Military

#40 9.1.1

Photo by Katie Weisberger

Photo by Katie Weisberger

We had been called into the gym at 0445 with our “go bags”–bags that we were supposed to have packed at all times, filled with so many pairs of socks, underwear, uniforms, a toothbrush, deodorant, enough stuff that if you were called away for deployment on short notice, you’d have enough to last you 30 days.  We’d been called in for drills like these a couple of times before.  When you deployed as often as we did, every 4 to 6 months, you were used to an accelerated operations tempo, and most of us just lugged in the bags that we hadn’t unpacked from our last trip to Kuwait.  Mostly, we were a gym full of sleepy, slightly irritated Airmen.  I sat in the corner, sullen, grouchy, and wishing I was back in my warm bed just across the street from base.

Around 0500 we were loaded on buses and taken over to the pre-deployment hangar–another ruse in the squadron’s scheme to make us think this time was THE time when it wasn’t a drill.  Our squadron liked to test our preparation; it was like playing chicken, but with toiletries.  We’d even heard they might go so far as to load us in a C-130, takeoff, and fly us around for a couple of hours just to scare us enough to really pack our bags with the right stuff.  Again, most of us still had the six bars of soap and bag of disposable razors that we hadn’t used from the last deployment, and we weren’t skerred.  At the time, I smoked about a half pack of cigarettes a day, and as we drew nearer to the hangar, I could feel my anxiety build.  Once we got there, we wouldn’t be allowed to go back outside until this drill was over.  If anything had the power to make us nervous, it was the idea of being locked inside a non-smoking facility.  This drill-business just got real for a lot of us.

We processed through the pre-deployment line like hot knives through butter:  shot records updated–check; emergency data information updated–check; are you aware of the services the chaplain can provide while deployed–yes; take a pamphlet; take a magnet; take a contact card–check, check, check.  Eventually, I made my way to the folding chairs, neatly lined up in good, military formation for the next wait.  Anyone in the military has heard the adage, “hurry up and wait.”  We’re really good at waiting.  Be ready to wait.  Always hurrying to wait, wait, wait.  That day was no exception, as we were moved into the pre-load area of the hangar, a new place to carry out more waiting,   we were happy to see a push cart with a television and VCR.  We figured we had another 2 or 3 hours to go before they finally called it quits, and someone was prepared with a tape of Blow or the first Fast and Furious, or some other action flick.  I could probably make it as long as Johnny Depp wasn’t smoking through the entire thing.  I was becoming more irritable and wondered if anyone would notice if I slipped off to a far corner and lit up.

During those years, cell phones were still relatively new for me.  I had only recently bought my very first cellphone weeks before.  Each time I used the tiny clamshell phone, it was like being on the bridge of the Starfleet Enterprise–real space age technology.  Most of us had jumped on the cellphone bandwagon because of our frequent deployments.  It was nice to be able to stay in contact with our family and friends as we waited for hours in terminal after terminal, on our way to Kuwait or Bosnia.  But during the bag drag exercises we weren’t supposed to have any of the “new-fangled doohickies,” as my grandma called them.  Smartphones hadn’t been invented yet, so there really was no reason to have them unless we were going to make phone calls–something we were simply not allowed to do.  Our directive was to turn off all cellphones before entering the holding area.  Even if we could call someone, most of the folks at home were still asleep, or they were just starting to put the coffee on and flip on the morning news.  It was only 0545.

We hadn’t put in the video yet, so the room was filled with silence–folks were too tired and irritated to carry on conversations with each other–too tired even to walk across the room, plug in the television set, and pop in a tape.  We hunkered down against our GI duffles and dozed.  Just as I had almost decided to try my hand at smoking a cigarette in the farthest corner by the door, an officer came into the hangar and told us the United States was under attack.  Geez–I guess they were really going all out with this drill scenario.  Sometimes, we were given a scenario that some country with lots of sand was being overrun by another country with even more sand, and we had been tasked to deploy to support intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance requirements.  But an attack on home soil was a new one for me.  I think I rolled my eyes.  That would never happen; they need to do better if I’m going to be brought in at the buttcrack of dawn.  Almost as soon as the words were out of the officer’s mouth the first phone went off, startling everyone in the bay.  It had one of those tinkling rings that ran up the notes like a quick-handed musician on a xylophone.  The Sgt whose phone was ringing frantically tried to reach his hand in his pocket to silence it.  Phones were supposed to be turned off.  But before he could shut it down, another phone went off–again, the xylophone.  Then, like a rippling wave gaining momentum before it unrolls onto the shore,  phones starting ringing and buzzing, popcorning the room with jangling techno sounds.

“This is not a drill,” someone shouted, “my wife says she’s watching the news and a plane just hit the Twin Towers.”  More people’s phones are ringing–families are frantically trying to get in touch with their loved ones to make sure that the world isn’t crazy.  But it is.

