19 November 2011

She Was an American Girl

With time and distance (and sleep) come perspective. And with the ongoing Loya Jirga come travel restrictions in the Kabul region...which I appreciate, since my team's safety is more important than anything we could do at work this week.  But knowing that I might have just a few more weeks in Afghanistan is an every day reminder that my primary mission here is to take care of Julia and her daughter, and to be the example of a thoughtful, intelligent woman that I think those two so truly deserve.

So today Julia and I did just that. I met her at the main gate of our base this morning, and whisked her away for a Girl's Day in true American girl fashion. We started with a few hours in the coffee shop, drinking lattes together and talking about boys and makeup (some girly traits are transparent across Eastern and Western cultures). We surfed through my Facebook account and she was fascinated by all of the places Rob and I have discovered together. Her dream is to walk on the beach with her daughter.

We headed off to lunch at the Dining Facility, and in our way in the door, she was warned (in Dari) by one of the employees that the food was terrible today, but that she might enjoy the Afghani Bar (full of traditional dishes she would recognize). Doesn't hurt that she is absolutely gorgeous, of course. We sat with one of the guys from my team and talked again about her hopes and dreams, while I think he just stared at her in absolute awe. Her cousin also works on the base, and he came and shared some stories of the five years he's worked as an interpreter for Coalition Forces across Afghanistan. No perfect meal would be complete without ice cream, so we indulged, then headed back to my room.

We took our shoes off and sat on my bed together for a while reading Oprah Magazine (the concept of talk shows is completely lost on her). Then Skype started ringing and it was John calling from Germany to say hello to Julia. She was blown away by the fact that we could see him and he could see us and we're all so many miles apart...when we were here, the three of us were inseparable. Just watching the look of amazement on her face was worth it to me. We gushed about that for a while.

Then she insisted that we needed to do a facial, and was again astounded at the amount of girly products I have amassed in my room. She picked through them carefully, and off we went to our "spa" (a semi-clean public bathroom) where I'm sure we made the funniest scene anyone could ever imagine...so funny, in fact, that I couldn't resist asking someone to take a picture.

As I walked her back out to the gate, she said "Ma'am, thank you for today. I will remember it always." And that is why we send Americans to Afghanistan. Because the personal difference we can make in the lives of individual Afghan citizens is something they will remember the rest of their lives. Drinking lattes and reading Oprah are regular (guilty) habits for me. But for a young Afghan mother who has been considered an adult since age 14, today was a day where she really experienced the American culture for which she so desperately longs. And the verdict is that she will fit in just fine.  

16 November 2011

That's One Way to Lose These Walking Blues

You know that supergirl act I've been pulling for the past, oh, 32 years? I think I just got over it. I've been an absolute wreck for the past few weeks, and quite frankly, I'm tired of pretending like everything is fine when it absolutely is not.

War is hell. And the reason it's such hell for me is that war, this war in particular, has been the first real evidence of my own mortality, and a time to parse truth from fiction. The appearance of my own good fortune until this point is not lost on me. I have a wonderful husband, the best friends I could ever dream of, a very comfortable life, a dependable job, and the amazing freedoms that come with American citizenship.

Or do I really have those things? And if I do have them, are they alone enough to look back and say that I feel a sense of satisfaction for what I have accomplished? Do they matter? I can't answer any of that, perhaps because pessimism leaks from my pores and chokes me mid-sentence. My pessimism always seems to be introspection on my own life and my own set of circumstances...don't be fooled - it's about me, not about anyone else. If I met someone else who appeared to me to be living under a four-leaf clover, I would be impressed. For me, the chronic perfectionist, it (whatever it is at the moment) just never seems to be good enough, and I hate that about myself sometimes. Being out here has been a wonderful experience because external circumstances have provided me with real reminders of all the things I can do. And even still, all it takes is one person who I trust to second-guess one of my decisions and I shatter like a mirror. There went my cape.

Maybe it happens because I have such unreasonably high standards for myself, but other people are sometimes afraid to tell me bad news because I think they fear my emotional sledgehammer. Valid fear. So instead, and especially when I'm out here, I find only the care-free news (rainbows and butterflies, anyone?) makes its way to Afghanistan in a timely manner.

One week ago I found out my little sister is pregnant. Thirty weeks pregnant, in fact, with twins, and under a complex set of circumstances. Again, see above. Any news that might be considered either bad or emotionally difficult is shielded from me. I don't have the emotional energy for secrets out here, or really anywhere, but especially not here. I found out by email, after directly asking the question (call it intuition) for several months with no response. Perhaps the more appalling thing was that everyone in my family (and extended family) knew...except for me. I was apparently too fragile. There might be some truth there.

So today's reflection is on versions of the truth. Out here, there aren't versions of truth. There's either a threat, or there isn't. You either fired your weapon, or you didn't. You are either alive, or you aren't. And there's something mesmerizing about the black and whiteness of it all.

