic, smart fellow who checks up on online news regularly and is really into economics. We see a lot of things the same way and have been known to exchange a few knowing glances (not about economics). He has a very dry, off the wall sense of humor and jokes a lot about the sound of freedom ringing over head whenever the jets take off. He is a random guy from a random base and didn’t come with any troops from home, sometimes I feel a little sad for him because that has got to get lonely.

Sergeant E: A fiery red head from Michigan, yet he seems like he should be from Texas or Mississippi or something. He’s really into sweet tea and biscuits and gravy. He’s really goofy and jerks around a lot when he talks. He has knocked entire computers over while telling stories. He’s hilarious. He will bend over backward for you, and does really nice, thoughtful things for people. He also knows his stuff and is a go-to guy. He tells a lot of stories with really interesting eye contact methods, so you can’t really tell if he just decided to start telling the story he WAS just telling you to the person sitting next to you. Every day he gets cheesecake at the chow hall and he always gives me exactly one bite of it. It’s one of the rituals I am going to miss most from here.

Airman F: An intensely blue eyed Mormon. The Mormon also reminds me of a strange little brother that I never had. The Mormon put his Mormon lifestyle on hold while he served a one year tour in Korea and really let loose. Now he’s back to being Mormon and he has a good Mormon girlfriend who has never seen a rated R movie and who has never cussed in her life. I think he is really into “meek” girls. I am basically the antithesis of “meekness”. I think that really pisses him off. I know because he spent a full hour describing my personality flaws to me, telling me I need to be nicer. Whatever. I’m plenty nice. It’s just that he likes meek girls and I am not meek. He also reminds me of what my mother’s father would look like as a 21 year old. He’s a neoconservative, but a really nice, well behaved guy though.

Airman G: A quiet farm boy from Iowa. Wait, I take that back. A really sarcastic farm boy from Iowa. This guy is deceiving. I thought he was a quiet gentle giant for the first 4 weeks I was here. I didn’t hear a peep out of him. Suddenly, over the course of several emails discussing a potential Ammo volleyball tourney, he flipped out of his shell and became hilariously sarcastic. He is my resident arch nemesis here in Iraq. Once he stole my Honey Nut Cheerios and hid them in the ceiling amongst mouse turds. He drives a ’72 GMC with no heat and one speaker. He’s married to a really sweet looking girl who is six months pregnant with a baby girl, who he plans to dress in flannel to keep potential suitors away. I think he is going to make a phenomenal father. We go for runs together. He once dry heaved and almost puked by the DFAC and came back to defeat me by nearly 100 yards in a dead sprint. He moves fast for his size.

As my time here winds down, I honestly am really going to miss these folks, plus a handful of others. I was writing home about my upcoming readjustment back to civilian life, and I told my parents that I was kind of hoping this trip would be just so awful, and I would hate my time here SO much, that getting out of the guard in September would be a piece of cake and I wouldn't look back. Unfortunately, despit a lot of BS and other general crappiness, this trip reaffirmed that which I actually love about the guard: the opportunity to meet and befriend total characters, the kind you wouldn't normally be friends with back in real life.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Mortaritaville

I feel like everything here bears some resemblance to home in some bizarre way. I mean, no where else is a "dining facility" quite the assault on the senses that it is here, but all the food is kind of similar to home and it's kind of like a regular cafeteria (except our DFACs blare R&B and 'in the cloob' type music from 1730-2000, except on Indian food night, and then we listen to Indian pop music). The gym is kind of like a gym at home, but not like Gold's Gym, more like an alpha male weightlifting gym. The vehicles are kind of like home, if you stay in the Air Force area...except they are all identical white pickup trucks and they are all leased by the government (I heard we were paying up to $2,000 a month per vehicle. That's where your tax dollars are going, folks.)

