Military

“Books” #21

The children on the streets of Kabul hoarded the candy we handed out in the same way the librarian at the girls’ school hoarded the books we brought. Living under the heavy hammer of war for thirty years had born some strange habits from the locals. When resources came, whether they were in the form of food, clothing, water bottles, books, candy, pencils, or electricity, the natural instinct of the Afghans seemed to be either to store it away for safe keeping, dole it out carefully, if ever, or never let anyone know what you have, if you can help it.

142

Eager students. Photo by SGT K Threat

We would often bring school supplies to the teachers (pads of paper, boxes of pencils, markers, erasers, chalk, notebooks) when we would conduct our weekly visits to Zarghona, and as quickly as we would hand them out, they were tucked away in the their purses, locked in desk drawers (if the locks worked) or kept in a locked supply closet until who knows when. In the beginning, we would try to explain to them that the supplies were for them to use, like, right now—not later. Or better yet, they could disseminate the supplies to the students in their classes, many who did not have an abundance of paper or pencils at their disposal. In a very American way, we had an expectation for how our gifts would be used, and when they weren’t immediately put to work, we assumed there was a communication barrier that we needed to teach around. We were wrong. The women were not confused about our intentions; they just had other plans. Actually, they learned not to make plans.

Although I was often anxious before a trip to the school, this time my excitement outweighed my nerves. A few weeks earlier I ordered several children’s books from Amazon, and they had finally arrived. Careful to choose books without any religious overtones (or subtle undertones), without pork or any mention of pigs (I don’t even know if they had a word for pig in the Pashto or Dari languages), and with no pictures of females without full and appropriate clothing (sorry, Barbie, not this time), we set off on our trip across town. On this visit, it was only me and one of my great friends, Sergeant B, an Army Sergeant by day, mother of four and badass derby chick by night, to meet with the teachers.

394764_2440467656698_1699639140_n

Sgt B and her fans.

On a previous visit we had finally convinced them to let us see their library. We couldn’t believe they had such a place, and the “librarian,” a relation of either the principal or vice principal—but without any formal training, was the only person with a key, which she wasn’t handing over to anyone. She was not one of our students, which meant she spoke no English at all. Through one of the other teachers, we were able to convince her we were not going to steal her books, or even remove any from the shelf. We just wanted to see this mythical place. In a school were indoor plumbing was not a priority, the idea of a library was miraculous.

We were not disappointed. The library was actually a spacious room with large tables and sturdy wooden chairs lined up in the center and flanked by suitably stocked shelves of books. There were books of all languages and topics: encyclopedias, world atlases, dictionaries, math books, the Qur’an and some children’s picture books. Most of the shelves were filled with resource material, but they were there. Beautiful bound books. We were in disbelief that this resource had been here for months and we were just now visiting the library. It was akin to finding out the desert had a huge, clearwater lake in the middle of it, but people were dying of thirst. Why would they not use this space for teaching? When did the students check out books? How often did the teachers check out the books? And they had English language tapes? And tape recorders? Why weren’t they using them? We peppered our students with these questions for translation to the librarian. She started to panic and become visibly agitated. Her hands started flailing and her voice, demure and shy before, grew louder and more barking with each word out of her mouth. I didn’t know what she was saying, but I knew exasperation, no matter by what language it showed itself.

Finally, Nazaneen turned to us to explain. “What happen if someone steals a book? Or a tape recorder? Librarian would be punished. They are under her keep.” We were in shock and unable to hide it on our faces. Nazaneen continued, “When we would get more books? Never. Americans leave here soon. Soldiers leave here soon. No. It is better to keep them safe. No. We keep them safe.”

Sergeant B and I looked at each other with tears welling in our eyes. There was so much knowledge just sitting here, uneaten, while the students were starving for it. I swallowed hard and realized we had so much more work to do than simply teach these students English.

Categories: Military, Personal Story | Tags: , ,

“Zarghona Part 4” #20

Despite tiptoeing through the feces drops, I was very excited to get started with my new pupils. I didn’t really know how we were going to communicate, what materials I was going to use to teach them English, or if I was going to be blown up along the route or at the schoolhouse, but I was excited. After the day of initial introductions in the English Department, Salar was displaced to hang out with the principal and vice principal in their shared office space, drinking chai. Although this move would not make it easier for the Americans and the Afghans to communicate with each other, it was important for the Afghans to practice English without the temptation to fall back into their native tongue. No safety nets. And we wanted the women to be comfortable with us; we wanted them to trust us, and we wanted to prove ourselves trustworthy. Although Salar had been effectively neutered through his familial ties, he was still an Afghan male in a room of Afghan women. He had to go.

