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:


In your eye:


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.