Real life isn't black and white like our lives are at war, and in my mind I'm struggling to shed that monochromatic filter of the warzone to appreciate the vibrant experiences of everyday life.  For someone who appears on the outside to ooze with self confidence, I sure can manage to get under my own skin. And writing about it, well, that's my way of losing these walking blues.

15 November 2011

Not with a bang but a whimper

My work day started with a bang. Literally. A bang followed by a whir from the street about 800 meters from the Afghan building in which we work. It sounded like a cartoon version of the sound of a rubber band snapping, except this was a real bullet fired from a crew-served weapon mounted to a Coalition vehicle. A shot was fired, perhaps directly up in the air, but we had no idea of the trajectory at the time.

As the excitement unfolded, we were just unloading out of our trucks, had removed our protective vests and helmets, and were locking our vehicles to walk into our building. Within about a second of the discharge, one by one, members of my team hit the deck in various defensive positions, and I heard the rippling sound of six M-4 rifles being charged in anticipation of a need to return fire.

We crouched for protection behind our behemoth vehicles. We flipped on our optics. And we waited. Patiently, yet with bated breath. We silently wondered whether we were about to enter our first firefight and we rehearsed our responses in our minds.

The city of Kabul is preparing for the Loya Jirga, which begins tomorrow on the west side of town. Think of a Loya Jirga as a national leadership referendum of sorts on topics too politically sensitive or controversial for President Karzi to decide independently. He's called the tribal and political leaders of Afghanistan...more than 2,000 of them...to come to Kabul to provide their feedback on topics such as Afghanistan's relationship with Pakistan, the Coalition presence in Afghanistan and a handful of other politically toxic subjects. The conference is scheduled to last at least four days, halting traffic and all other regularly scheduled affairs in Kabul. The Loya Jirga is not a regularly scheduled event, so the hype (and subsequent threats to the city) is a bit unnerving to Afghan citizens and the Coalition alike.

With that frame of reference, it's easier to imagine why we were all balancing on pins and needles. And yet again, today we all validated the need for significant training before we send anyone on outside-the-wire missions like the ones my team and I perform every day.

Today we heard our first gunshot. No one was injured. Everyone responded just at they should have. In retrospect, it was just another day in Afghanistan. Something weird happened. We dealt with it. We moved on. And we didn't let it ruin our day. And tomorrow we'll wake up and do it all again.

                                                                                     "This is the way the world ends
                                                                                      Not with a bang but a whimper."

                                                                                               -- T.S. Eliot The Hollow Men

14 November 2011

That'll be the Day

Rob is fascinated by my ability to make forever friends in what appears to most to be a blink of an eye. I don't know why that's possible, and I certainly don't question it, but he's right...in the amount of time it takes most people to watch Dancing with the Stars, I can make a lifelong friend. And I can still talk to that person every day half a lifetime later.

I have no idea how I met Loren. It must have been in the hallways of West Springfield High School when we were sophomores. I did not have my life together back then by any stretch. I was dating the wrong boy, wearing the wrong clothes and making all of the wrong choices. We probably bumped past each other a million times over the next few years, mostly in photography class (an addiction we shared), but it was really senior year that sealed the deal for us.

I was driving a yellow 1973 Volkswagen Beetle, and Loren drove the world's most hideous pickup truck...when he wasn't riding his BMW motorcycle (with a license plate that said "Lk Dad"...and of course his father had a similar bike with a plate "Lk Son"). Loren's dad had retired from some 20 years on submarines in the Navy (at that time, my father was still on active duty in the Navy). He lived about two and a half miles from me. We were inseparable. And the perfect foil for each other in ways that we couldn't have possibly imagined way back then.

We had this game where each morning one of us would post a quote or a picture or  note of some kind on the other person's locker. This went on for months on end, trading lines of poetry, Beatles lyrics, our favorite photographs by photographers we were studying, or just random drawings. I documented our adventures in a book of cartoons that I drew nearly every day for a year and gave to him the day he left for the Naval Academy. One day he and I will flip through that book over a bottle of wine and laugh ourselves silly.

We went to Homecoming together...with other people as our dates. And the picture to the left is one of only two pictures of us ever taken. There was never really a need for photographic evidence since we spent nearly every waking moment together.  We've never dated. I think we've hugged less than a handful of times in our lives, which if you know me is quite an anomaly. But we've laid on the floor of my parent's basement talking for hours, and hours, and hours on end, a few inches apart, never even realizing just how close we were because we were so enraptured by the conversation. We were seventeen. We still get lost in conversation with each other at age thirty two.

Loren's the one who started my running addiction. He bet me that I wouldn't be able to finish a season with the long distance track team...knowing full well, I'm sure, that making that bet with me would be the thing that made me want to do it more. I still heard him correcting my running form when I hit the treadmill earlier this evening.

We've served together in the military for more than ten years...he in the Navy flying helicopters and me flying desks in the Air Force. I can say with a reasonable degree of certainty that this is not the career path either of us had imagined for ourselves. I had dreamed of being a professional photographer, and we always thought he'd be on submarines like his father. Yet somehow, it's working. In some ways it's working better than we ever could have imagined.