Students--Photo by SGT K Threat

Students–Photo by SGT K Threat

On this day, our convoy traveled through the streets of Kabul again, entered the tin gate again, and we were enveloped with joyful children in the courtyard again. There were only three of us working with the women on this visit, two Colonels and me, a Captain. The introductions took longer without Salar there to translate, but the women were also much more talkative and demanding without him around. The demure attitudes were just an act. After the initial ritual of cheek kissing and head nodding, we got down to serious business with phonic flashcards. While looking at pictures of white faces with orange hair holding things like apples or pears and cards of pigs with curly cue tails that none of the Afghan women could identify, the woman who was introduced as the head of the English department called me over to her group.

Her Afghan name began with a B, but I never learned to pronounce it properly, so I asked her if I could call her Big Bertha. Big Bertha was the hardest one to win over and the most demanding and unrelenting in her requests and expectations. She once asked me if something was a gerund, and I had no idea. After that, she barely tolerated me for weeks. Luckily for me, she liked the nickname Big Bertha.

“Naaanceee,” she began, drawing out the letter “A” in my name, “I ask you to write me the names for things. Do you do that?”

“Of course I can write the names down for you, B. Which names do you want?”

“I ask names of this,” she states as she points to her mid-section.

Easy. Give me a hard one, Big B. “Stomach,” I say matter-of-factly.

“No!” She ordered and rolled her eyes. She rolled her eyes! Did that do that in Afghanistan, and does it mean the same thing as it does when I do it in America?

“Not this,” she jabs at my stomach. “This!” She kept pointing at what I refused to acknowledge was anything other than her midsection. I looked around helplessly for Nazaneen. Where was Nazaneen?! She will know what Big B wants from me. I will even allow them to break our rule of “English only” so that Big B will be pleased and I will stop sweating. After several minutes of Dari or Pashtu, Nazaneen translates, “She wants you to write the parts under your clothes.” No safety nets.

If I could have a picture of my face in that second, I imagine it looked like those reveal moments when it’s dawning on someone that she is on a hidden camera show. I was paralyzed and still in total denial of what she was asking me to do. Write down the names for “the parts under our clothes.” How do I make sense of this? Just last week I was witness to the principal of the school lecturing a young Afghan girl for not wearing socks under her black Mary Jane’s. Even though the student had on floor length pants under her long shirt, she was showing about a half an inch of bare skin on her feet. The principal was concerned because girls at another school not far from Zarghona had acid thrown on them for showing bare skin. She warned the young girl that she was putting the entire school in jeopardy with her racy exposure. Where did Big B’s request fit into that world? I wanted to make sure she was asking me to name what I now realized she was asking me to name.

“The parts under our clothes? Stomach and back?” I asked, pointing to my stomach and then turning around and showing her my back. She signed with deep disgust.

“No! Pens. You know, pens. Forget it. You cannot unnerstan me.”

We had worked very hard to establish trust with the women, and we had worked hard to build relationships with them as equals in a society where they were not treated equally at all. We worked diligently to empower them. Why would I not give this 40-something year old woman the names for her private parts? Doesn’t she have the right to own those things by naming them? But I didn’t want to give them to her because I was afraid. I was scared that someone in her household, a male, would find the piece of paper with the words written on them and she would be harmed; or worse, the school would be attacked because of what we were teaching them. The two Colonels had gathered around me now and I looked to them for help. They looked back at me, blink, blink, blink, blink. You’re the English teacher, their expressions read. I took a deep breath and felt like I was stepping out into the street again.

I slowly put my pen to a scrap piece of paper and wrote down penis and vagina in clear, legible, careful handwriting.

“Yes! Yes! Thank you,” she giggled behind her hand.

Categories: Military, Personal Story | Tags: , ,

“Zarghona Part 3” #19

The grounds.

The grounds.