WaterfallI remember being released to head home immediately.  We were instructed to get our affairs in order, for real, none of this bullshit 6 bars of soap and an old bag of razors.  Take care of your stuff because we’re most likely moving out.  Everyone was on call.  Eventually the base was locked down, but many of us made it out of the gates before that happened.  I lived right across the street in some nearby apartments, and I rushed home to turn on the news.  Within minutes the second plane hit the other tower.  This was real, not the horrific accident of some tweaked out pilot like I had hoped.  I had hoped for tweaked out; what I got was unfathomable.  I tried to call my husband who was working a mid-shift on the communications help desk.  When I finally was able to speak with him, he informed me that they had locked down the base and no one was being allowed off or on.  He didn’t know when he would be home, but everyone was going nuts there–activating all their emergency procedures.  All I could do was stare at the television screen and cover my mouth with my hands.  I couldn’t scream loud enough to encapsulate the horror I was witnessing.  I sat on the bed and watched the news for the rest of the day.  I waited for the call from leadership that would put me on a plane to somewhere, and I lit up a smoke.

DSC_0086Less than 2 months later, I was seated in an air operations center in Saudi Arabia, watching the unmanned aerial vehicle track targets along the mountainous dirt roads in Afghanistan.  The shock of 9.1.1. was still with me.  The entire country was still reeling from a sucker punch to the gut.  What I remember about those days was the support we received as a nation; on the air operations floor nearly every country in the United Nation coalition was represented, and they seemed to be banded together with us.  I had not really experienced that type of empathy in earlier deployments.  Or maybe I was just not sensitive to it.  And, at the same time that I was witnessing the great international machine come together in earnest, back home the nation was oftentimes splitting apart–if you were Muslim, you were in trouble.  The same people who would hang up a flag and declare their undying devotion to the colors wouldn’t seem to hesitate in stomping on the freedom of other, fellow Americans.  To add to deployment tensions, several of my friends were coming up on their separation dates, but because of the Global War on Terror, the military instituted a “stop loss” preventing them from leaving until they were no longer needed to fight.  So many people, civilian and military, were so very angry.  Fear manifests in a myriad of ways, and people were scared and unsure of the future.  But we kept doing our jobs, limping along until the bone was able to set.  Eventually, stop loss was lifted and people put away their flags.  But I think we still have a limp.

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Today,  14 years after the planes hit the towers, I’m serving with a generation who was in elementary school when the towers fell.  They peripherally remember their parents’ reactions to the horrors of that day, and many of them joined because of 9.1.1.  That historic day led them to a life direction.  My career, nearly my entire adulthood experience, has been shaped by the events of that day.  For me, I feel the great benefit of knowing life before 9.1.1. and watching life evolve afterwards.  And because I can remember the before and after, I appreciate the carefree ignorance or denial that came before as well as better understand the cautious vigilance that has followed.

DSC_0084A few years ago, I visited the 9/11 memorial in New York City.  Its serenity and peacefulness in the midst of the most electric city in the world stole my breath.  I couldn’t help but think of the people murdered there, of how so many knew they were to die and thought to call family and friends for last words of love.  And I was grateful to them for making me think of that, of who I would call, of what that love looked like in the face of such unbelievable circumstances. I’m grateful to the men and women who died on September 11, 2001, because every year, on this day, I hug my kids a little tighter, I walk a little taller, and I breathe in a little deeper.  Rest in heavenly peace, brave ones.  We will never forget.

Categories: Military, Personal Story

#39 We’re not in Kansas…er, Colorado anymore

Creek

Alabama is not like Colorado.  There are no mountains here.  There are not yet any cool breezes swinging through the valleys of the front range here.  There is no Alamo Drafthouse Movie Theater here where I can order fried dill spears and apricot wheat beer while participating in a Pitch Perfect sing-a-long.  There is not yet too much laughter here between me and my friends & coworkers over whether or not I’m being passive aggressive in staff meetings or while we’re sharing life points over warm muffins and quiche at Mimi’s Cafe.  The nearest hot wings and beer are no longer 10 minutes away, but now in the next town over.  My hair stylist is not here, and my gray hairs did not get the memo to slow down their regeneration.  My church is not here; to be fair, my church wasn’t in Colorado either.  I left it in Illinois two moves ago.  My gym is not here with all its fancy equipment, newly renovated locker rooms and plethora of Zumba classes.  My University of Denver classmates aren’t here, and I’m feeling a little isolated and out of touch as I embark on the next phase in this dissertation journey–a lone woman in a sea of not.

And there are other ways that Alabama is not like Colorado–some terrifying, others lovely.  As an example, in Colorado, you will be hard-pressed to find American Cockroaches.  Here in Alabama, they can grow to be as big as 2 inches, and they like to welcome you home as you approach your front door–hanging out just about head-level on the brick walls of your house–much more friendly than in Colorado where THEY DO NOT EXIST.  Not to be outdone by their distant insect cousins, the friendliness of the spiders in Alabama is certainly not mirrored in Colorado.  Colorado spiders will hide out in nooks and crevices of the windows and behind door frames if you don’t clean well enough (so I’ve heard); however, Alabama spiders will weave elaborate and enduring webs around your kitchen faucet or the legs of your kitchen chairs–you know, the things you use every day so you won’t feel lonely.  They will also decorate your door frames and patio furniture in such a ninja-like way that you won’t even see them until you have a face full of their habitat artwork.  They are so welcoming and persistent, they refuse to be dissuaded despite the Terminix guarantee right there on the receipt.  And Colorado cannot hope to compete with Alabama’s humidity that activates the sweat glands the moment you step out of a freezing cold shower, literally chasing down and obliterating the dry spot just created with the towel.  Alabama has the gift of sweat:  sweat on the upper lip, sweat down the middle of the back, sweat under both armpits, sweat down the back of the neck, sweat running down the shins—sweat.  But there is also not too many hills to run on…and running outside is easier without Colorado’s altitude–I’m up to 4 miles a day again.  And without the altitude, I somehow feel…lighter…not thinner–don’t get it twisted–but lighter here at sea-level.