There is one thing that will never, ever (hopefully) resemble home. And that is an Indirect Fire Attack, aka an IDF, aka an "incoming", aka a mortar/rocket attack. I don't really like to bring it up because I don't like to worry the people at home. But the fact of the matter is that these mortar attacks basically define Iraq for me. These fleeting moments where you stop WHATEVER you are doing, dive on the ground, cover up your head, and hold your breath. Well, that's if you get the siren first. If you just hear the explosion you just mind your own business and continue doing whatever you were doing, because it's probably too late now anyway and besides, the alarm is supposed to sound, so it must be a controlled detonation by our EOD guys!! You just start to pay no mind, because it's easier that way. Mortars do have the ability to put you on edge, even put you out of your mind if they get too close...but for the most part they don't happen often enough to actually mess with our heads. Or at least, they don't happen often enough NEAR enough to us, to mess with our heads. When I heard the actual count of how many have hit since I've been here, I about fell out of my bus seat.

Last night was a classic example of the bizarre nature of IDFs. So I'm minding my own business, pouring myself a cup of coffee (I swear, they always happen when I have coffee, but then again I drink far more coffee here than I do at home). The klaxon sounds, I manage to not dump my coffee, I dive to the ground. No man is left standing when that alarm sounds, not even the SIX FOOT ELEVEN, 300 LB GIANT of a man that Katy shares her hermetically sealed box with. Honestly his size 37 steel-toed feet probably pose more of a danger to her fragile skull than frag. Anyway.

So we lay on the ground, inhale some dust, the kaboom sounds in the distance, we mutter some obscenities to each other. We wait awhile, we pry ourselves off the ground, we argue over whose turn it is to go do PAR sweeps (post attack recon), then we argue about whether or not we actually have to do PAR sweeps because the giant voice hasn't told us to, then we pause because BOOM BOOM BOOM! Outgoing mortars! BOOM. We all file out the door outside to peer over our cement T barriers, even the munitions controllers who are not supposed to leave their hermetically sealed box. The funny thing is, with my naked head exposed to night air, peering out into The Real Iraq just over the fence line, I feel exposed and vulnerable. It's crazy how much safer you feel with a frickin tin roof over your head. Like that would stop anything. Ha.

We can't really see anything, it's chilly outside, and we're back to bickering over who has to do PAR sweeps or if we even have to do them. We end up sending some folks out with flashlights who weren't doing anything of any real importance. When the attack hit we were about to head out to the MSA to do some work on bombs. Awesome, I really want to go wrap my arms around 500 lbs of explosives after all this garbage. So we rumble out and continue with our daily duties, try not to think about the absolute worst case scenario, crack some morbid jokes, weigh our odds for the worst case scenario, which causes more bickering to ensue. Not going to lie, I am usually at the center of it, but hey...you have to get your tension and aggression out somehow, right?

Anyway don't worry, after all that bickering and all those odds weighed, we have come to the conclusion that mortars aren't actually that dangerous, it's just that the weird circumstance of coming under hostile fire that is mentally jarring more than anything else. I'd much rather deal with mortars and rockets than IEDs and small arms fire, that's for damn sure.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Groundhog Day sets in.

So it’s been awhile since my last entry, but truthfully that’s because it’s basically been Groundhog Day since then. I haven't gone to the hospital since the Purple Heart day, I felt a little drained after that night at the hospital, had trouble sleeping a few nights, just a little emotionally drained. So I didn't go this past week...I felt guilty about it kind of...I spent the evening playing volleyball instead. I counted 8 medevac flights landing and taking off at the hospital, but I didn't go to lend a hand. One important thing I've learned about myself in these situations is to pay attention to little signs, indications that you need something. This week I just needed to not be absorbed in the misery of others, and to try to pretend like life is normal for a little while. Some interesting things have been happening at work, but either they’re too sensitive to write about on the Interweb or they’re only interesting to me and would be lost on most other people.