Nazaneen’s outgoing personality and confidence weren’t mirrored in all the women. In fact, many of the women, both Afghan and American, were hanging on the fringes of the tiny room smiling at each other, but saying nothing. Our translator, Salar, finally made his way next to me and I asked him to speak for us. “We are very pleased to meet you all.” That’s what I asked him to say, but he talked for what seemed 15 minutes, so I think he might have ad-libbed a bit. “My name is Nancy,” 15 more minutes later, “I teach English writing in America.” The women smiled, cooed and nodded their heads demurely. Many of them had questions for these American women, and Salar was busy listening and translating, buzzing around the groups of women like a bee amongst flowers. Having a male in the room with all of us was not according to custom in Afghanistan. But Salar had several relatives who attended the school, and that, apparently, neutered him enough to breathe the same air in such a small space—if you dared to breathe the air.  The smell was almost too much to bear. I played a lot of sports in high school and had to endure many locker rooms, but those experiences didn’t compare to the smell of the Zarghona English Department. Traveling around the world in the military, you learn that each group of people in each land does have a particular odor, usually from the “hygiene” products used, foods they ate and water they drank. Afghanistan was no exception. I’m certain we smelled to them, too, with our unique stench of deodorants, hair care products, perfumes (which I didn’t smell on the Afghan women) and our love of French fries and hamburgers. Our pores probably reeked of cow and pork mixed with mustard and ketchup. We all needed some fresh air. After another 20 minutes of translating things like, “I’m from Seattle; have you ever heard of it,” and “I love your head scarf; did you make it,” we decided enough ice had been broken, and we were ready for a tour of the grounds.

New desks.

New desks.

We entered the courtyard that was lush with green grass and flowers everywhere. Not, quite. There were a few sad and pitiful stems struggling to take root in the caked, dusty earth that surrounded the schoolhouses, but no grass—not a blade–anywhere. Under one large tree in the center of the space was their sole water source: a hand-pump well that all 11,000 of the students used throughout the day. The buildings had received a nice coat of garden green paint, courtesy of the French or the Germans, the Japanese or the Australians. And some of the classrooms had even received new desks and chairs for the girls.

The restroom.

The restroom.

What were they lacking? Everything else. The school had no “environmental controls” (translation: heating or air conditioning), which explained the stagnation of the air, and they had no indoor plumbing. The children used a row of toilets that looked amazingly like holes dug into the ground and buried behind a concrete wall in the back of the school grounds. As we made our way around to that area, our guide kindly warned us to “watch your steps” as there were little piles of excrement sprinkled around the yard. The area was too retched for anyone to use, and they would rather expose themselves in the open yard than squat in the smell.

DSCF1787

The restroom.

Categories: Military, Personal Story

“Zarghona Part 2” #18

The streets of Kabul have a depressing hum. The machine of daily life trudges along, but there is no joy out here. On the drive through the city, I could watch the happenings from a distance, but here on the street, I could not pretend I wasn’t a contributing note to the sadness.  What did I look like, stepping out of the misplaced SUV in my American military uniform, buried under Kevlar, with weapons strapped to my legs? I looked like oppression, like trickery, like limited-resources, like a target worth several thousand dollars. The locals ignored me with a hyper-alertness that I returned. There were few women on the street, but so many children everywhere. They walked in bunches, holding hands, male to male and female to female, the girls covered head to toe in cloth. They laughed and whispered together, but there was an invisible sheet of glass between the male groups and the female groups. They did not talk to one another, did not giggle or flirt, did not notice each other at all. Just like they didn’t notice me. I walked up to the guard’s door, and pounded with my fist—careful not to knock too quickly or too loudly. Be confident, Nancy. Don’t let them see your nerves, your fear, your wish to get the damn gate opened so we can move into safety of the courtyard.

Inner Sanctum

Inner Sanctum

 

The old man opened the wood a crack and peered out. Seeing the black SUVs, he gave us a quick nod and his weathered face disappeared. We stood on the street, heads on pivots, until the thin aluminum gate was swung inward. Walking ahead of the vehicles, I entered the courtyard of the girls’ school, and was immediately surrounded by hundreds of youthful, curious and lively faces. I’m overwhelmed with chattering, sing-song voices chirping, “hello, miss.” My face, stony only moments earlier, cannot help but break into a smile in response to their joy. “Hellos” float between the Americans and the Afghan girls.