Singing at creekPerhaps the lighter feeling comes with other things Alabama offers that Colorado just cannot:  space and distance.  My boys wake up in our home every morning, and I pick them up from school every afternoon.  Every weekend they drive me crazy wanting to play the WiiU at 6 a.m. on Saturday.  And while the ideal would be for the boys to have both their parents within easy reach, we’re making the best of another person’s choices.  I easily meet my own gaze in the mirror each morning (mascara-smudged as it sometimes is), and, best of all, I happily meet the gazes of my boys every day, every single day, without interruption.  After I pack tomorrow’s lunches, fix our dinner, oversee their homework, and read our bedtime stories, we say our prayers each night.  We say prayers of love and hope and blessings for all the people the boys love in their lives, whether in Colorado, Indiana, Illinois, Pittsburgh, Florida, or down the hall.  Their world keeps expanding with each move, each type of parent, each new sibling, each grandparent, cousin, and family friend.  And my world gains distance on the heartbreak that has been a fairly constant companion over the last several years.  No, Alabama is not like Colorado.  And that’s beginning to be okay with me.

Categories: Military

“Mom’s Lost It” #38

Disclaimer: Please do not notify child services

The other day, I was talking to one of my coworkers about parenting. There’s really no good end to that sort of conversation. Somebody’s going to feel like crap afterwards, and that somebody is usually me. I second guess most everything I do as a mom. While I know I’m not alone, it can definitely feel like castaway island when I take stock of  my various parenting mistakes…so many errors.  While my friend was sharing a sweet story about how he grew slightly impatient with his little child as she was learning to potty train, I tried to make him feel better by recounting a time my kids still remind me of by saying, “Mom, remember when Grayson was sick?”  They love to bring it up; they love to remind me of this particular failing in my parenting career.  They’re sweet like that.

My oldest had it first, the ninja-like flu-bug that struck when least expected, and it was fine when it happened while he was spending the weekend at his dad’s house.  I didn’t know there was a three-day dormant period where the virus would drag its infected self over puke buckets, Spiderman blankets, Luigi plush figures, and Incredible Hulk toothbrushes, eventually settling in the unsuspecting stomach of little Grayson.   All day, the little boy was energetic and upbeat.  I don’t remember him complaining about his stomach feeling anything other than invisible.  I didn’t hear any complaints when he and his brother played Mario Cart or Disney Infinity.  I didn’t hear any complaints when he asked for his third cup of milk.  And I didn’t hear any complaints when he ate the abundance of Oreos that made him so thirsty.  I do remember the boys being so cute and sweet, and me missing them so much after they had been at their dad’s for a couple of days, that I let them sleep with me in my bed that night.

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I had taken some over-the-counter sleep medicine, so at 2 a.m. I was in full-dead-to-the-world-mouth-open-drool-happening-sleep.  I was dragged away from my dreams of, well…not vomit, into the harsh reality of…vomit–black, Oreo-coated, milk-supported, virus-induced, projectile-vomit.  I’ve seen those sitcoms where the parents are running to get a bucket, or the kid pukes in the car, but I’ve not seen a cinematic representation of a child puking across his mother’s chest, pillow, and hair in the middle of the night.  That could only happen in reality, I guess.  And in that moment of hyper-reality, who I am as a care-giver could not be stifled.  My true self was awakened.  I did not have time to put on my mommy-brain, and I did not have time to censor myself, to connect the right neurons in my brain to the right responses one should have when one’s 6-year-old is feeling unwell.  In that moment, I had the opportunity to be my best self.  Instead, I was the unpeeled, mini-alien monster that rips through that guy’s stomach in the 1979 hit “Alien,” starring Tom Skerritt and Sigourney Weaver.  As my baby sat up next to me, pumping out black gut juice all over me and the bed, with his eyes trained to my face, my true parenting sense uncurled itself from my diaphragm and exploded from my mouth, “F*&(())!”  I yelled it loud enough to awaken my oldest son.  Within a few seconds, my brain was un-fogged, and I could discern the situation more clearly.  “F*&(())!,” I yelled again while simultaneously picking up the vile little puke monster and staggering to the open toilet.  Not a good look for me, to be sure.