Loren has spent most of the past five or so months coaching me through a deployment that is by all accounts well beyond my tactical expertise. We've talked leadership strategies in combat. We've discussed the salient points of mission planning and route reconnaissance. We've talked about the impact deployments have on us and those we love most. But mostly we've talked about how being in combat fundamentally changed our views on everything we knew as truth, and somehow it's made us closer than ever. It's good to have a best friend out here. In fact, I'd argue that without a solid foundation of friends and family, a deployment like this is absolutely insurmountable.

He's a father now. His son, Elliot Jackson, was born (appropriately enough) on the Marine Corps' birthday. He's quite a brave little man to appear in the world a solid six weeks before he was due, and all signs indicate that he will fight his way to a healthy weight so that he can come home soon to his mom and dad.

Loren likes to joke that he made a person, and it's true. He did. And that little boy's father is the best friend I've ever had. But in so many ways, Loren also helped make me...and perhaps I did the same for him. He wrote me a letter on real paper last week and here's my favorite line:

"I am amazed (shocked?) at how parallel we are in so many ways. It is a relief to have a similar mind to share."

Yes, indeed.

13 November 2011

The Things We Carry

“War is hell, but that's not the half of it, because war is also mystery and terror and adventure and courage and discovery and holiness and pity and despair and longing and love. War is nasty; war is fun. War is thrilling; war is drudgery. War makes you a man; war makes you dead.”

                                                                    -- Tim O'Brien The Things They Carried

One of my goals for my last few months in Afghanistan is to read a book a week, and so far I've managed to keep up. As soon as I learned that I was deploying on short notice, I grabbed my copy of The Things They Carried and tucked it into the bottom of my rucksack. I didn't make time to reread it until recently, but as soon as I did, I realized that Tim O'Brien's account of what our soldiers carried and felt as they waded through the muck Vietnam is every bit as applicable to those of us who fight our nation's battles today in a different war with another invisible enemy.

The things we carry for our country are just as meaningful and in some cases nearly as old as the items our brothers in arms carried some 40 years ago. The things we carry to keep ourselves both safe and sane remain almost identical.

On our bodies, we wear flame-retardant uniforms affectionately called multicams, designed to keep us safe and somewhat comfortable and specifically patterned for the terrain in Afghanistan. Total weight: about 5 pounds. On our heads we wear the U.S. Army Advanced Combat Helmet, designed to help prevent traumatic brain injury caused by impact. Total weight: 3.3 pounds. Snugly draped across our bodies we wear the Improved Outer Tactical Vest, which features Kevlar and four ballistic plates to protect our internal organs from critical injury. Total weight (for my extra-small, with a full combat load of ammunition): 35 pounds.

Slung securely over the shoulder of our shooting hand or held at the low ready as seen to the right is our M-4 carbine rifle, the standard military rifle for somewhat close combat situations with an effective range of 600 meters. Total weight with magazine: 8 pounds. And pinned either to our waistband or our dominant leg is our M-9 pistol, a personal protection weapon designed for use in very close combat with an effective range of closer to 50 meters. Total weight with magazine: 2.5 pounds.

On a combat mission, I carry 55 pounds of additional gear, evenly distributed across my body, which multiplies my body weight by over a third. That's the stuff that keeps me physically safe, and just like Tim O'Brien's soldiers in Vietnam, I choose to carry other things that remind me of the people who matter most.

Around my neck hang all of my important documents...my military ID card, cash in Afghani, Euro, and Dollars, and my favorite picture of me and Rob in Thailand the day we were married. My dog tags also hang around my neck, strung on a metal chain, and wrapped in a bright pink silencer in case there was ever a doubt that I am a girl. From that same chain hang three other things...the dog tag of one of my closest friends, a medal of Saint Christopher, the patron saint of travelers, sent by my mother, and a little gold angel, given to me on the last day of Combat Skills Training by one of my mentors there as a reminder of how far I've come.

I carry my M-9 in a holster attached to my hip, which John gave me before he left Afghanistan, as it only made sense to borrow a piece of self-protection equipment from my favorite cop. Clipped to the inside of my left pocket is a knife, sent by Loren just a few days ago, which he carried across thousands of miles as he flew combat missions in Afghanistan. On my left ring finger is a beautiful silver ring with a carat and a half oval amethyst stone, a birthday present from one of the brave female interpreters at work and a beautiful Afghan substitute for the diamond ring I choose to leave at home during this deployment. Inside my vest is the American flag Colonel Wight, my mentor and second father, gave me in the airport the day I left Baltimore Washington International Airport to begin this incredible journey.

What I haven't yet decided is what I'll do with these special items when I return from Afghanistan at the end of the year. But regardless of what I decide, I know that the things I've carried have made me feel safer in a place where the feeling of safety is at times unbearably evasive.

“What sticks to memory, often, are those odd little fragments that have no beginning and no end...”

                                                                --- Tim O'Brien The Things They Carried