Girls School--Photo by SGT K Threat

Girls School–Photo by SGT K Threa

The “English Department” consisted of a picnic table and what looked to be one of the first prototypes for the computer pushed against a sidewall and covered with a flowered sheet. We had been to the school a few times before, observing the teachers in their classrooms, meeting with the principal and taking tours of the grounds. Now, we were scheduled to begin “teaching” the teachers of Zarghona School for Girls in Kabul, Afghanistan. Our students were approximately 17 English language teachers, ranging from their early 20s to their mid-40s. They were everyday women of Afghanistan, clad in fancifully colored scarves (hijabs), which covered their hair and neck. Each woman’s scarf illustrated what province she came from, if her family could support her comfortably, and even the fire in her personality. But I was illiterate, and I didn’t know how to read scarves, yet. I would learn what these women had to teach me, and they would learn what I had to teach them. On the same wall with the antiquated computer was a 4-shelf bookcase cradling worn tomes in Pashto and Dari. Again, I was illiterate. The room was closed in, despite the large picture window overlooking the school’s inner courtyard. The air in the room sat stagnant, unmoving but growing in the smell of unwashed fabric and body odor. We must have smelled to them, too, as we secreted sweat in our Air Battle Uniforms on the August day. My team did our best to appear natural in this setting. We huddled together while our students crowded around us, eagerly introducing themselves in broken English.

394376_2440866386666_1526381877_n

The women of Zarghona. The computer is in the far right corner of the photo–behind the last teacher on the end. Photo by SGT K Threat

One woman was more outspoken and confident than the rest. She was the only person in the school to have visited the United States. She traveled to the exotic locales of Nebraska and Iowa in what must be the least exciting international exchange program ever created. “I am Nazaneen. I twice been to United States.” Out of all 17 women, Nazaneen spoke the most English. This was going to be difficult.

Categories: Military, Personal Story | Tags: , ,

“Zarghona Part 1” #17

I just wanted the Brigadier General-select to be quiet. And I wanted these motorcycles to get away from the vehicle. The SUV was equipped with bulletproof windows, but it was not explosion-proof, as demonstrated earlier in the week when a suicide bomber turned his motorcycle into a missile and attacked a convoy.  Now, the motorcyclists jutted in and out of my peripheral, sometimes even placing their hands on the chassis for leverage before pushing off and disappearing into traffic. Despite their vanishing, traffic didn’t seem to be moving in any sort of forward motion, and the Brigadier General-select in the backseat was getting more antsy and more vocal about her anxiety. What should have been a ten-minute drive through town was taking 45 minutes. I was very aware of the target spreading like a virus over my SUV.  It was my SUV because, on this particular day, I was the vehicle commander. I could almost feel the weight of my embroidered Captain bars resting on my collar bones. I was responsible for the lead SUV and the SUV behind us, following through the throng of white Toyota Corollas, Isuzu Pick-up trucks, donkey carts, bicycles, and Suzuki motorcycles, so many Suzuki motorcycles.

(This video was a “typical” traveling day; the traffic was very light.  I wasn’t the vehicle commander (he’s sitting in the front passenger seat), but the video does give a faint idea of what the streets looked like with pedestrians, mini-vans, motorcycles and difference compared to streets in the US.)

When I was practicing the position of vehicle commander in pre-deployment training six months earlier, I paid close attention to my duties: pre-plan the route, brief the vehicle occupants on their roles and responsibilities, take charge of the convoy with clear guidance, keep my head on a swivel to watch for nearby threats, don’t lose your cool…don’t show fear. I reminded myself, they are looking to you. That training was in the forefront of my mind as my SUV crawled forward through the herded groups of Afghans in their unlicensed autos and the Brigadier General-select complained in the backseat. I just wanted to see our destination come into view: the flimsy, pie-plated front gate of the girls’ school.

Finally, we rounded the corner and the greenish-colored aluminum of the front gate appeared. It was another 10 minutes before we were able to move down the street to the gate, which was normally opened for us immediately as we approached the school. Our drive had taken more than twice as long as expected, and the gate guard, a 60-year-old man with a large walking stick, was not out front to let us into the school’s courtyard. I would have to get out and knock on the plywood that was dressed up as a door. I took a quick breath, opened the bullet-proof door and stepped out into the street.

Categories: Military, Personal Story | Tags: , ,

“Naked” #16

204646_1772468357133_6617084_o-1

Me and the children of Kabul. The day after OBL was killed.