After that overshare, my co-worker, hopefully, felt a little less awful about the lowered eyebrow he gave to his precious as she wet her pants.  I’m certain he felt like he was doing a better job than me, even if he was too polite to express that thought.  Despite my parenting failure, there were great things that came out of “puke gate.”  I know to be on high-alert when one kid’s been ill, even if the other one shows no signs of that illness.  Don’t.Trust.It.  I know that Oreos + milk + virus = No Bueno (to be fair, I already knew that one).  I also know that who I am, at my core, is still there–sometimes, through marriage, divorce, motherhood, time, maturity (seriously), and the everyday responsibilities that come with life, I can lose touch with that girl who would confidently walk into the club and be the first one on the dance floor.  And that girl would have said “F*&(())!” if some kid, even her own, had woken her up from a dead sleep by vomiting blackness all over her.  And, I learned that my kids like that girl; they like to revisit her antics that night; they like to relive her reaction because she’s someone they don’t get to see between swim lessons, homework, and bath time.  I also learned that letting my boys see my mistakes and admitting those mistakes opens up an avenue of conversation that brings us closer as a unit.  And I try to let that confident girl with the club swag come out every once in awhile, but I do make her watch her mouth.

Grayson recovered after a day or two of being with his foul-mouthed momma, eating chicken noodle soup, sipping 7-Up, and abstaining from Oreos for a few days.  His brother recovered from the trauma of being woken up in the middle of the night by my shouts and the smell of regurgitated cookies. I recovered from being puked on, which, let’s face it, was way more nightmare-inducing than any word I uttered in the heat of the moment.  I’m also happy to report that Grayson first said that word months before he heard me say it that night, so I didn’t say anything to him that he, unfortunately, hadn’t heard before–probably from that kid, Eddie, who he sits next to in his first grade class.   Little Eddie probably hears that kind of language at home.  Some parents are just bad influences…

So, the next time you have a low parenting point, just re-read this.  I got you.

Categories: Military, Motherhood, Personal Story

“Fear” #32

Some time ago, I sat across from my professor and talked about different types of fear.  He was very interested in how I, as a member of the military, processed fear in a deployed environment.  Like most of the things my professors asked me, I hadn’t thought about my fear before.  But I want to try to think about it now, and what I’ve concluded is:  There isn’t much that scares me anymore.

I used to play around with fear. If there was a group going to the haunted houses for Halloween, I was there.  Game of flashlight tag in a cemetery?  Let’s do it.  Scary movie marathon? Can’t wait.  Death-defying roller coaster drop?  Let’s go again.  The charge of electrons that sparked in my brain when it came to being scared was something I sought after as much as I could, in very safe and predictable ways. In all those situations, the thing that I allowed to scare me was controlled. I was secure in the knowledge that the roller coaster would wind its way back to the start, and I would soon find myself safe on the loading platform again.  I knew the scary movie wasn’t real, and the folks in the cemetery were not the same as those from Michael Jackson’s Thriller video, waiting to break through their dirt-packed resting places and snatch at my ankles (That video was terrifying when I was a kid!).  Those safe experiences brought a younger type of fear.  It was flimsy and tin-foil thin, and it could be broken through anytime I wanted simply by reminding myself that it wasn’t real.

During my deployments, there were times when I was nervous about being harmed; times when I was grateful for the weight of my small bowie-knife bouncing against the outside of my leg as I walked through a darkened compound alone under watchful eyes; times when I was grateful for my M-4 grasped firmly in my semi-steady hands and the ammunition snuggled inside her; and times when I was happy for the heaviness of the helmet and Kevlar vest weighing me down as our aircraft flew low over enemies with high vantage points. There were several moments when I thought violence towards me was a real possibility and life, as I knew it, could be changed forever, but those fears were never allowed to fully materialize.  They were simply breath-catching minutes that passed with little more than a racing heart, brief body shakes, and a mental sense of relief that something I couldn’t fully fathom hadn’t come to pass. That fear was the type of fear that I wouldn’t allow myself to linger in because what would be the point? Nothing happened. I wasn’t shot or raped by the Saudi guard at the checkpoint who was angry to see a woman alone, driving a car, and pointed his weapon at me while yelling for some explanation I could not provide. I didn’t have to fire my weapon at the young men greedily watching us walk across the bridge towards a village of Al Qaeda sympathizers.  My limbs weren’t blown off by an IED (improvised explosive device) as our SUV bounced along the streets of Kabul days after an attack on an American convoy. No good could come of being traumatized by the possibility of terror.  It was all around me when I was deployed, and I would not be able to function in other ways if I was overcome by possibilities rather than realities.

For me, the possible deployment atrocities where more shallow moments when compared to the fears-come-to-life I had already lived through.   I wrapped those realized fears over my shoulders, tattered shreds hanging down my back, slipping over my chest and down my arms, enshrouding my body and everything in it like an invisible, bullet-riddled bed sheet.  As far as I knew, I had already been through the worst sort of trauma, and it had numbed me to everything to follow behind it.  When I was married, I had a fear that he would find someone else. And then he did. And after the divorce, there were the fears about him moving on, falling in love, re-marrying, and my children getting a stepmother whom they loved.  All those things came to pass.  These fears weren’t the same controlled fears of my youth, and they weren’t the distant fears of being killed in a foreign land.  They were the fears of actuality.  They really happened to me, emptying me of all the things that had filled me since I was a little girl.  During those immediate months after the divorce, I was often like a wild animal, unable to control my thoughts or emotions.  I would writhe in pain, sometimes physically rolling around the floor of my bedroom after my children were asleep, grabbing at my chest, begging for release, begging for my breathing to stop and for my heart to quit its insufferable beating.  My fear was embodied within me.  I could touch it, and stare it down in the mirror.  I wrestled with it, and it kicked my ass.  But with each new terror that came true, the struggle began to subside.  I stopped fighting the fear and began to recognize it as a foreshadowing of strength to come.  The fears happened, and I had to experience them fully, undiluted and unchecked by any protection.  And the happenings made me braver and more certain that I was being held by something so much stronger than me because the fear didn’t kill me.

