Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Wishes and Goodbyes

For a while now I’ve had this wish to go for a helicopter ride. My little brother Chris had plans to serve a mission for our church and then join the Army to be a helo pilot. Ever since he told me this and especially since he passed away, I’ve wished for a helo ride. Finally, last Sunday my wish was granted.

As many of you know from reading my blog, we Americans are not alone here at FOB Farah. We share our little home with Italians who are part of NATO International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF). They do some PRT missions, however they are primarily security forces. We have several groups that come and go on a regular basis supporting different operations and this includes helo pilots.

I became friendly with the commander of one of the helo squadrons that was here for a few weeks. We would talk about different things where we were from, books that we had read and about how we both feel helpless when we see the poverty around us. We also talked about the gospel and how Christ is the ultimate example for helping others. On their last morning in Farah, I woke up early to inspect their tent before they left and saw my friend one last time. He asked me how long it would take for me to get ready for a helo ride. I told him five minutes and took off running for my office.

I had to tell our Ops officer where I was going and grab my kit. My kit is my body armour with all the attachments for magazines and tools, my weapons and helmet. I also had to grab my camera. I raced back to the helo and the crew was waiting for me. I climbed in and found my seat up by the front gunner (you’ll see the gun in some of the photos). I had no idea what to expect, but was so excited I didn’t even think about being scared. This was my first trip “outside the wire”. We say outside the wire, because when we leave the FOB we are outside the razor or concertina wire. I’m no longer a FOB-bit, meaning I’ve now left the FOB.

When they start the helo, the engines go first. Once the engines are at the levels they need to be, then they start the propellers. It’s kind of weird when the propellers first start because the centrifugal force isn’t smooth as they pick up speed. I got thrown back and forth a bit until the propellers had reached the proper speed, then it was pretty smooth. When helos take off they also take off backwards, or at least these ones did. That was a little disconcerting.

Once we finally got up in the air, the front gunner motioned for me to move up behind the pilots, so I could look out their front windows. That was pretty cool. They really do have a bird’s eye view of things from there.

From some of the photos I have posted, you can see that Farah really is a desert. However, once I was in the air and flying over the outskirts of the city, I was surprised at how much green there is. There is a small canal flowing through the country here and of course anyone who farms is an expert on irrigation. The compounds or homes have walls all around them and inside it’s green—amazingly green.

The ride itself was really cool. It’s like being in an airplane, except that when the helo banks for making turns you can really tell and your center of gravity totally shifts. That’s kind of fun, like a roller coaster ride.

We were up in the air for about 10 minutes and I got some amazing views of the mountains, the city and our FOB. Operational security prevents me from sharing the aerial photos of the FOB, but I’ll share everything else.

While this was the highlight of the past week or so, there was also a bit of sadness. The group of Italian men that were our Italian teachers left. They are redeploying back to Italy, and get to spend the next few months with their families and friends before coming back to Afghanistan again next year. We have all grown really close and developed a great friendship. These guys were like best friend brothers to us and watched out for us. They also cooked dinner for us on a couple of occasions and we would stay up late playing games and just talking. Somehow the language barriers didn’t seem to matter and we all improved our language skills.

The guys were very protective of us and when other Italians started making comments about us they would tell us it was time to leave. They would also warn us which ones were losers and which ones were nice. They claimed that the other Italian men only had one thing on their minds when it came to us girls. However, they were typical guys in that they had pictures of scantily clad women cut out of magazines and on their door, but they said that when they come back next year they aren’t going to bother putting photos of those women back up on their door. Instead they are going to put photos of us on their door, because we are their “real” girlfriends. I love it—American women in ACUs on their door.

I’m doing well and getting an awesome soldier’s tan from running. (Ha!) I go out and run on the flight line with a group from the PRT. Well, I was running. Somehow I either tore or stressed my left calf muscle and now I can’t run. So, I ask you all to pray that I heal quickly and can get back to running. As I told one guy, it’s either go running or hit someone, and the running seems like a better choice. Anyway, life here is still good and busy, but that makes time go by more quickly. Yay!

My pilot friend, if only more older men looked like this. (wink, wink)

The top of one of the smaller mountains. Amazing to be up that high and have no windows. The photos don't do this justic.

This gives a really good view of some of the homes or compounds as we call them. You can also the canal to the right of the two women who are walking there. Look at all the green!