Why did the tiny woman get out of the bulletproof vehicle on the streets of Kabul the day after Bin Laden was killed? Because she was not going to make her sisters in uniform look bad. I knew the men were just as afraid as I was of the possibility of never stepping foot back into the vehicles in one piece. The few locals wandering around the dirt sidewalks seemed just as shocked as I was to see the general and his security personnel walking around with bags of candy. The vehicle commander of our SUV opened my door, and I felt a rush of air, not fresh air, but warm, stale, manure-tainted air, in my face. Taking quick measure of my options, I looked at my fellow military members mingling with the few locals present. With the exception of the security detail, who were expected to throw themselves in the line of fire to protect the general, everyone else was naked: no Kevlar vest, no helmet. Then there was me, suited up in the back seat, unmoving. But I was the only female in the group. And I was the only Airman in the group. It was not an option to stay in the vehicle. But I could have kept my clothes on. No one would have thought any less of me if I had stayed shielded in vest and headdress. I don’t know why I took them off. I think there was a moment of dare to the danger that could await. I dared myself to be brave. I dared myself to trust in my Lord; He would not lead me here to die on the side of the road. He had not tamed the scariest parts of my mind that wanted me to harm myself only to let death touch me in this dirt. I felt a great peace settle over my mind and heart. My boys would not lose their mother on this day. With a weightlessness born of shedding thirty pounds of plastic, I stepped into the street.

DSCF1825

Like tiny moles sniffing the air for danger before fully uprooting from their holes, the children poked their heads out all along the storefronts. Candy was an unrelenting Siren. Soon, I was swarmed in a colony of tiny, dirtyhands buzzing around my face and hair. I handed out tootsie rolls, pencils, erasers, suckers and licorice. The children were not satisfied until they had everything, and just as quickly as I handed it out, it disappeared into their pockets:  magic.

271550_1954167219491_6977966_o

Afghan boy. Photo by SGT C Threat

There were so many tiny people surrounding me that I became very aware of the M-9, with a full clip, loaded and strapped to my hip. What if they grabbed at it? Not this day. I would not die the day after Bin Laden. I turned my attention back to the children, protecting my right hip with its precious cargo, but focused on their curiosity and smallness. They were serious, diminutive versions of their adult counterparts in their long dresses, same-colored pants, and dourexpressions. Some wore the traditional takiyah, a small, brimless hat decorated with elaborate embroidery, and some were bareheaded now that the Taliban was banished. I ruffled the hair on one little boy’s head, and my hand came away with such a skin-penetrating grittiness that it made me both smile and want to sanitize. I was not going to die amongst the children of Afghanistan, these boys who looked like my boys playing dress up back home. Not this day.

271758_1954186819981_4346983_o

Afghan boy and girl in Kabul.

Categories: Military, Personal Story | Tags: , ,

“The Day After” 15

Osama Bin Laden was killed on May 2, 2011. I had been in Afghanistan for nearly four months and was settling into my duties. It turned out, there was quite a bit more to my job than stocking the mini-fridge with sodas. Once the Chief trusted that I wasn’t incompetent even though I didn’t graduate from West Point, I was given the responsibility of his daily schedule, which put me directly in the way of anyone who wanted to talk to him. Everybody had to go through the red-haired Captain with a bit of an attitude in order to see the Chief. While some assistants let this sort of “power” go to their heads, in my mind, it was just one more thing that prevented me from going to the bathroom when I wanted. I was at my beck-and-call-position outside the Chief’s office when the Provost Marshall (something like the Chief of Police) came to inform the Chief that Bin Laden had been killed. The news was delivered to me like a gift slid across the table at a dimly lit restaurant. I was supposed to unwrap the dainty package of this so simple statement. Perhaps, I was to clap my hands excitedly when I realized what was inside. In fact, it was difficult to stop the initial curl of the corners of my lips, but just as soon as the instinct began it stopped. Although Bin Laden was an enemy of the United States, and his death brought celebration and relief to the Americans cheering on the television screen, we weren’t in the United States. We were in Afghanistan, and I didn’t hear any celebration in the streets.