Anyway, here's some fun facts I have compiled about LSA Anaconda/Balad Air Base:

Ugandan military personnel check our IDs going into the DFACs and BX/PXs. They don’t really wear much of a uniform, but they carry loaded weapons and inspect our IDs and ensure our weapons are placed on safe. They are always accompanied in each place by an unarmed US Army person, usually a small unassuming low ranking female. This boggles my mind. I don’t understand why on earth we would have approximately 12 Ugandan military members (they have girls! Really pretty military girls!) assigned to this base to check our IDs. I should do some research on this but really I don’t have time. I want to ask questions but they don’t have more than 2 seconds to check our IDs, much less carry on a conversation about this intricate military relationship we apparently have. Like seriously, we can’t spare the manning to have our own Army check our IDs, like we did last time I was here in 2006, that we have to ship an insanely small number of Ugandans here to do it for us? What gives??

Speaking of bizarre military contracts, there have been some interesting Kellogg Brown & Root developments since I was last here (KBR for short, used to be a subsidiary of Haliburton, now an independent military contractor). KBR is taking over the world. Or at least American bases in the US. The base I stopped at on my way into Iraq is a base I have been to several times in my way in and out of country in the past. Almost everything was always handled by our military: the rec center, the gym, housing…everything except laundry and the chow hall, basically. This time when we passed through that base on our way into Iraq, all of that stuff was run by TCNs (Third Country Nationals, usually Filipinos, Nepalese, Pakistanis, SE Asians). This time the housing was run by Americans, but not American military members. They were big dudes wearing a lot of bling and Timberland boots. The movies at the rec center? Popped in by contractors with rat tails and scruffy faces. The questionable “egg” omelets? Scrambled by TCNs. Your sheets? Washed by TCNs. Your alcohol ration card (3 drinks a day)? Doled out by the guys wearing bling and Timberlands.

The difference this time, "in country" here in Iraq, is negligible compared to 2006. TCNs still do all of the dirty work, just as they did last time. They suck the crap out of the port-a-johns, they scrub our showers, they burn the insanely toxic trash, they collect our trays in the chow hall. There is one key difference though: in general, our troops seem to have come to the conclusion that KBR is the devil. Most troops seem to realize that these TCNs are making peanuts, doing the shitty (literally) work on base, and get treated like crap. It seems to me that troops are much more polite this time than last time, they say please and thank you and excuse me, and don’t take the TCNs for granted as much as last time. Troops are curious about the wages of TCNs (we heard $450 for 4 months, according to a TCN that pumped diesel for military vehicles) and how many days they get off (none, most work 7 days a week, at least 12 hours shifts). People seem to be on to KBR, people seem to be coming to the conclusion that this is essentially modern day slavery.

The bittersweet thing is the attitude of almost every single TCN I have come across: smiling, polite, friendly. I suspect there is so much smiling because I am a female and there aren’t many of us here. They’ll slap chicken on a guy’s plate dutifully, but if a girl passes through, they excitedly ask her if she wants chikin? Beans? RICE?? ROLL???? Cookie?? Why not! Why you not want cookie from me?? It’s funny, and more often than not I ask for a little bit of one thing and I end up with a whole plate full of something completely the opposite of what I ask for..but I never have the heart to tell these guys that they gave me the wrong thing. On my one day off a week I generally eat closer to DFAC closing time, and they let us stick around in there after they stop serving if we are still finishing up our meal. I like to watch them interact with each other when they get to relax…they goof around a little and seem more like normal people, instead of like the serving wenches our military makes them out to be. Seriously you should see the outfits these guys have to wear. They’re ridiculous. Little tuxedo costumes with bow ties. I’m not even kidding. It’s disgusting.

That’s all the dirt I have on KBR for now. In other news, there has been an usual amount of animosity from the active duty toward us National Guard folks on this trip. I can’t say as I entirely blame them, it has to be frustrating to be the same rank as a person—getting paid the same amount, and having the same authority—yet having the Guard person know considerably less about the job than the active duty people. We put up with a lot of slams on the National Guard. A lot of the animosity comes in the form of poking fun and name calling, but you can tell sometimes that they are legitimately frustrated with us. I try to make up for my lack of knowledge with a good attitude and work ethic, but that doesn’t get me into the clear all the time. I screwed up some stuff the other day and my supervisor was like “Liz. How long have you been in the Guard?” and I’m like…”Six and a half years,” knowing full well the earful I was about to receive. “AND YOU DON’T KNOW HOW TO DO______!!!!!!”

