10 December 2011

Pushing Pause

I'm in the glorious Kyrgyz Republic right now, and as it appears, I will be here for quite a few more days than I expected. And at first that was infuriating. I am one plane ride away from Germany, there are airplanes that fly to Germany all of the time from here, and because of their (strange) local policies, I have to wait for a specific airplane, But okay, now I'm here. It's not Afghanistan. It's not dangerous. I've turned in all of my Army-issued gear (I am now at least 80 pounds lighter) and now my time is uniquely mine.

I have probably six books I'd like to read. I have a stack of movies I'm not opposed to watching. This is the land of milk and honey (there is free food all over the place...most of which is distinctly unhealthy). And I have plenty of reflecting to do on the past nine months and how it feels to transition from war to absolutely not war.

So maybe these six or so transition days showed up in my life for a reason. Maybe someone out there knew that I was going to have a hard time making that transition when I walked back into a life full of independence and unlimited choices.

My goal is to spend a few hours a day reflecting and writing. And a few more hours creating a memory book for myself where I weave the pictures I've taken while I've been away into the blog posts I've written. Then there's the concept of sleeping, restfully, for more than a few winks at a time.

And a free one-week vacation. Thank you, Uncle Sam. We're just going to pretend that you know best.

08 December 2011

I'm on my way home

It's strange to be inside of an 8 x 10 foot shipping container and to be sad that tonight might be the last time I fall asleep under these "stars." It's also strange to think that there will be so many things I miss about living here, about Afghanistan and about the people I've met here. I almost feel guilty for admitting that, since returning home is suppose to be the joyous part of the deployment.

But what people don't tell you is that returning home is the hard part. Even though I know that there are people at home who love and have missed me, it's still hard to walk away from a job that's this meaningful. It's hard to know that starting this weekend, Catalina Wine Mixer becomes Silver Bullet. It's hard to know that in a few days, someone else will be living in my Afghan Sanctuary. And it's really hard to know that I'm coming back to a job where the most dangerous aspect is, well, there really isn't one. At all. And after nine months of training for and preparing for the worst, it will be a hard transition to think that my real world problems will include the heat not working in our house (again) or my car battery that's currently dead. That seems to trivial compared to, say, the bomb that lit up downtown Kabul a few days ago.

This deployment started and ended in almost the same way...with no time to think about or reflect on what's going on around me. I had two full days to get myself ready to leave Germany and head to Louisiana for training. Today the Army gave me my letter that authorizes my departure from theater, and the Air Force told me that they can't get me home until January. There is absolutely no way I'm hanging out in this shipping container (in all of it's Afghan glory) for another three weeks, so tomorrow morning, I will take matters into my own hands.

At 6:30am I'll be sitting at the rotary terminal at our base awaiting a helicopter to take me to another Afghan base, to take me back to Wrong-a-stan to get me back to Germany. So what I need from all of you praying-type people is more travel luck than any one girl ever deserved.

I've had the absolute most incredible experience since I've been out here. I can't believe I was paid to do the incredible things and live the incredible experiences I've lived while I've been in Afghanistan. To think that tomorrow that will all be a memory is a bit overwhelming.

Think about me for the next 48 hours or so, please, and send me really good travel vibes. Though my adventure in Afghanistan is almost over, I think that there are some post-deployment changes that will be noteworthy enough to mention, so my intention is to keep writing. This has been my outlet while I've been in Kabul, and all of you have been the people who have kept me going. Knowing that there are some 70 people who read each of my entries has really made me appreciate the fact that people back home are interested in what we're doing out here and how we're doing it. And I hope that my experiences here have inspired others to seek out their passions as well.

Travel updates forthcoming. And home, after 239 days on the road, is just around the corner.

07 December 2011

Stuck in the Middle

Sometimes deployments are waiting games. We wait for the enemy to strike...and they do. Lately, in full force. Yesterday a suicide bomber killed at least 56 in downtown Kabul, though when Julia came to visit me one last time today, she said that the number appears to be closer to 300. No doubt that there were some really bad people in this country who do really terrible things to each other.

Other times deployments are just plain lonely. I'm stuck in the middle now. I'm no longer on the team which has so defined my deployment. Instead, I'm alone, waiting for the Army to officially release me to go home, which may happen in the next 24 hours or so...or it might not. I'm watching the guys prepare for missions, review the intelligence reports, and talk about their jobs, and already I feel a sense of longing to be a part of that mission again. It's strange to think that the most dangerous thing I've ever done was also the most rewarding, and I have no doubt these past five months will be the defining time of my military career.

Today it was time to say goodbye to the single most important person in my life in Afghanistan. Julia came to visit on Monday and cooked me the most delicious lunch, which we shared picnic-style on my floor. Today she came back for one final visit, and we spent the morning talking about our favorite memories and how much we've both changed over the past five months. She has even started to talk like me ("Seriously?" she asked me earlier). But more importantly, she's learning to think like a Western girl, and to demand the respect she so deserves. I could not be more proud.

I left a letter in her bag, because saying goodbye while she was here would have turned into an absolute tear-fest:

Dear Julia,

We both know that I am terrible at saying goodbye, so instead I will say thank you. Thank you for helping me appreciate Afghan culture. Thank you for inspiring the women (our sisters) at Headquarters X.Y. to help each other and to wear their uniforms. And thank you for teaching me that a smart, beautiful woman can have a huge impact in any country. You have certainly done that here, and it has been my pleasure to work with you. One of my friends gave me the best advice when I came here. He said "Be yourself." So I give the same advice to you...be yourself. Get your TOEFL certificate and come to the U.S. with your beautiful daughter. Anything is possible if you want it badly enough. I'll be cheering for you.

Much love,

Julia and I agreed that before yesterday, it was sad to think that I would soon leave Afghanistan. Over the past few months, Kabul has become increasingly unsafe, particularly for women, so we now agree that now is the right time for me to leave, if ever such a time existed.

I have so many incredible memories from my time with Julia in Kabul. I can only hope that I've had half the impact on her life as she's had on mine.

05 December 2011

The End of the Catalina Wine Mixer

Yesterday was my last convoy. And it was the day that I had to say goodbye to people who have over the past five months literally changed my life...or at least my point of view.

Julia and I started at the Women's Center, where we met with MAJ Nadia to talk about our favorite memories and how proud we are of how much positive change we've seen in the women, who now look forward to wearing their uniforms and who now work together in little ways...finally! The women's meeting started, and though it was smaller than usual, it was full of people we have come to love and respect. We read the "sisters" letter to MAJ Nadia before the meeting, and she told us that hearing that letter made her feel like she was another world. She proudly read the letter to the letter to the women at the meeting, and even the illiterate women clutched the white envelope close to their hearts. Julia shed enough tears for a small army.

We ate lunch with the commander of the security unit on base, who has taken unbelievable care of me and Catalina during my time here. It was this commander, an Afghan Colonel, who volunteered his personal time and 10 of his soldiers to come protect us during our humanitarian missions. He invited me, Julia and John's former interpreter up for lunch which was spicy meat paddies of some sort with the most delicious bread I've ever tasted. We also reminisced about how much progress he's seen at our base over the past few months, and how he's enjoyed my team more than he enjoyed any other team with whom he's worked. Success, and the very best kind, since this incredible officer is a huge part of the reason this deployment (and our many adventures) has been so rewarding.

Julia and I then wandered across the hall to meet with the Education & Training Officer, another of the senior officers I advised. Afghans love certificates, so I presented another appreciation plaque with American and Afghan flags and a certificate. We sat together on the couch, talking about how pleased he's been to share these past few months, just as we are here, talking about similarities between officers in our militaries.

And to end this spectacular day, we visited the G1 officer. This senior officer is the reason I was officially sent to Afghanistan in the first place. He and I share a background in human resources, and I've spent the past five months explaining Western personnel policies to him, while he's shared his experiences in the many militaries of Afghanistan to me. We've shared incredible conversations, he has grown to respect working with women in ways I wish other male Afghan officers would emulate, and he said the most wonderful thing to me as I left. He said that he thinks of me not just as his advisor, but also as his daughter. He bought me te most interesting Afghan costume jewelry, and insisted I model it for him.

How do we measure success in Afghanistan? We measure it through hugs like this one, from a woman who wore her uniform yesterday for the first time ever. We measure it one person at a time. One heart. One mind. And we hope that those hearts and minds we've won will help turn the tide in Afghanistan. And in my time here, I hope that I've inspired a few Afghans (especially the women) to do just that...reach out and pay it forward by changing one point of view.

I'll miss the people in Afghanistan. I'll miss Catalina Wine Mixer. And I'll miss the beautiful traditions...the hand shake and three kisses, the chai, and my new found affection for the most simple things in life. This opportunity was incredible, and I can only hope that those with whom I have worked have learned half as much from me as I have from them.