I didn’t die of a broken heart, just as I didn’t die from an IED. I didn’t die at the hands of my enemies, either home or abroad.  Instead, the sun came up every morning and switched places with the moon every night. The trash kept getting picked up from the curb, and the mail kept getting delivered.  My kids kept calling me mom, and the dog continued to need food and water.  So, when one of my friends off-handedly remarked that I didn’t seem to be afraid of anything, I guess he was right.  I may have a moment of panic, but I soon come around to the certainty that things will be better than fine.   I am not afraid of things (most things) because I live in the reality that something much bigger, much greater, much more powerful than me and my capabilities keeps things going. I can take a deep, sometimes ragged, breath and step into the street in Kabul or sit down to a cup of coffee with my sons’ stepmom, because I have met the type of fear that I thought would destroy me and lived to tell the tale.  Things kept going.  Things keep going.  I am one of the lucky ones.

Categories: Military, Military, Personal Story, Moving On, Personal Story | Tags: , ,

#31

When I arrived in San Antonio for basic training nearly 16 years ago, I didn’t have a name.  Technically, I had one, but nobody there cared what it was.  I was called “female,” if I was called anything at all.  It was very strange how quickly I became used to my new name:  female.  It came with a certain ambiguous identity.  I had a place, but it was along with all the other female basic recruits.  And I didn’t have to settle into that name:  female.  I didn’t have to put it on, button it up, wear it, truly inhabit it, believe in it, or define it.  It already came with a body, and I just had to stay in its shadow.  Then, when I graduated basic training, I was recognized in a new way, the name I was born with:  Thurman.

The military moves in graduations.  We never jump in, head-first, full-bodied into the next phase.  We are gingerly allowed to dip a toe, then up to the knee, then wade to the neck into the too shallow tub of individualism.  In keeping with the tradition of less individuality is more, my first name was not used by my newly created friends, but I was allowed my surname.  Being called by my last name was strange, but not uncharted territory.  I played sports for many years, and the military wasn’t so different from the athletic world in the regard of last names.  But, my teammates called me by my nickname more often than not:  Red.  No one calls me Red anymore.  Maybe I’ve outgrown it; maybe it’s too strange a name to call a nearly 40-year-old woman.  So, what happened to Red?  In fact, what happens to any names I’ve carried, but no longer wear?  I think there is a Lost and Found.

Before I married so many years ago, my fiancé and I discussed what name I would use–it was a discussion initiated by me.   For him, taking on his last name was a foregone conclusion.  A done deal.  No discussion necessary.  I remember trying to talk to him about how nervous it made me to no longer be Thurman after 24 years of being Thurman.  Who was this Clemens person?  What made her tick?  How did she navigate the world?  He saw my nerves as rejection.  His name was a source of pride for him, and he wanted his wife to wear his name.  In love, trusting that I was loved in return, the discussion ended.  I acquiesced.  Passive.  I would no longer wear the name I had worn since birth.  I would just put on a new one.  Clemens was born.

With slightly less ease than he exerted when he gave me his name, the gift that he was convinced made me more his than not his, he jumped away from me, but left his name behind.  And when we divorced, my children, young, strapping Clemens’ boys, were upset at the thought of me shedding the name they had worn since birth.  “If you’re not a Clemens, you won’t be our mom anymore!”  They are worried.  For them, my existence is wrapped up in the name.  And, again, I acquiesce, and wear it, a strip on my military uniform, a flourish on my driver’s license.

Just go back, someone suggested.  Be Thurman again.  If only.  But I’m not Thurman anymore; I abandoned her.  She was less changed, less formed by names she no longer carries.  Will I still fit her?  I worry she will not have me back.  Thurman died at 24.  Can I resurrect her?  I’m not Red anymore, either.  I didn’t leave Red, but she left me when I turned–what–22 or maybe before?  Regardless, I’m too old for cute nicknames, now.  And I’m beginning to grow out of my Clemens’ skin.  Someone else is filling the clothes of Mrs. Clemens now.

What name will I wear moving forward?  When I achieve something, who will get the achievement?  Will I still be the same mother to my Clemens’ boys?  I don’t know.

Categories: Military, Military, Personal Story, Motherhood, Moving On, Personal Story | Tags: ,

“Special Deliveries” #26

I don’t know if I made choices during my deployment to Afghanistan based on my past deployment experiences to Saudi, Bosnia, or Kuwait (all of which usually consisted of being trapped on a base for several months, then rushing through Germany or Spain, sampling the liquid fare on my way back home, arriving hung over and none the wiser) or if my ongoing heartbreak removed layers of protection that had been in place for as long as I could remember.  Whatever the impulsion, I made choices during this deployment that I’m not sure I would have made at other times in my life.  I wasn’t taking unnecessary risks so much as I was refusing to be held back from fully experiencing things.   That is probably why I did what I did when the helicopter approached.  Or it could have been the Australian accents.  Yep.  That was probably it.  There’s something about an Australian accent that just makes me go all soft inside.  Listening to all those Aussies, so rugged and masculine, combined with the jarring ride in the Bushmaster, must have scrambled my ability to logically think through causes to their effects.

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The Bushmaster.

When we arrived, there was a buzz in the air around the camp.  I experienced some excitement earlier in the trip when we had to make a quick stop in an open field situated in a valley between two Afghan hills.  The back of our he-lo dropped open and a security team scrambled out into the grass just in time to greet the heads popping up all around them, like groundhogs sniffing springtime air.  Almost before I realized what was happening in the middle of this nowhere, the security team grabbed a couple wooden chests containing foodstuffs and supplies for the Aussies we would see at their remote location.  The moments on the ground were tense and everyone was very alert; I learned later the drop zone was a place known for its Taliban activity.  The General was a high value target, and no one wanted to have to report that they allowed him to be harmed, but every opportunity to get much-needed supplies had to be fully exploited.  In less than two-minutes the gear was loaded and we were hoisted away by the whipping blades above us.

The gang

The gang

Now, finally reaching the location, I could see why the supplies were so important.  There was nothing here but some plywood sheds, cots, camo-netting and sandbag bunkers.   We traveled back in time to Vietnam or Korea.  The dedication of these men, to live completely unprotected and exposed in order to hold this position was truly inspiring.  And now, something more wonderful than getting supplies was happening.  They were finally getting some protection.  Yellow smoke was popped, denoting the drop position for the incoming he-lo.  As it approached, the large gun was attached to the belly of the machine like a young monkey clinging to her mother.  Wanting to get as close as I could for the video I was shooting with my camera, I stood just a few feet away from the expected delivery point.  I was pushed forward by the invisible excitement of the men, mesmerized by the whoosh, whoosh, whoosh, whoosh of the giant, scissor-like blades whipping, whipping, whipping around the hairline of the machine.

No one cautioned me.  No one suggested I stay back.  I didn’t notice when the Chief and General, along with nearly everyone else, positioned themselves well-behind the blasting walls several feet behind where I was standing.  How could they not want to see this?  I decided my brothers in the Army were desensitized by the absolute awesomeness of watching a helicopter drop a giant gun down in the middle of nowhere in the same way I was desensitized to seeing F-16s on a runway.  But I was determined not to miss this, possibly, once in a lifetime experience.  I wanted to see everything, and to feel the wind whirling around, trying to push me over.  I got my wish.  With a steady hand, I recorded the magisterial entrance, in fact, I was right underneath the passageway of the incoming he-lo and its cargo…like an idiot.  The blades did what the blades do, picking the air up, and grabbing handfuls of debris with it.  Before I could compute the physics of the situation, I was overcome by a tidal wave of rocks and dirt.

The Chief thought it was hilarious to see me covered in dirt.  I guess it was.

The Chief thought it was hilarious to see me covered in dirt. I guess it was.

Categories: Military, Personal Story | Tags: , ,

“Helicopters” #25

Sometimes, the locations we traveled to were far enough away that the hum and rocking of the helicopter, combined with my limited three or four hours of sleep each night, was enough to lull me off to sleep. My vest made a sufficient pillow if I let it creep up a little over my shoulders, and I tucked my chin down into the newly formed pocket, folded my arms over my chest and dozed. I had been “resting my eyes” for about fifteen or twenty minutes when I was yanked awake by the “rat tat tat tat tat, rat tat tat tat tat” of the gunner and his M-60 machine gun firing into the mountain tops a few hundred feet below the bird.

Gunner.

Gunner.

For a second upon waking, I thought of what impending death would entail: disorientation as the helicopter started its unplanned dizzying descent into the valleys of whatever mountain range we were flying over, pain and fear as we most likely bounced from one peak to the next, and possibly the hot metal of a rocket slicing through the floor where my feet rested. In the initial moment when my eyes flew open, before I could shake the webs from my brain, I thought of how to conduct myself if these were my final moments. Be calm. Don’t scream. Brace for impact. Don’t scream. A few seconds after my eyes were opened, my mind caught up and I took note that none of my fellow passengers seemed concerned about the gunner and his persistent “rat tat tat tat tat.”

I mouthed the words to the Soldier strapped in next to me, “what’s he doing,” and jerked my head towards the gunner. Yelling loud enough to be heard over the whirling wings, he replied, “He’s sighting the gun.” I nodded back with a flippant lift of my chin as if to say, “Ah, yes. Of course he is.” My heart, angrily pumping blood through my body at a rate and speed that Lance Armstrong would envy, began to settle slightly. He was only sighting the weapon to be certain it shot straight. He wasn’t firing at Al Qaeda hidden in the sides of the landscape. He wasn’t defending the bird from someone lifting a rocket-propelled grenade launcher up to his shoulder, and taking aim at a slow-moving, low flying target. He was simply making sure the cross hairs were plumb and could deliver a bullet to its intended target. Good. After another minute or two of watching the gunner finish his work, I tucked my chin back into its nest and continued my nap.

Traveling.

Traveling.

We finally landed in a remote location in southern Afghanistan. In fact, the location was so remote that the he-lo couldn’t drop us there, so we had to hitch a ride with our Australian allies for the last leg of our trip. G’day, mate. The Australians had their own brand of up-armored military vehicles called “Bushmasters,” and they loved to show what they could do. We piled into the back of the ride and the metal door sealed us in. It felt like being a single kernel of corn in a large, sand-colored tin can. There were no windows, no air holes, and apparently, no shocks in the Bushmaster. Every bump (and there were nothing but bumps) sent the occupants sailing into the air before banging them back down again with a painful and padding-free thump. It was the longest ten minute ride I’d ever experienced. When we finally arrived at their base camp, we exited just in time to watch the CH-47 Chinook approach the drop point and deliver her cargo: a new weapons system dangling underneath the belly of the beast. I hurried from the Bushmaster to get a ringside seat for this once in a lifetime experience.

Categories: Military, Personal Story | Tags: , ,

“More Traveling” #24

The holidays are difficult to handle, as a rule, for everyone when deployed. It is never ideal to be away from friends and family. I hated missing out on my boys’ lives for long periods of time, but it had a special hurt when it was a national holiday and I knew they would be celebrating without me, making memories without me. Luckily, the pace of my job kept my mind focused on something else. Unlike carrying out our everyday mission in the States, the end-of-year holiday season didn’t come with a lull and a yawn in Afghanistan. In fact, the opposite happened in the Command Section where I worked. Top leadership had many responsibilities when leading troops, and one of the most important responsibilities was to keep morale from plummeting too low. The holiday season posed a direct adversary to that goal, so many leaders (like the general and the Chief) made sure to get “eyes on” their men and women in the field. This required time spent traveling in Army and Marine Corps helicopters to remote locations and checking on their people. I loaded up my backpack with schedules, a notebook, recognition coins, hand sanitizer, sunblock and a toothbrush and prepared to roll.

Getting ready to run.

Getting ready to run.

When the general was going on a trip, an Army helicopter, or he-lo, would descend into the landing zone by our compound and we would race out to meet it through a small metal door hidden in the perimeter wall. It was important to be on time, watch your step over the chunky rocks in the landing zone, keep your head low (not really a problem for me), and haul yourself up into the jump seat with a quickness born of near panic before the pilot skedaddled back to the safety of the skies. In theory, it was all very exciting and badass. In practice, I hated loading and unloading the he-lo. For everyone else, the ingress seemed to go smoothly as they athletically swung into the bed of the helicopter, hopped to their feet with barely a hesitation under the weight of their gear, and settled into the cot-like jump seats. It did not go that well for me the first few times I tried to get into the bird.

For starters, the lip of the he-lo floor came up almost to my armpits, as I stood next to her. I needed a running start, which wasn’t going to happen with giant boulders posing as a walkway. The engineer who designed this whirling contraption before the Korean War did not think to include a lift-step to assist the vertically challenged (everybody must have been giant then, or at least not female). To top it off, I had slacked off on my Arnold Schwarzenegger-time in the gym by sitting at a desk for 16 hours a day, and I had difficulty lifting my weight plus the additional 30 pounds of gear (which now felt completely unnecessary) high into the bird.

Noticing my plight before I had to draw attention to it, the Chief, after his gazelle-like leap into the he-lo, turned to offer me a hand. Someone else grabbed the back of my Kevlar vest, and a third person grabbed my other arm. Clearly under-estimating their combined strength, the three of them hurtled me into the helicopter like a half-empty sack of potatoes and sent me skimming across the metal-plated floor of our ride. Regaining my bearings, but not my dignity, I maneuvered my legs back underneath my body and dragged myself into an open jump seat. It wasn’t magisterial, to be certain, but I was in and the bird was lifting away.

Categories: Military, Personal Story | Tags: , ,

“Joyful Noise” #23

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Ready to sing.

Teaching the students songs became more difficult than just breaking through their barriers of meekness. There were fundamental differences in how willing we were, as native English speakers, to simply read a word and not worry about understanding it. Non-native English learners were very concerned about understanding the words. Every single word. And they were not willing to let us off the hook in explaining them. We were asked to explain terms and phrases that we had never really questioned at all. After traversing through the complexities of “itsy bitsy” meaning “smaller than small,” we leapt headfirst into “Jingle Bells.” Even more difficult than the dreaded spider’s journey, “Jingle Bells” led to questions about horses with open sleighs, o’re fields (oh ree fields, as they pronounced it), and clarification on just what it meant to “dash” through something. When we finally navigated through their definition clarity requests, the ladies were ready to sing.