The day after Bin Laden was killed, the General had a meeting somewhere in Kabul, outside of the safety of the compound, and the Chief went along with him. Wherever the Chief went, I was sure to follow. The streets were still in depression and very nearly empty, with the exception of a man or two riding a bicycle or crossing a street. But there were no children anywhere. Children were sentinels against danger, like canaries in a coalmine. If children were present on the streets, a planned attack was less likely. If children were not around, we shouldn’t be either. I sat still in the back of the SUV with my hands clenched in my lap, my senses overly stimulated. The Chief snored next to me, catching a catnap on the ride back to the compound. The general’s SUV was in front of us and began to slow, then stopped. Our driver followed suit. There we sat, plump, sluggish game sitting in the streets of Kabul where there were no children anywhere. Craning my neck to see around the front seats and out the windshield, my eyes widened and my jaw went slack as the general’s personal security detail exited the vehicle. They were covered in their Kevlar vests and helmets, weapons cradled in their arms and strapped to their legs. Then, still in disbelief that this was happening the day after Bin Laden was killed, I watched the General step from the back seat without any armor or weapons, his Marine aide right behind him. As I turned towards the Chief to detect the proper reaction to this current situation, he lifted his head to take it in. “Looks like we’re handing out candy. There should be some in the back,” he said. Then, our driver opened the door for my boss to exit, leaving me alone in the vehicle.

Categories: Military, Personal Story | Tags: ,

“Bazaar” #14

280313_1954184699928_1024940_o

Bazaar. Photo by SGT C Threat

If the mission allowed, I didn’t have to come in until noon on Fridays and Sundays. Normally, the Chief’s schedule had him (and therefore me) working all day on Fridays because he was an important man with many obligations, and I stocked his Diet Pepsi. But on Sundays I could usually slip away from my desk for an hour and make good use of my half day off at the bazaar. The bazaar was like a farmer’s market but without fruits and veggies. Instead, there was a stall of beautifully crafted Middle Eastern rugs woven from rich rubies, royal blues and sunrise yellows, laid out along the ground to showcase the intricate patterns and designs of swirls and loops.  Some people spent entire paychecks on these works of art, investments, that would bring three times as much back in the States if you found a buyer. Placed on the edges of the market were bootlegged DVDs by the thousands. The latest television series (Dexter, Lost, The Big Bang Theory) were spread across tabletops alongside movies still playing in theaters back in the States. Back home, we saw commercials warning us not to patronize bootleggers because they support terrorists, and then, in the place where the Taliban grew their numbers, we were supplied a limitless supply of bootlegged items. We were also offered a twinkling supply of semi-precious and precious stones: tanzanite, lapis, emerald, amethyst, sapphire, tiger eye, pink spinel, tourmaline, garnet, black diamond, pink diamond, yellow diamond, and on and on. The star-shine lured customers in like hypnotists on a Vegas stage. I spent many an hour gazing, then holding and petting, and finally buying the tiny Easter egg colored beauties. The prices were too affordable and I liked to hold the pretty things in my hands while whispering, “my precious.” 

266517_1954186299968_7297807_o

Bazaar. Photo by SGT C Threat

And although I escaped the draw of the artful rugs, and I controlled myself with the gems (mostly), I was addicted to the brightly colored, hand-stitched blankets and tapestries with elephants, dancers, fish and swirls spiraling all over them. I loved the notion that some woman somewhere in Afghanistan (hopefully not Pakistan) was stitching threads together in her home; maybe her daughter, sister, cousin or mother was helping her to make the blankets. I loved the idea of the women working with their hands, their heads bowed in concentration, to create something in such a down-turned economy. I loved the hope that the hand-worked pieces represented. If these women hadn’t given up with all the odds against them, then I couldn’t either. Never mind that they may be under some sort of forced servitude. In my imagination, they were entrepreneurs. I must have purchased at least fifteen or twenty different pieces: bedspreads, bookmarks, pillow covers, table runners, and hanging tapestries. I even sent many back to the States for others to own a safe piece of the Afghan culture.

Today, I have the blankets stored away in the tops of my closets. It is a shame to keep these works of art folded up and tucked away, but on the few occasions that I have taken them down, spreading out their stories over my bed, I’m struck by a sense of such foreignness that I can’t bring myself to use them. Each time I pull them from their plastic covers, the musty mixture of Afghan dirt and unwashed skin along with the smell of Qorma and Naan (fried onions with meat and homemade Afghan bread) rises from the blankets and brings back feelings I’m not able to process yet. Their beauty is still there, but they don’t belong here at home with me. They don’t mesh with the rest of my life now. In the end, I feel like I’ve selfishly transplanted these pieces, and now they are dying under my care.

