Sunday, November 12, 2006

INTRO

Below you will find my journal that I kept while I was deployed to Balad, Iraq. It is comprised mainly of two things: events that happened and my immediate reactions to them. I didn’t document too much of the redundancy, the sheer boredom of most days, the routine I went through over and over again. The magnitude of that which I experienced most frequently will probably not be conveyed through this blog. Instead, I documented things out of the ordinary, experiences that I deemed worthy of remembering at the time; boredom was slightly less noteworthy than mortar shells exploding.

Looking back now, it feels like a haze. I have nearly put the entire experience out of my mind. It is hard to remember most of it without opening up my little black notebook and re-reading journal entries. It is easier not to think about it. Perhaps that is my way of coping, of dealing. Certain things make me remember–driving past fields of sunflowers, exceptionally hot days, loud noises, hard boiled eggs. Largely, I feel unaffected by my experiences in Iraq–but I know this cannot be true because I feel my blood boil when I read the news every day. There are certain things that I experienced that I did write about but that won’t be found here. This is mainly because of security reasons; my friends are still over there. There is one event that happened in particular, at the hospital, and that is a story that will likely never be shared. It is the anomaly of my memory: I think of it often and it brings me to tears still. I feel that by keeping what I witnessed to myself, I am in some way protecting that bloody Marine’s dignity.

I knew before I left for Iraq that I wanted to share my experiences when I returned, so that my friends and family back home would have an unbiased, first hand account of a 22 year old girl’s experience in a war zone.

14 MAY

My arrival-in-country date. Feels like I have been here forever. Starting a routine.

Lesson learned today: First impressions are important.

I spent all day getting trained on the layout of the flight line and screwing up 12 mods of countermeasure flares. I wonder if we will be screwed when we have to build bombs, because it is taking us hours just to do flare right.

I'm being short with people I work with but I can't help it, I'm so frustrated. But it’s a dull frustration--I feel like I can't really feel feelings.

After knowing my ex-Marine supervisor for five days, I have come to the realization that he may or may not be insane. I was drawn to him initially, he was one of the few who seemed to have his shit together and have everything figured out. A person you would want to do a job with, because you knew he could protect you—or rather, cover for you if you screw up. Screwing up explosives tends to be a pretty big deal and garners a lot of attention. My goal for this deployment is keeping my nose clean and staying out of trouble. I got chills down my spine realizing he could actually be crazy.

I need Visine. I think I'm getting a sty. Too much dust.

I'm starving but they haven't gotten our transportation to the bomb dump figured out yet. Somehow, we are in Army lodging and are at least a mile away from any other Air Force personnel. I don't mind living with the Army at all, but getting to work consists of waiting for a bus to maybe show up. When it doesn't, we have to run a mile in full Kevlar gear to make it to our next bus in time to get out to the bomb dump. I refuse to wake up at three hours early for work just to eat and get to work on time.

15 MAY

They tell us [after we hit the deck from an incoming mortar shell] that we shouldn't walk alone at night on base. We, as in females. I have many thoughts on this matter. How am I supposed to track down another female to go eat when I want to? To go work out when I want to? To go shower when I need to? Females aren't exactly crawling around this joint. I can't figure out if I should feel insulted or not. I'd be lying if I said I didn't. Screw you, you deploy me here and tell me it's not safe for me to walk alone to get a bite to eat, because I’ll probably get raped by one of our own? Much faith you must have in your female counterparts as military members.

The army girls who live next door got issued rape whistles.

At work today, we went out into the Munitions Storage Area [MSA] to swap out bombs on a trailer. A desert butterfly perched on my leg as I was riding through dusty terrain on the ass end of a truck. It looked like one of those cauliflower butterflies that I never paid attention to in my mother's garden as a kid. Not very pretty, kind of ordinary. But here, so close to me, it was beautiful. Peaceful, even, with its white flitting wings. I looked at it like I used to watch the sparrows in basic training: envious of their ability to come and go as they pleased, unthreatened by their surroundings. "Go far away from here," I urge it silently.

My senses are overwhelmed by the acrid smell of burning trash, the constant whirring of chopper blades, the deafening afterburners of fighter jets, the scorching sun.