There is a scene in the holiday classic “A Christmas Story” where a typical American family (father, mother, and two young sons) has Christmas dinner at a local Chinese restaurant after their home-cooked meal suffered a terrible fate. To bring some of the holiday cheer to the unusual experience, some of the staff sang, “Deck the Halls” to the family, in heavily accented English. Without intending to, we re-created that scene at the crowded picnic table inside the Zarghona English Department, minus the crispy duck and MSG.

Our students joyfully sang with us, “Daahshing through the snoweh, in a one-harse open sly; oh ree the feelds we go-eh, laughing all thee way: hawh-har-hawh.” The moment was hypnagogic, dreamlike, in its details. We were surrounded by beautiful women, no longer self-effacing, who were giggling and tapping their feet while laughter crinkled the corners of their eyes. Some of their hijabs had slipped from the tops of their heads to rest in folds around their shoulders, leaving their hair bare and unapologetic, but they didn’t notice. Their eyes were directly meeting our own, not casting downward unwilling to hold our stare. And I sat singing children’s songs with arms draped over my shoulders, pressed on both sides between warm bodies. I felt valued and seen, just as I valued and saw the totality of them in that moment, a created sisterhood. Each one of us healed soul fractures in the woman next to her. Big Bertha, Nazaneen, Sergeant B, all of us were like new shoots breaking through the hard ground of past experiences. As Nazaneen stood up to perform a solo of “Where Is Thumbkin,” complete with dance steps, I felt safe and happy in Afghanistan.

Categories: Military, Personal Story | Tags: , ,

“Singing” #22

Sergeant B quickly turned into my right-hand woman when it came to nurturing our budding relationship with our students, and by the American holiday season she thought they were ready for some singing. Sergeant B thought sharing nursery rhymes and non-secular carols would strengthen our ties with the Afghan women. I thought she was nuts. These women would not sing Ring-Around-the-Rosie and recite Wee-Willie-Winkie with us. But she was passionate about her idea, and I wouldn’t stand in her way.

After consulting with our cultural advisor, Dr. J, we carefully chose nursery rhymes and carols that were not offensive to the Muslim religion practiced by the Afghans. While Dr J didn’t object to Sergeant B’s idea, our translator, Salar, thought we were crazy for suggesting it, not because it went against any religious laws, but because he didn’t think the women would ever sing in front of each other. “They are way too shy to do this,” he adamantly stated. “But you can certainly try it.” Although we didn’t need Salar’s permission, the mindset of the males in Afghanistan requires they give consent to an idea, even if you didn’t ask for it. I accepted this part of his personality, but I didn’t love it. He wouldn’t be in the room anyway, so no harm could come of trying to prove him wrong.

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Nazaneen (not her real name) and some of our other students.

Finding songs was pretty easy. It turned out that there were a lot of nursery rhymes and carols that didn’t cross any invisible lines of propriety, as long as we didn’t look too closely into the meaning. And since the women couldn’t really understand English all that well, what did we have to lose? We settled on “Jingle Bells,” “Where is Thumbkin,” and the “Itsy Bitsy Spider.” Sergeant B and I walked into the tiny English “department” (consisting of a picnic table and two small bookshelves), armed with our songs, and excitedly greeted our students.

“Today we have a special treat for you. Today we are going to sing songs!”

I tried to sound upbeat and positive, even though I thought this would be an exercise in ridiculousness. Maybe Salar was right. These were women who kept their eyes averted and their heads covered in conversation. When men were around they melted into the scenery as if by some illusionist’s spell. It took weeks to get most of them to open their mouths to speak to us because they were embarrassed of their English speaking skills. But, they were proud, too. They wouldn’t do something they thought made them look foolish. How would we convince them that singing songs would help them with their English? We’d have to demonstrate, a part I hadn’t really thought about when my right-hand-woman was planning this lesson.

Sergeant B and I stood in front of the room of twenty Afghan women, their eyes trained on our every movement, their heads tilted curiously, their hands placed demurely in their laps. When the room had settled, we opened our mouths and began singing, high-pitched and slightly off key, “The itsy bitsy spider went up the water spout; down came the rain and washed the spider out.” With each verse we touched the fingers of our hands together and, side-by-side in our military uniforms in front of a raptured audience, pretended our hands were spiders. They climbed up waterspouts, slid down waterspouts, became rays of sunshine drying up rain and restarted the entire process because the spider just refused to give up. “Out came the sun and dried up all the rain, so the itsy bitsy spider went up the spout again.”

Sergeant B was highly animated. Maybe she was nuts. She was singing as if she had the house spotlight beaming down on her–center stage. As the mother of four, she was probably used to these impromptu performances; I certainly did them a time or two with my boys at home, but her excitement couldn’t be faked. She was digging it. Before I realized it, feeding off her enthusiasm, I was digging it, too. But more important than the apparent good time we were having standing in an indefensible school in the middle of a war torn nation, vulnerable in every way, singing these nursery rhymes was the joy on our students’ faces. They were like little children, unselfconscious about their happiness. We finished our performance, goofy grins on our faces. “Teach me! Teach me, Miss Naancy,” they asked in their elongated way, and they gave us a round of applause.

Categories: Military, Personal Story | Tags: , ,

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