More green. I love the contrast between the sand and the vegetation. There is also some new construction down in the bottom left corner.

I thought this was interesting, and it wasn't until after the ride when I downloaded the photos that I realized this is a cemetary.

That was my last view of the helos. They flew over the FOB as they headed off to Herat. The tents are for visitors and also some of our contractors.

This is my group of beautiful Italian men. From left to right: Me, Toni, "Cameron", Andrea, Cristian, Enrico, "Lucy", and Nazzareno. In front: Domenico and Samuel. This is team Jackal as we said goodbye to them.

Yes, Dad I know you want more photos, but this is all I had time to do. Internet here is really slow. Love you!

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

What do you take for granted?

So, life here continues at a frantic pace. Many people say that life here is like Ground Hog Day, each day is the same. However, for me thankfully, that is not the case. I get to meet new people almost everyday and learn new things.

Last Tuesday, I spent the morning at the free clinic for the first time. It was so much fun and I enjoyed getting to interact with local people for the first time. It was also extremely humbling for me and made me very thankful for the comforts that I have here.

The morning went by extremely fast and just in our room, we saw over 40 patients, all women and children. One woman would come in and bring all her children with her. Our interpreters would start the interview off by asking why they had come. The women would start with their own ailments and once they were done, move onto everything that was wrong with her children. Of course as in all places, there were one or two women who came just because it’s the free clinic and they might get something free. However, most of those who came had real ailments.

One fifteen year old girl, who came in, had one leg shorter than the other. She had fallen or something when she was four years old and had dislocated her hip. It was never properly doctored and so her hip over the years had simply grown into the wrong place and the socket had filled with some sort of tissue which had her whole pelvis out of alignment. The only thing we were able to do for her was take her foot measurement and measure her legs, so that one of our doctors could make her an elevated shoe to even out her gait. He is ordering some shoes and taking them apart to make her an orthopedic shoe.

A woman who was six months pregnant came in for help. A year and a half ago, she was badly burned in a propane explosion. She’s lucky to be alive. Her torso from the breasts and then on down to her knees is one huge mass of scar tissue. Now imagine that scar tissue being slowly stretched over time due to her pregnancy. As you can imagine, she is in a lot of pain. Unfortunately, all we can do is give her lotion which we hope might soften her skin a little, and some Tylenol to take the edge of the pain. Seriously, the worst scarring I have ever seen, not that I’m a medical professional or anything.

One little boy had a huge ulcer on his foot, and of course he didn’t have any shoes. Apparently, he had stepped onto a red hot piece of metal and burned his little foot or should I say melted his little foot. My friend HM2 A. (Hospital Corpsmen Second Class) cleaned his foot and cut away some of the dead skin and then bandaged his foot up. It was clean for a few minutes before he jumped down and ran out the door barefoot with a stuffed animal in his hand for being a brave boy.

Sometimes the clinic hands out little toys, stuffed animals or school supplies to the kids when they come in. It just depends on what they have on hand. I got to hand out toys to some of the kids, and almost started a riot when I made the mistake of handing some out through a window. Okay lesson learned, only patients inside the clinic get stuffed animals.

So, what don’t I take for granted anymore? Clean medical facilities and the very latest in medical technology. Okay, a bottle of Tylenol is a luxury here. Clean water from a faucet, or maybe just clean water, or not having to walk to get water. Shoes of any kind—all of sudden my hot pink Crocs seem so frivolous. Grass. Paved roads. Clean smelling people. A vacuum that actually sucks. Driving, cooking my own food, seeing friends and family. Internet that downloads in seconds, not minutes (3 hours to download just one session of General Conference). Just lots of little things I didn’t think about or give much thought to at home.

These few weeks here have been eye opening as I reflect on what my life is like in the U.S. I have it good. We all have it good for that matter. Funny, how the littlest thing going wrong in our life can be so huge, and yet here the littlest things are missing from people’s lives. Just a pair of shoes makes a difference. We complain and complain, and forget to take notice of all that we have. Life is good! I hope I can remember the lessons I’m learning here.

Below are some photos from my morning at the clinic.

This is me, of course, and a little girl name Reza. I loved her outfit. It's made of the fuzzy, furry yarn that is fun to make scarves out of. She's beautiful. Her dad runs the pharmacy at the free clinic.