Ok. It’s not my freaking fault. I drill TWO days a month. Two! Factor in that over 75% of our time is spent doing computer based training, such as Explosive Safety, CounterTerrorism, and Sexual Harassment. We have to do the same computer based training as the active duty—they have 365 days to complete it, we have about 24. So we spend all of our time doing insignificant computer training instead of training for our actual job. Kind of asinine when you consider that our real job deals with EXPLOSIVES, something you kind of want to be proficient at when dealing with, no? Oh, and the other 25% of the time is spent standing in line at the medics, waiting for vaccines like anthrax that will probably eventually kill us. So after I put all of this out there, my supervisors’ faces softened a bit, and they were like “so all of your experience comes during deployments?”

Yeah. That’s right buddy. Everything I know about building bombs I learned while I was deployed to a war zone, not in practice at home, 365 days a year like you guys. And keep in mind I volunteered for this. AND keep in mind that if I didn’t volunteer for this deployment, an active duty guy would have been yanked away from his/her spouse (since all of them are married by age 20, divorced, by 22, and remarried by 23) and gotten sent here for five months, because active duty guys rarely get deployed here for less than that. So I know that when you said “you suck at this”, you really meant to say “thank you for volunteering to come here, it’s ok that you don’t know how to do this task, and hey isn’t the National Guard training system like totally FUBAR’d and it’s not actually your fault you don’t know how to do this??”.

Time to go play some volleyball and pretend like life is normal, as medevac copters whip overhead and we try not to contemplate our next 12 hour shift of building bombs.

On a lighter note, here is the evidence of organic soy milk in the DFACs that my good friend Danny requested, along with a picture of my half of a box and also one of us jobbing:



Tuesday, February 05, 2008

The Purple Heart

"They gave me a Purple Heart," he struggled to repeat himself, barely audible. "They gave me a Purple Heart and I don't know where it is."

The colonel across the bedside from me reassures the baby faced soldier lying between us. "They put all your belongings together, we'll track it down for you." The colonel leaves me and the soldier alone. I put on gloves and start wiping the blood off of his hands. He's fresh out of surgery, doped up on morphine...he doesn't have a leg anymore.

Another volunteer comes up, holding a large bag of belongings. Here's his stuff. He plops it down next to the bed. The soldier is drifting in and out of consciousness. As I'm wiping off the dried blood, his eyes flutter open. "Your stuff is here. Do you want me to check for your Purple Heart?"

"Yes ma'am. Please."

I start digging through his stuff. All of the stuff he had with him this morning, before he knew that when the sun set again he wouldn't have a leg anymore. Gum. ID card. Dog Tags. Wallet. Chapstick. I don't see the Purple Heart. Then my hand hits a heavy plastic case, slightly larger than my own medal cases. Here it is. I pull it out. "Do you want to look at it?"

I hold it up for him, he takes it between his two dirty hands. His face is perfect, smooth flawless skin and beautiful brown eyes. He stares at it. I lean over, my hands elbows resting on the guard rail of his bed, I've never seen a Purple Heart in person before. It's heavier than I thought it would be.

He keeps staring at it. I start to worry that maybe I shouldn't have let him see it, maybe this is too overwhelming. Moments before he had just recanted what had happened to him to the colonel. He recanted losing his leg, step by step. "And then I reached down and I could feel my bones...". He keeps staring at it, holding it, and I'm really starting to worry. "The Army ain't gonna have a place for me anymore, are they." His eyes are the widest they've been since I met him a few hours before. He's suddenly alert. I take his hand, close the Purple Heart case gently. "You don't worry about that right now. You just worry about getting better first."