Walking around on base is like going through the gauntlet. The Army guys don't pay much attention to us Air Force girls. They stare, but they never say hi. Even if you are the only soul within 500 feet, they won't look up at you as you pass. They stare you down in advance, but their eyes avert when you get close, as if they are indifferent to your presence. It's unnerving. Air Force guys always smile and say hi. You’re not that hardcore, army guys. A simple hello won’t kill you. I understand they don’t really like us because of branch rivalry, etc. but we’re on the same side, remember?

Today at work I was the only one on my crew who could tell the physical difference between two different kinds of bombs. This is not supposed to happen. This could be trouble. We are all still adjusting and everything is chaotic.

I have no sense of direction. It has taken me nearly a week to figure out where the chow hall is from my pod.

I've been here a week and I feel as though it's been at least three.

I wish I knew more people here. I wish I had deployed with troops from home, people I can relate to.I wish friends from home would write and email more. But I would never verbalize that desire, lest I sound needy. You don’t want people back home to think you’re not doing ok, beause that just makes it harder on everyone.

17 MAY

I volunteered at the hospital today. It's a new deployment rotation, and no one seems to care much that we are there to volunteer. The medics are new and don't know how to put us to work. I wandered into an ICU and asked if they need help.

"We got a guy that just crapped himself. Wanna clean it up for us?"
I swallowed hard. I knew he was being a dick.
"Sure, I'll do whatever you need done."
"...I'm just kidding."
I held back the urge to toss obscenities in his direction.

Finally I found an ICU where nurses were glad to see us. Apparently some don't realize the volunteers, for the most part, have just gotten off a 12-14 hour shift of working our asses off in the sun. In a few weeks, they will prove grateful to volunteers in every public statement they make.

I filled saline solution in syringes for a long time. Next to us, an old Iraqi civilian came out of the O.R. They transfered him to a bed next to me. He layed there naked, wrinkly. I.E.D. blast victim. Mostly intact, but staples and stitches covered his body.My roommate and I prepared to venture from the ICU to the helipad training course. But first, we must hydrate. As we went to track down water, a klaxon sounded. "INCOMING, INCOMING, INCOMING". We dive to the ground of the ICU. I try not to think about all of the blood that has spilled on the floor my face is now pressed against. The new medics must not have experienced an incoming attack before, they all get up after a short period of time. By protocol, we are not supposed to pry ourselves off the ground for several minutes. We get up, get back down, get up, get back down on the ground. Everyone is yelling. My roommate and I run to get our Kevlar and are given inelooks as though we are out of our damn minds, and we realize we are running through the hospital while everyone else is still flat on the ground. We ignore them all until we get to our gear, then try to explain ourselves to a major in the confusion but end up looking like idiots. We know when to shut up so we remain quiet, under desks strapped into helmets and vests like the rest of them. Except for two Marines, who continued on with their solitaire game on the computer without even blinking.

We get trained on helipad. This is where the casualties first come off the helicopters. We wheel them into the emergency department on stretchers. I immediately decide this is too stressful of a situation, with the noise level of chopper blades and mass confusion and frantic hand signals. I no longer want to be part of the helipad crew.

I ask my roommate to come back with me to the ICU, as we were aware that a small Iraqi boy was coming out of surgery soon. Gunshot wound to the head. "He's not gonna make it," a surgeon said, shaking his head.

So tiny. Swollen black eyes, head wrapped in pure white bandages. I have never felt a simultaneous urge to pass out, throw up, and break out into sobs. "It's time to go," I told my roommate, trying to insinuate as much urgency as humanly possible. We had seen his father earlier, with a translator. Full traditional dress, large sweeping man.

I can't take the kids, being caught up in this crap. I realized the actual blood and guts I could deal with, but not the kids.

A Lt. Colonel pulled us aside and explained how hard it was to have people from the same firefight come into the hospital. To treat Iraqis and the US G.I.'s they had just shot. How hard it was to treat them equally. I realize I probably couldn't do it. Today is the first day I have ever looked an insurgent in the eye. I looked someone in the eye who wants to see my guts spill on the ground.

20 MAY

Today is my first day off in 15 days. I slept until 10 AM, a solid five hours extra. Desperately needed sleep. Went to Saddam's pool. I have never seen so many tan, muscular, tattoed guys with the same haircut in my life. Ate at "Subway" at Saddam's movie theater. It shouldn’t be legal to call that stuff chicken. I came back to our pod to read in the room. I read four short Nabokov stories. It felt exceptionally refreshing to my mind. I became tired quickly, and decided to set my alarm for a short nap. I lay down to rest. "INCOMING, INCOMING, INCOMING," shrieks the klaxon. I dive to the ground in a sports bra and shorts. I hear a distant thud. Boom? Who knows. Layed on the ground for a few more minutes. I wondered where my roommate was and what she was doing.

I got up, decided to put on a t-shirt first, and strapped on my gear. I took pictures with my Kevlar and Nabokov. If nothing else, a few people at home in Madison may get a kick out of it. It's odd. I sit and wait for the all clear siren to sound, while debating to eat some twizzlers to pass the time.

19 MAY

I went to the Right Start briefing today. It's a mandatory briefing that tells you absolutely nothing of importance, and consists almost entirely of powerpoint slides alternately containing common sense and phone numbers you can't write down fast enough. It's pointless. The general talked for 80 minutes about nothing. Then the command chief came up and talked a bunch about "putting warheads on terrorist foreheads". I admire his gung ho attitude and am simultaneously offended by the blatant propaganda he is throwing at us.Then the Chaplain came up. He starts talking and seems like a good guy. Suddenly it sounds like he blew extra hard into the mike, but we all knew he didn't. We all freeze in our seats, and the murmuring starts. Then a really loud boom. I felt the concussion in my chest so hard I almost lost my breath. Someone yells for us all to get down.

500 people topple off their chairs like fish out of water, wriggling for a spot on the floor. My head in crammed into somebody's ass and I'm quite sure somebody's head is crammed into mine. None of us can breathe and the Chaplain continues his briefing, facedown on the ground, deviating from the powerpoint slides. "You can stop by anytime, not just when you are in a tight spot...." We all laugh, muffled, because our faces are all crammed into someone else's ass.

Later we find out it's a planned controlled detonation that took place on base. Things are still not going smoothly at work. Bad communication leads to hard jobs in the hot sun taking hours longer than they should.

22 May

In the past few days, the base has been hit by a lot of mortar shells. One day the area I was working in got hit, but luckily I had volunteered to go get the mail. A 20 minute excursion turned into several hours of delays, parked on the perimeter road because we couldn't get back to our area. We sat in the truck. We smoked, we laughed, we sat in silence as we watched helicopters in the distance dive and swerve and we wondered if everyone we had been working with was ok. The Blawkhawks dove like predators after prey in the distance. Then a giant plume of black smoke spewed up from the ground, out in the distance. Did we hit someone with a Hellfire missle? Or was it an IED, hitting a humvee? Ours or theirs? There's no way of telling. We sit in silence and watch the horizon, somber.

The Chief has put me to work on classified paperwork all day. At first I felt cool doing it, then I thought my eyeballs were going to roll out of my head from looking at excel spreadsheets all day. It’s hotter than hell outside so I don't mind the headache from the computer screen all day.

1 JUNE

Not much to report. I laughed the hardest I have in a long time today. I work out about four times a week, usually the elliptical machine for 30 minutes at the army gym. The Third Country Nationals [TCNs] run the music that blasts across the tent. Today it was Kelly Clarkson. Two of the biggest black dudes I have ever seen in my life were benching straight across from me, one spotting while the other lifted. As they took turns spotting, they busted out random dance moves to "Since U Been Gone". Dudes had some serious moves, in between grunting and benching 400 lbs.

My bed shook really hard last night. Door slam? Mortar? Door? Mortar? I tell myself it was a door slamming but my eyes remain wide open, seeing nothing in the dark.

I'm bored at work. I hurt my back last week lifting heavy equipment. They gave me Motrin [Motrin?! screw you, doc!] and told me not to lift anything heavier than a piece of paper. Apparently he didn't realize my Kevlar was 40 pounds. I reminded him. He looked at me sympathetically and told me to chance it. Chance it? Oh, hell no. I don't want to die from shrapnel because I slipped a disc. Luckily, it turns out my fellow ammo troops don't want me to die either, and someone always volunteers to carry my gear around for me and promises to throw it over me if we have an incoming. Even my Captain and Chief carry it for me sometimes, a mark of excellent leadership. I am grateful. Since hurting my back, I have become an office slave for the Chief and Captain, doing various paperwork projects. I don't mind, but I am going a little stir crazy. Driving around doing errands with Captain is fun, so I don't mind it.

Movies in Saddam's theater are weird. Everyone gets very engrossed in the film. But then it's over and the lights come back up. Everyone picks up their M-16 and slings it over their shoulder, and shuffles out of the building. Back to the war zone. Sigh.

I should find my first aid kit. I still haven't unpacked it.

I have flea bites. I think it's kind of funny but am totally grossed out by the fact I have fleas. Bug bites are rampant. One girl developed what looked like a huge zit on her forehead, but I told her it was definitely a bug bite. She has clear skin, there's no way she suddenly got a zit that size. A bunch of the guys gave her a lot of shit and convinced her it was a zit. She got mad and squeezed it so hard that blood shot out everywhere, and now she has to go to the doctor. Captain nicknamed her "bacteria melon". Karma is sweet, because not three days later a "zit" popped up on Captain's forehead. From the front it looked like a little zit, but from the side it looked like a golf ball had embedded itself in Captain's forehead. He named it "Jose" and started referring to anything he did in the collective "we" sense. Jose got cut open and drained. We all had a good laugh at Jose's expense. Captain wasn't too thrilled at the big bandaid he had to wear on his head. It really is hard to take someone seriously when they have a bandaid on their forehead.

5 June

Our departure date is starting to appear on the horizon.We had an alarm red the other day, which is basically an impending/imminent attack. Seriously, these insurgents are some persistent little guys. This place is a fortress, these guys are out of their damn minds. I mean at best, they might pick off one or two of us, but that all but gaurantees their immediate demise because the Blackhawks take off in hot pursuit every time they launch mortars at us.

I don't understand. They lob mortars at us every day, sometimes five times a day, and haven't killed anyone on our base in 250 days. They really suck at this mortar launching thing. But it doesn't slow them down much, and nothing really changes. I wonder if they just lob mortars over the fence just to remind us that they're out there.

Anyways, back to the alarm red. We heard a strange siren, different from the ugly incoming klaxon. All of our eyes widened, we looked at one another and our jaws dropped. Alarm red? No way! My ex-Marine supervisor, who I thought would roll his eyes and sigh an exasperated sigh, hit the floor so hard I thought he knocked himself out. As he hit the ground, he simultaneously pulled his kevlar vest over the top of him. I was impressed. Dude doesn't mess around. I ran to get my gear and Captain hollered at all of us for not knowing what to do during an alarm red.

We did a bomb build today and videographers and photographers came out and documented it. We were all on our very best behavior. Didn't crack a smile, brows furrowed in concentration. Building bombs isn't funny, you know. Serious business, here. Our job can be pretty intense sometimes, so we had to make sure that insensity was conveyed. A few of the younger active duty airmen seemed to have finally accepted me. I think being a guard Non-Comissioned Officer made them pretty resentful in my general direction. We get promoted a lot faster in the guard and the guard is generally accused of giving rank away, which the active duty tends to resent. Understandably so.

I'm still working on funny little projects for the chief and the captain, this week I'm juggling about four of them. All of which are taking far longer to complete than they should. One of my projects was getting funding for a Gator. Like, one of those John Deere vehicles. You would not believe how complicated it is to get the government to give you money for something. It took me a week to do price checks, fill out a request form, and route it to the approximately 90 people who have to approve it. It took me a week to figure it all out and it got rejected in less than four hours. No Gator for the bomb dump. I have failed my mission.

It's been quiet, the days are still long but are seemingly getting shorter. It's hot. 110-117 this week.

I'm excited about going home but I can feel the dread of the coming-home readjustment process. The dread sits in the back of my throat, threatening to gag me. Helpless dread. It's a shitty feeling, and one that most people will never understand. I don't even think other military people feel it as much as I do. I wonder why I dread it....but I know exactly why I dread it.

7 June

It's 81 outside this morning and we're all freezing our asses off.

Lovely!I've been helping a couple of guys acquire the resources for screening in our "front porch" in the bomb dump. We took huge panels of wood to the self help area, where we were going to saw them into 2X4s. Now, this wood paneling was bigger than I was, but I could carry it. Barely, but I could. A lot of the Iraqi contracters come to the self help area to get tools before they disperse on base, working on various construction projects. They have armed guards who go wherever they go. They are not used to seeing women in uniform. I struggle past them with my big stupid board and one comes running up to me, hollering at me in Arabic. He freaks me out but I realize he's just trying to help me. I insist that I'm fine, my voice raising to match his, until we are both shouting at each other as I am struggling with my board. Eventually he just grabs the other end of the board. Ok, Ok, fine. Help me. Then two more Iraqis come running up, also hollering at me.

The Army guards, at this point, are quite amused at my expense. The Iraqis grab the board from me, and I stand there helplessly as they run away from me with my board. Wait, they are going the wrong way. They throw MY board into THEIR truck and laugh! Now the Army guys really think this is funny, and I stand there dumbfounded, not quite sure what to do about this situation. I feel like a dumb girl, and I'm pissed that my board got stolen right out of my hands. I halfheartedly demand to get my board back. My guys come back to find me standing there without my board. They razz me about it and then walk over and re-acquire it in a few moments, as any manly man would do in this ridiculous situation.

8 JUNE

Al-Zarqawi is dead. Crazy. We got a classified briefing before it broke on the news, it was pretty crazy hearing jumbled news reports and actually knowing what happened. Front page of the New York Times, CNN headlines, etc. Granted, I doubt it will affect the grand scheme of things much, but it still feels weird to be a part of history. At first they said a Hellfire missile did it. Oh, hell no. Air Force credit straight to the Army! That wasn't a Hellfire, we all shouted at the television screen.

It's weird to know that the US's top wanted man was close to where I am. In a palm grove, just like the ones I see everyday. As soon as the tv switched from the actual incident to the political pundit bickering, everyone tossed their hands into the air in disgust. Back to work. Let the bastards duke it out, we have work to do.

9 JUNE

Today I got in a heated discussion about what makes toothpaste sweet. We are constantly told not to brush our teeth in our pods and spit out our front door, because it attracts bugs and mice who in turn attract snakes. So when one of the airman started spitting his toothpaste all over front porch after he woke up late, I scolded him and told him to go find a water bottle. Naturally we got into a scuffle about why spitting all over the porch was a bad thing, and I said it was because there was sugar in toothpaste. Ok, so I didn't really think it through, but come on, how else could toothpaste be sweetened? Anyways, does it really even matter, because the net effect is the same--It if it tastes sweet to us, won't the bugs think it's sweet too?

AskJeeves.com put the debate to rest fairly quickly, and put me to shame even quicker. Apparently it's some weird nonsugar sweetner. Who knew. Just as I was starting to prove myself to be a young female staff sergeant. Great.

Spent the morning taking pictures of things that need to be fixed in the bomb dump with the chief. Did my first real Post Attack Reconaissance sweep [PAR sweep] with one of my supervisors. You just drive around through a vast expanse of desert after an attack and look for rockets and mortars laying around. Simple enough.

Everybody has the shits from bad chow hall food and water. Ick.

14 JUNE

We had another incoming today, but we were at lunch. It landed near us but didn't explode.

There's this enthusiastic young Army kid who checks our IDs on the way into the chow hall in the morning [a protective measure after someone strapped explosives to their chest and killed a bunch of people in one of our chow halls last fall]. Usually, at 5:50 am, everyone is tired and crabby and just wants their coffee. But this kid always has a ton of energy. As we're waiting to wash our hands, his enthusiasm echoes in the unfriendly smelly entrance to the chow hall. Instead of saying "you’re good, you’re good, you’re good" as each person passes, he thinks hard for each response. "Superb!" "Excellent!" "Wonderful!" "Dynamite!"

This morning he did his thing, then turns to his Army buddies in line. "If you're wondering why you didn't get your paperwork yesterday, it's 'cause the dude got killed," he announced. Loudly. Too loudly, and not enough tact. We all flinch inside--it's too early in the morning for death. But no matter how hard we all flinched on the inside, no one batted an eyelash. We all wondered the same thing--ours or theirs? American or Iraqi? An Army guy turns to his buddy.
"Haji?"
"Yeah."

Everyone is ready to go home. Even the Chief and Captain have fantasized about escape routes. You know morale is getting low when the authority jokes about getting the hell out of here.

16 JUNE

Today we went to the hospital to deliver toys to some kids who were there. A seven year old girl, gunshot wound, was sleeping. We put a teddy bear next to her. Next ward–irate Iraqi boy with his head wrapped up. Must have been eight or nine. Yelling at the nurses in Arabic. He was strapped down to the bed with a dust cover on his forehead. We asked if we could give him a toy, and the nurses replied that we could, but not to take it personally if he didn’t like it. We gave him a squishy ball. He stopped yelling and eyed us suspiciously. The nurse explained that the blue dust cover on his forehead was because he had been spitting on them repeatedly. The nurses looked tired, helpless. The boy’s face suddenly softened, and in a strong voice he said "Thank you." He half smiled, then repeated it. "Thank you." The nurses’ jaws dropped. We all smiled pretty big.

My roommate pressed further: "What’s your name?"
"Thank you. Thank you."

On to the next ward. Small Iraqi boy, unconcious, with brain damage. His father sat next to him. We told him he could pick out some toys for his son. He picked out a few and smiled at us genuinely, placing his hand over his heart to say thank you.

A girl in the sunflower fields right outside the wire waved at me the other day as I drove past on an errand. I wish I could jump the fence and talk to those kids. We think we have it bad in the States...

Yesterday I got sent to Lifeskills, the cleverly named suicide/PTSD counselors. My PTSD checklist score was exactly 30, which is apparently the cutoff for counseling. I was so pissed. That was my first time ever going to counseling of any sort. The counselor gave me the creeps–she was the prototypical feel-good weirdo shrink. Talk about the blind leading the blind. Of course my whole shop found out my score was high, everyone made an "O'Herrin went off the deep end" joke or two. It was funny, but at the same time I can see why we have a serious problem treating PTSD among war veterans. No one takes it seriously. And if you do admit it is a problem, you are viewed as being weak/not able to handle it. Everyone else is just fine, why do you have a problem with it? No one actually says this, but it is clearly written on people’s faces. The questions on the PTSD checklist were ridiculous though:
Are you easily startled?
Do loud noises bother you?
Do you feel as though you are on alert?
Do you have trouble falling asleep at night?

I mean, come on. Are you serious? Loud noises? I got sent to counseling because I answered the questions too honestly--a mistake that smart military members go out of their way to avoid. Usually I am good at that. Chief brought me into his office after I got sent to counseling, sat me down on his nice leather couch. He sat next to me, not at his desk. I explained what had happened. With one short statement, he made me feel better than anything a shrink could have said. I swear to myself never to take good leadership for granted again.

People have been talking about us leaving for the past month. That makes time crawl. Feels like we will NEVER leave.Currently, our itinerary for us leaving has at least seven stops before we get home. That really sucks.


18 JUNE

Today I volunteered at the hospital. I worked in the Emergency Department. We had casualties.

19 JUNE

We had another incoming today. The moment before one hits always freezes in my mind. That split second you make eye contact with the person across the room, before you dive to the ground and squeeze your eyes shut. Those few agonizing seconds of waiting for the inevitable—what the radar has already proven—the only questions being those of magnitude and proximity.

I did compository tool kit inventories with Captain. It was fun. He can be goofy when he lets his authoritative guard down. We inspected tools and we talked about what we think the other is like in civilian [aka real] world. Back at the flight office after inventories, a huge crack/boom. A staff sergeant came running into the office from outside, his eyes bugging out of his head. "I sure hope that was a controlled detonation, because that was F’N LOUD." We are all momentarily stunned, there was no warning klaxon. "Put on your gear!!" yelled Captain. Threw on my gear and ran into the storage office, because if something hits I want to be by people I love. And I love my roommate [and she is a nurse!]. She is wedged under her desk, caught in the middle of a phone call home. "Gotta go, gotta go, I love you I’m ok love you BYE". Her dad will probably have a heart attack after that phone call. I’ve been here, and I’ve been the person at home receiving the phone call. The receiving end can be much harder on your nerves.

Everyone freaked out right after the boom, but now that we all have our gear on everyone is laughing. It is just how we deal. It’s kind of crazy, the elation/hilarity of the minutes after a mortar attack. Being here feels like playing paintball on steroids sometimes.

It turns out later it was a controlled detonation.

After work my roommate and I met an Army guy that is on orders for [get this] 608 DAYS. I am confident I would kill myself. To make matters worse [as if that is possible] he had been deployed the year before for 9 months, but it wasn’t considered a war zone so he got sent to Iraq this year. He’s in the National Guard too. A college student, like me. He hadn’t spoken with a girl in six months before he talked to my roommate and I. Poor, poor bastard. He’s had some close calls working in the towers that guard the base. I don’t envy his position.

We ran around doing paperwork for outprocessing today. One of the activy duty Air Force guys ran into another active duty guy from their home base and introduced me. "She’s outprocessing," said my guy. "We’re trying to get her to stay longer."

I laugh and tell him I didn’t think that was going to happen.

The new guy proceeds to rip my head off, telling me that I don’t know how good I have it, etc. in front of everyone on the bus.

"I don’t remember complaining." I spit at him, glaring. I could feel my blood start boiling. Is this guy for real? All I said was that I wasn’t volunteering to stay longer in this place. I didn’t even refer to it as the hell hole I think it is. I did what was asked of me, maybe more--get off my back, you prick. I am well aware that every Army guy has it worse than I do, and I respect them for it. I admire their courage, their selflessness. But you’re in the Air Force too–don’t make me look like I’m a whiner when all I said was that I was excited to go home.

20 JUNE

Three days and a wake up. On the way to chow in the morning, I carry my gear for some reason. Usually I wear it, mainly because it is easier to wear 40 pounds of gear than carry it. And if you don’t wear it, you gotta carry it. Today I didn’t. Dumb. I am not three feet out of the truck when the klaxon starts screaming. My first instinct is to dive back into the truck for shelter, but I know this is wrong. Lay down! Eat gravel! Dammit. Incomings at the chow hall? I just want my coffee. I’m laying next to my gear. I wiggle into it. No boom comes. I get my watery coffee and am extra grateful for it this morning.

21 JUNE

Today was a big, big, big day. I found out I am leaving a day earlier than I thought-today is my last day that I have to come in to work. I am thoroughly unnerved by this. I am not ready to say goodbye. I am not ready to adjust that fast, I want my extra day. I don’t feel mentally prepared.

At the last minute at work today, an EOD [explosive ordnance disposal] trip comes up. I got to go-it was awesome. We tested out different ways of blowing up mortars that the insurgents make IEDs out of. The coolest part was the gun vault that they let us mess around in. I don’t even like guns, I can even say that I hate them, but this vault was pretty insane. The walls are lined with AK-47s, various Russian and Chinese made weapons. All confiscated by US special forces. Republican guard pistols, inlaid with gold and inscribed with Arabic. Then we played with sweet $150,000 robots that they use to disable IEDs. Heard stories about donkeys and dogs getting stuffed with explosives. EOD teams go outside the wire every day to disarm stuff. These guys disarm live bombs every single day, yet they are so laidback and chilled out. I can’t reconcile this.

I rush back to the shop and get to say goodbyes to almost everyone. There were a few I didn’t get to say goodbye to, which sucked.

My chin is bruised up and split open, it looks like a huge mutant zit. I have it because we had an incoming at 11:30 pm last night, when we were sound asleep. I can’t believe my instincts–I was on the ground before the giant voice spoke the dreaded words: "INCOMING. INCOMING. INCOMING." I was pretty proud of myself, I just flew right out of bed onto the ground before I even woke up, I think. The boom shook our whole room. It was close.

I shivered on the ground, wearing only my underwear and Kevlar, for a minute or two. Screw it. I took off my gear and climbed back into bed under the covers.

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