This little girl has such beautiful eyes. She was so eager to learn anything new and kept asking me questions. Unfortunately, I don't speak Dari.

A fun little family. They were very concerned about getting their stuffed animals and were very relieved to get them.

This woman was anxious that I take her family's photo. She is very proud of her children, two boys and a little girl. The babies are very tightly swaddled, even in the heat. Poor kids just need to air out a bit. One little one even had a fungus growing on the back his head because Mom kept him so tightly swaddled. Not this baby though, this one is pretty healthy.

My friend HM2 A at work tending to the little boy's burned foot. His sister held him to keep him still and comfort him for the pain. This family was great.

See what I mean about the babies being tightly swaddled? This little one had the best smile and mom is so pretty. Some women don't mind having their photos taken, especially with their babies.

Look at those eyes and those chubby cheeks! This is the epitome of a swaddled baby. Mom was very happy to let me take her little one's photo, but quickly slipped her burqa into place before allowing me to take the photo. Now women have a choice about wearing the burqa, not like during the Taleban occupation. There are still many women who wear burqas, but they seem to be in the majority.
Many of you have emailed me asking what do I need. Honestly, I have what I need here, however if you would like to help me out what I really need are school supplies--book bags (very popular), pencils, sharpeners, crayons, notebooks, paper, pens, non-Christian based easy to read children's books, and of course small stuffed animals for the clinic. This more than anything else would be the most help.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

What do you do for fun in Farah?

Well, I thought I'd tell you all about what my days are like here.

As you know I'm the S-1, which means I the admin girl here for the whole base. Granted it's not a very big base and with all the people here it tends to be a little crowded. We have our PRT, the coalition forces Italians, lots and lots of civilian contractors who take care of us and help to maintain the base, all the intrepreters, plus other groups of military personnel on the base. Me, I have to keep track of all these people and report our numbers daily to our chain of command.

I also manage "Hotel Farah". We get lots and lots of visitors here, and I have to make certain they have a place to sleep. Lots of people get to sleep in the transient tents, which doesn't require much from me other than to make sure the AC is working and that they stay clean. However, when the big wigs come or females come it's a different story. Then I have to make beds and clean rooms and basically be a housekeeper. Well, sometimes I have my assistant do this.

All the correspondence for the command comes across my desk. I edit and format everything for the CO's signature. I keep track of personnel issues and assist with evaluations. I also track leave, awards, finance and... Yikes, I think I'm gonna pull my hair out.

In addition to my normal duties, I'm also on the Morale, Welfare and Recreation (MWR) board. Bet'cha can't guess what I do? I'm the secretary. We plan all the fun activities for everyone. For instance, last week we did 3-on-3 basketball, danced salsa one night and had a movie night. This weekend we are hosting a poker tournament, playing flag football and of course hosting movie nights.

I'm also active in my church group and when the chaplain comes down from Camp Stone I lead the music for her services. It's pretty fun and the guys do a pretty good job of singing. They say I sing like Sandy Patty.

I'm also learning Italian from some beautiful italian men... And they are beautiful. I've wanted to do this for a long time now, so I'm excited for this. Basically, we sit in the chow hall after dinner and talk about things that interest us. We take turns speaking in the language we are trying to learn and write down the new words and phrases we learn each night. I even bought the first Harry Potter book in italian and have plans to start reading it as soon as it arrives. I'm also still trying to learn a little Dari and Pashto and getting all confused between Spanish, Italian and well everything. I'll be starting guitar lessons this week as well.

I have an Italian roommate for the next few weeks. She speaks very little English, so this is really good practice for both of us. We've had fun trying to figure out what the other is saying, but we're getting there. I just ask my friends how to say different things and then she and I can talk a little.

Basically, while I'm here I don't want to just sit around. I want to be busy and learn as much as I can while I'm here. Next week I get to start volunteering at the free clinic so I'll be spending a couple of mornings a week helping with patients and playing with kids. Plus, I'm a member of the women's issues council and help to plan activities there.

La vita e bella. I'm really enjoying myself here and am so thankful I'm working with such great people. I'm also meeting some really great people and making really good friends. I hope we keep having a good time.

Here's some photos of the latest activities.

Beautiful italian men singing karaoke. It was great!!!

Two more singing karaoke.

Salsa Night... Dancing with a crazy Puerto Rican our Logistics officer.