Categories: Military, Personal Story | Tags:

“I felt like running–Forrest Gump” #13

Working for the Chief of Staff was overwhelming, in theory. He was a pretty important man in charge of all the United States forces in Afghanistan, about 60,000 of us at the time. He worked directly for the commander of the war in Afghanistan. In simplest terms, he was a big deal. I, on the far away other hand, made sure his mini-fridge was stocked with Diet Pepsi. He drank a lot of Diet Pepsi, so I was very busy in those first few days. The Chief of Staff was an Army Colonel and former big time West Point football player. He brought his highlight reels with him to Afghanistan and wasn’t shy about sharing them with anyone who showed an inclination to watch, which seemed to be most of the junior Army officers. He also stayed up too late, averaging about three to four hours of sleep each night. He had an uncanny knack for appearing to be asleep in meetings only to join right into an ongoing conversation around the boardroom table. The job suited me because I could quietly fall apart at my desk, and the Chief really didn’t notice.

I fell apart a lot in those early months. Being away from ISAF was better, but it didn’t cure all that ailed me. I talked to my children over the Skype software that connected us through the thousands of empty miles. Every other morning, I awoke at 0500, logged on to the Afghan’s temperamental Internet connection and talked to them at a convenient time for my stranger-husband. It was rejuvenating to talk to my boys, but it broke my heart to be ignored by the man I loved. We never spoke. In fact, I never saw his face on the computer screen, not once. I felt like I had no one who cared about me back in the States, which was ridiculous because I had plenty of family members who were anxious about my safety. All I could see was that my husband wasn’t one of those people. I was beginning to disconnect from reality again, but this time I didn’t have anyone to help ground me. Back home, my friend Kris and I would meet at least once a week for early morning therapy sessions of miles of running and talking. When we weren’t running together, I was running alone. Long, lung-burning runs that never took me away from my reality, but did let me feel pain in something other than my heart for a little bit. I was able to focus only on the strength needed to pick up my legs and put them down for miles and miles. I didn’t have to focus on my husband leaving me. Now in Afghanistan, the only thing I could think to do was run, but I was trapped inside concrete walls and bulletproof vests, behind gates and guards with weapons at the ready. I couldn’t simply take off outside of the compound and go for long, healing runs with Kris. Thankfully, she was far away from Kabul and everything it contained. I was not, and I still needed to figure out some way to make it through the remaining eleven months of my deployment. I started running around the compound.

It took me nine laps around to run six miles. I worked for the Chief from 0700 each morning until nearly 0100 the next day, and then I would run six miles every night, feeling like Forrest Gump. At first, I was very scared–but not terrified. Looking back, I would have welcomed death in those early days, if it had found me. I thought it would be a welcomed relief that I wasn’t getting anywhere else. And dying while running around the road of the compound would be more honorable than to choke on a grape in my kitchen, which was what I thought about now that I lived alone in the States. But I was still scared each time I set off on a run.

The blackness around the “track” was only broken up by the faint illumination of generator-powered lighting scattered around the perimeter of the compound. The only thing separating me from the outside was a concrete wall about twelve to fifteen feet high. It looked like my five-year old could have thrown something over the wall, so it was not much protection against a bomb being tossed over. On those first few runs, my brain was hyper-focused on every sound I heard, every pebble that fell in the distance. Each parked truck I ran past was a possible container for explosives just waiting for a target. But there wasn’t anything separating me from those on the inside of the wall. Most of the guards around the perimeter were Afghans, and their eyes were trained on me from the watchtowers as I ran in my military physical training shorts and t-shirt. I could feel them staring, and oftentimes, see their eyes through the wooden planks of the towers. I tried the friendly, non-threatening head nod if my eyes caught theirs, but it was never returned. Although they were our “allies,” I was still a woman, uncovered and American. With the way they stared, I was more concerned about being raped than being killed by someone or something from the outside. They weren’t lustful stares, more direct and unfriendly. I was not wanted there. I was grateful for the bump bump of the knife in my pocket, reassuring me with each step I ran.