I can feel my eyes well up as I bend over, struggling to hold back tears as I place the Purple Heart back with his belongings. Time for me to go. Time to go take a few breaths and pull it together. I do, and then I'm fine. But it's just the beginning for him, the first of many one-legged steps. I think his name is burned into my memory forever.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Holler.

News stories of late as they pertain to my life here:

No Internet: Stars and Stripes told us a ship's anchor cut a giant undersea fiber optic cable. We have internet, it takes anywhere from 3-27 minutes to load one page. They took away all websites except .mil to speed up the mission essential sites. Apparently the cyber cafe here on base is run off a satellite or something and so everyone and their mother is trying to pay bills and communicate over civilian email on the same 30 computers. Anyway I don't know if I'm buying the ship anchor story, seems a bit suspicious to me. You should hear the rumors running rampant here! I am extremely behind on primary news. McCain won FL?? Rudy dropped out? Edwards dropped out? Yikes!

These are the guys that I helped in the hospital. I think of my EOD buddy every time I build stuff now. This is how our conversation went:

Him: "Where do you work when you're not volunteering at the hospital?"
Me: "Ammo. I build bombs."
Him: "Nice. I get to go out and blow them up when they don't blow them up the first time.
Me (grimacing): "Yeah. We try not to let that happen."
Him (shrugging): "It's cool. Something like 10% of ordnance fails. I'm sure it's not your fault."

One of our guys' wife had a baby. A beautiful baby girl, I saw pictures. I feel really bad for him that he couldn't be there for the birth. They tried to set up a webcam but I guess she came out too fast! Anyway we made him a card and one of the guys scrounged up a bunch of cigars, we all joined in on a few celebratory puffs, even our Mormon, although he bitched and moaned and made a scene, he partook in a few puffs as well.

Now that we've been here a few weeks, everyone is starting to get their "bad days". It's inevitable that everyone has one now and again. I haven't had a bad day yet, I've definitely had a few bad hours but I pulled it together and brought my mood back up. One of the main low points includes slipping on mud, falling out of the bus, and hitting every step on the way down. I have the bruises to prove it. Owie.

Anyway. A high point, to counteract falling out of the bus, was I that I got to shower away almost 5 days of gunk on my body!!!! (Diesel fuel is really hard to scrub out). Now we get to shower every other day. I can totally live with that. 3 minutes of scalding/freezing water every other day with lots of other people is a treat compared to 4 days of diesel fuel perfume.

I sat by a bunch of Army guys at dinner/breakfast (I never know which to call it, my breakfast is like, spaghetti and salad or usually some sort of 'chicken') and they were complaining about how they have to watch the Super Bowl on AFN. Hahaha I hadn't thought about that. The Armed Forces Network is notorious for their absolutely horrible, corny PSAs. No Super Bowl commercials for us. We will be watching PSAs about 'locking our doors' and OPSEC and COMSEC and such. It's obscene how many commercials resemble regular military recruitment ads. Like, we are all ALREADY IN THE MILITARY, who are you trying to sell yourself to?? Yes, I know sometimes we do neat things, we also know the the cool stuff is inter sparsed with plenty of the asinine, you aren't fooling anyone, buddy. Boo, I only watch the Super Bowl for the commercials, especially after that heart-wrenching Packer season finale, I especially don't care about the actual game.

Alright. My time here at the cyber cafe is up. Over and Out.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

ShowerCon Delta

Greetings.

Somehow the base is managing to run out of water even thought it's the winter, this is something that in three deployments i have never been unfortunate enough to witness. Several days ago they reinforced "combat showers", a method that always stood by it was kind of an unspoken rule that no one actually followed. A "combat shower" basically means you get wet, turn off the water, lather up, turn on water, and rinse. At max, you are to use 3 minutes of running water. Try shaving your legs in that, it sucks. Then toss in the fact that the water alternates scalding and freezing, so 90 of those seconds are spent pressed up against the fungus filled shower wall trying to stay out of the unpleasant spray. Well, no need to worry about that now, ALL showers have currently been suspended until further notice. That means NO showering! For anybody! ShowerCon Delta. Oh, no laundry either. LaundryCon Delta.

I suspect this won't last long. What I am afraid of, however, is their plan to reintegrate showers on a bi-weekly basis. Tuesday and Sunday showers just isn't going to cut it! The ONE time out of three deployments that I fail to bring baby wipes from home. Blast. Of course the BX/PXs sold out approximately 3 nanoseconds after the email went out. One of our girls was fortunate enough to get her hands on some waterless shampoo, even if I could track some down, not really sure if I trust that stuff. It just sounds suspicious.

Speaking of -cons that we are in, we are also in MudCon Yellow. That means there is mud everywhere. You have to take two pairs of shoes to the gym (not as relevant now that we can't shower, I suspect gym usage shall be dropping shortly).

In other war-related news, I volunteered at the hospital tonight. I don't think I am allowed to give details on this, but there was a whole slew of American GIs there. I volunteered in the ICW (intermediate care ward) which is a step down from the ICU. There is an Iraqi side and an American side, but they are all in the same area. Basically these folks in the ICW are more coherent and are on their way out to Germany in a short while (the American ones, not the Iraqi ones..they stay at the hospital until they are better). The ICW injuries are not as substantial and they are not unconscious. To me, it's not quite as depressing because they don't seem as near death as the folks in the ICU ward. And they're not as bloody as the ones in the ER. Being in the ICW and not the ICU or ER is my way of retaining my sanity while still volunteering. It's my way of lending a helping hand while not losing all faith in humanity. Some of that stuff from the ICU and ER last time really threw me for a loop.

So these Army guys, a good number were in good spirits because they were getting out of Iraq. Also some were not as badly off as others. Some guys were pretty ok and other guys were not so ok. They hadn't eaten in over 24 hours, because they had been out on a mission all day and then got hit on their way back. So we brought them food. But it was only like 500 calories and of course they were still starving. So me and this other AF sgt go to requisition some more calories from the DFAC. Well of course this has to be an ordeal. KBR has come under a lot of fire for inflating their numbers lately. So when one person comes in and asks for 50 meals, you can't just do that. Even though it's like a all you can eat type system, you can't just grab 50 meals. Not even in the hospital. So the poor SE Asian guys running the DFAC don't have the authority to give us that much. My Sgt starts to get real pissed, and goes up to the translator to see if he can help. Except, the translator (Also an Iraqi M.D.) obviously translates ARABIC. And the DFAC workers ARE NOT IRAQI, but this point was lost on the SGT who asked the Iraqi to translate. A lot of raised voices in broken English ensued. Eventually we requisitioned some sandwiches, muffins, doritos, and gatorade, all in bulk. Like I rolled pans of roast beef back to the ICW to feed these poor bastards. So I spent a good while making up sandwiches for the Army guys and dishing them out. It was kind of fun, they joked about the full service hospital and said they wish they could spend more time there.

I spent the rest of the time changing beds and helping take vital signs. I measured an Iraqi guy's blood sugar levels. I talked for awhile with an Explosive Ordnance Disposal guy from Illinois. The only thing he knew about Madison was that we have the Oscar Meyer factory here, heh. Some other stuff happened but I guess we aren't supposed to really talk about what happens at the hospital. Also I think some bad pictures must have leaked because there are signs all over that say "NO PHOTOGRAPHY!!!!" Interesting. At any rate, the hospital no longer resembles M*A*S*H. It's a hardened facility now and from the inside it doesn't even feel like Iraq, it looks like a real ward in a hospital.

Katy and I made the mistake of counting down our days. If you look at how many days have passed and how many are left it feels unreal. But can't complain. Our Army gate guys (the ones who run the gate into our MSA, munitions storage area) are here for a year. If I was an Army gate guard for an entire year, I would start slamming the gate down on top of vehicles to spice up my day.

Feel free to send me baby wipes :)