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

“Ghosts” #12

The ISAF base was a European village filled with German, Italian, French, Canadian and American flavor. It was a poor man’s “It’s a Small World” for the alliances of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. And it was the same base where my husband had been deployed when he started an affair as a way to get out of our marriage. I walked past coffee shops and work sections that he described on his phone calls home during his deployment. He told me all about the movie room where people hung out after work and the recreation room where people played Ping-Pong and pool. From his phone calls, I recognized the women’s dorms where she surely stayed, right next to the men’s dorms where he would have stayed. When he returned home, he even told me stories about her, his friend who “they all” hung out with during their downtime. But as soon as I laid eyes on him again, my heart knew everything was wrong. The man who I loved for more than a decade, who I shared children with, and who I had woven the beginnings of a life with, was capable of disregarding me so completely. They would have been on these walkways together about a year before I arrived, laughing and talking on the same streets, at the same coffee shops, in the same rec rooms, in the same dorms. But in the past, I was not here, not physically, not in his memory, and not in his heart. I wasn’t here then, but I was here now with their ghosts. Being at ISAF was breaking me further down and my anger was wrapping itself around my heart and suffocating my newly discovered faith that God would perform miracles for me.

When I wasn’t haunted that every place I walked past held memories of the two of them together, I was learning my mission in the Joint Visitors Bureau. We were responsible for arranging all travel for very important persons (VIPs) throughout Afghanistan. War is great re-election fuel, and getting “boots on the ground” in a war zone was the thing to do. It wasn’t unusual to see a well-known senator, congressman, or even the occasional movie star’s name on a visitor request. The JVB, as it was known, was responsible for any visitor who was allowed to tour the battlegrounds, and only the most important politicians, civic leaders and military leaders fit the standards. I should have been excited to meet the Vice President, Secretary of State, Speaker of the House, Ben Affleck and Chuck Norris, but I was not. Instead, I was, once again, a half-person with a heartbeat, but no heart. Each passing day drew me deeper and deeper into a dark mental state. I hadn’t laughed in weeks, and I rushed to every church service offered so I could focus on the promise of something greater than the pain in my heart. I slept every chance I could get and focused doubly on my work.

After nearly three weeks in country, the Colonel who led the JVB asked me if I was interested in moving to New Kabul. My misery made me an impressive machine in the office, quickly picking up on my duties and soon being rewarded with the sole responsibility of a very impressive group of VIPs. I guess I handled that visit without a hitch, I don’t remember caring about it, but now there was a position opening up in the Chief of Staff’s office, and the Colonel thought I would be perfect for it. New Kabul Compound (NKC) was almost directly across the street from ISAF, but with the security measures, checkpoints and roundabout routes to avoid getting blown up, it took about 20 minutes to load up the vehicles and drive there. It was a much smaller compound in the center of the city, more exposed than ISAF, with only a concrete wall to protect those who lived there from those who wanted to kill them. But it wasn’t ISAF. It wasn’t filled with memories I didn’t make. There were no ghosts there. “Yes, sir. I’ll take it.” It was the day before my thirty-sixth birthday, and this was the best gift I would receive.

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

Blog at WordPress.com.

The Adventures of J-La

Journeys From Over The Rainbow And Back Again

Mommy Jo, Blogs!

A personal blog which showcases interesting stories about the author's musings, insights, passion, experiences, thoughts, and anything life has to offer.

takingthemaskoff

Addiction, Mental Health, Stigma, Spirituality

The Universal Turtle

Living a Life of Wisdom, Purpose and Heart

Wounded ~ Healer ~ Warrior

by Cheryl Meakins, Author & Speaker

this is... The Neighborhood

the Story within the Story

Daily (w)rite

Damyanti Biswas is an author, blogger, animal-lover, spiritualist. Her work is represented by Ed Wilson from the Johnson & Alcock agency. When not pottering about with her plants or her aquariums, you can find her nose deep in a book, or baking up a storm.

Redline: Live to Drive!

To share my passion of motorsports to all my readers! To get people of all ages and income levels into the absolute best vehicle possible for their specific needs and to make driving enjoyable every single day!

justlatsblog

4 out of 5 dentists recommend this WordPress.com site

Interesting Literature

A Library of Literary Interestingness

artgland

the secretion of art by Rhian Ferrer

Jenn's Lenz

I'm easily distracted by life, I'm verbose (and I overuse parentheses.) Here's proof. If I'm silent for too long send coffee!

%d bloggers like this: