24 December 2010

Love actually is all around.

I was feeling pretty down about Christmas.  Being in Afghanistan can do that to you.  I was missing my family and friends.  I was trying to decide whether or not to go to mass tomorrow morning.  Part of me wanted to go to experience Christmas mass in Afghanistan with other soldiers who are missing their family and friends and praying for peace and holding onto that precious glimmer of faith...while the other half (the louder more obnoxious half) was screaming: just try to forget it's Christmas at all and pretend it's just another day!  I knew that living and working here would be a lesson in selflessness, but man, I wanted to be selfish!  I wanted my parents to send me presents, I wanted some sort of surprise, I wanted a grand Christmas just for me!  With none of that occurring, I was feeling crappy and started getting ready for bed.  I also put, "I'll Be Home for Christmas" on repeat on my laptop.  Very bad idea, very very bad idea.  Have you really listened to those lyrics?  It's depressing!  I'll be home for Christmas if only in my dreams...I mean that's the stuff of popping some sleeping pills and trying to forget the next two days!  Anyway, I decided to check my e-mail and had one from my friend Steph.  She wrote the following:

I know you're probably having a really hard time right now with Christmas being tomorrow...I know I would be. But I'm glad you decided to work tomorrow instead of sitting in your room by yourself. I know you will make the Soldiers so happy on Christmas just by being your happy, bubbly self. And that's what they need now, but you do too. You guys need one another on the holidays.

She's right.  That line, "you guys need one another on the holidays," hit me like a sack of bricks.  I immediately thought of all my guys and how excited they'll be tomorrow and how I can't wait to hug 'em and give 'em a present from the USO.  I thought of how I'll wear some antlers and the Christmas trees I helped re-decorate today will be glowing.  I thought of how they would smile and then I thought of how it would make me smile.  Earlier today a soldier said, hey, can I have a hug, my sister told me I should get a hug for Christmas.  It was funny, so Cindy, my coworker and I gave him and his buddy a hug before they left and they were smiling from ear to ear.  These thoughts  started to reassure me, but not completely lift me out of my funk.

I closed the e-mail and walked down the hallway of my mod (modular housing unit) to the bathroom to get ready for bed and on the way back I saw a pair of combat boots outside a bedroom door.  I saw them earlier and thought why are those there, but ignored it.  This time it hit me.  I think I remember something about shoes outside doors on Christmas...something about St. Nick filling them with goodies!  After a quick google to make sure I wasn't making things up and this was a tradition, I started tearing through my drawers looking for treats from care packages others had sent me.  I found the M&Ms Lauren sent me, the peppermint patties Sarah Y gave me, the granola bar Sarah Y's mom sent me, the candy canes Sara D sent me, the chapstick Sarah R sent me, and the rice krispie treats Ang sent me.  The Rice Krispie treat wrapper had a section to write on it.  I scribbled, "Merry Christmas! Love, St. Nick."  I got so excited to fill those boots!  It filled me with so much giddiness, like a child opening their presents on Christmas!  I got to give someone else the feeling of Christmas.  They could've opened up their door to disappointment, but I got to help renew a lil hope.  

Now maybe I'm totally off course, and they really just had smelly boots, so they put them outside and they're going to say what in the world?! when they open the door and see the candy filled shoes, but maybe, just maybe, they were hoping for some sign of goodness and I confirmed it.  Maybe, God works in mysterious ways, and my horrible mood was first shifted by Steph's email that reminded me of why I'm here and then I was presented with an opportunity to fulfill that work.  Those boots had been there for hours, but I had been to ignorant and too self-involved in my own pity party to really see them.  

Life is full of boots in hallways, these signs that are unobtrusive in our world, but if we just quiet our selfish, busy, skeptical, selves for a little while we can truly see what they are there for.  

Merry Christmas!

Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport. General opinion's starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed, but I don't see that. It seems to me that love is everywhere. Often it's not particularly dignified or newsworthy, but it's always there - fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, old friends. When the planes hit the Twin Towers, as far as I know none of the phone calls from the people on board were messages of hate or revenge - they were all messages of love. If you look for it, I've got a sneaky feeling you'll find that love actually is all around. - Hugh Grant in Love Actually

13 December 2010

Young American Girl Lost in the Middle East

This would be the headline that would run across the bottom of the screen as the hunky Anderson Cooper would rattle on…from a small town in West Virginia where the local airport has only one gate to the streets of Dubai where she was never seen again…

Stuck in Dubai without a working phone, any of the local money or any idea of what was going on, I started to ponder, I wonder what Facebook profile pic my parents will chose to use on my missing ad.

It all started when I decided to be cheap.  I wanted a cheap ticket to Miami so I could go on a cruise with my parents and sister.  It costs $1000 just to get from Kandahar to Dubai alone, plus the flight from Dubai to Miami; therefore I was pretty dedicated to my mission of a cheap ticket.  I scoured the internet to no avail, until a Special Forces guy volunteered to help me and found a ticket for a really great price!  Mistake #1 NEVER trust a guy in the Special Forces.  The ticket looked simple enough: I’d fly from Dubai to Abu Dhabi then to London then to Miami.  I even read it aloud (Mistake #2 ALWAYS have someone LOOK at the ticket prior to purchasing) to my seasoned veteran world traveling coworkers to make sure it sounded correct to them.  I purchased the tickets and I’m on my way.

I fly out of Kandahar, no problem, get to Dubai at 7:30 pm. Then my Cheap Tickets Itinerary says and I quote:
“Etihad Airways 5529/Economy/BUS/1 hour 20 mins
11:30 pm Dubai
12:50 am Abu Dhabi
Your flight is confirmed.  The airline will assign seats at check-in.
Connect from bus.”

I assumed this meant I go business class (BUS) on a short 1 hour 20 minute FLIGHT to Abu Dhabi and then have to take some shuttle to a different terminal.  I follow the flow of traffic, I even double check with a woman worker at the airport who assures me to go to Abu Dhabi I need to go through customs.  I retrieve my luggage, go through customs, and WHAM!  I’m outside.  Ummmm wait, where’s my connecting flight?

There is no information desk, just some rental car hubs.  I suck in my breath, tell my self to stay calm and go up to the woman who looks the nicest, the Budget counter.  She looks at my itinerary and says, oh this is leaving from Abu Dhabi, you need to take a bus or taxi.  Say what?  (Mistake #3 BUS does not mean Business Class, it means literally a bus, that thing with wheels that transports people).  She said you need to call them.  I explain I don’t have a phone, she says okay I’ll call what’s the number, ummmm I don’t have a number to call.  (Mistake #4 ALWAYS have a phone number for your airline).  I open my laptop to try to google it, and there is no wifi in that part of the airport.  Thankfully, my phone works to text.  I text my coworker, Joan in Afghanistan and ask her to google the number to Etihad, my airline.  Meanwhile the wonderfully sweet Budget worker calls her personal friend who flew Etihad recently and said yeah, you have to take a bus.  Crap.  I don’t have that much time, I can’t miss my flight to London and then my flight to Miami and then I’ll miss the cruise ship!!!!  Deep breath, don’t go there, you can handle this, I repeat silently.

Okay, well where’s the bus station?  “Near Applebees,” she replies.  Dubai is huge, I’m pretty sure there is going to be more than one Applebees, hell there is more than one in the greater Wheeling area!  Budget worker woman lets me use her phone I call Etihad and they say that I don’t go to the bus station, I go to their headquarters on Shegzai Street.  All seems well, but I think more about it and realize, do I really want to jump in a cab with a driver who probably doesn’t speak English in a middle eastern country as a single female by myself and go to this “headquarters” to hop on a “bus” to go to an “airport” all because one strange voice on a phone says, yep that’s what you should do.  I feel like this is a lesson in How to Get Human Trafficked 101. 

I have my trusty coworker Joan text me the phone number of essentially our boss’s boss who lives in Dubai.  I debate on what is the best wording to convey, “Can you help me, I’m an idiot, who is totally screwed, but I swear I’m still a totally competent worker!”  Luckily, she assured me that what the Etihad woman had told me on the phone was correct and this was the correct procedure.  Good, phew, good to go.  Then Budget worker asks me if I have dimars to pay the cab driver.  What?!  I didn’t even think of that.  She assures me it won’t cost more than 100 dimars and shows me where the money exchange place is.  Money exchanged, address in hand, girl with a plan, I’m ready to go.  I look up to figure out the name of the Budget worker who has literally just saved my trip for me, “Grace.”  My saving Grace.  So I’m not so good at always realizing the blessings in my life, but I got the pretty blatant sign big man, thank you God!

In the end, I made the bus, and the connecting flights and spent a blissful cruise week with my mom, dad and Gretchen.  It was exactly what I needed and wanted. 

God Bless you and yours this Christmas season!  May you not ignore the blessings God has provided for you!

Hugging my family in Miami after almost 3 months in Afghanistan.

26 November 2010

Three Cups of Tea

I just finished a book given to me by my sister once she found out I was going to Afghanistan.  It’s called Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortensen and David Oliver Relin.  It is about an American mountain climber who failed to climb K2.  Injured and lost, a village in Pakistan took him in and nursed him back to health.  He asked what he could do in return to thank them and they said build us a school.  Since then he has built 131 schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

I found the book slow to start and sometimes his tone seemed very arrogant to me, but overall the book was extremely interesting and gave me an amazing insight into this foreign land that I am living. www.threecupsoftea.com  

I am living in Afghanistan, but I feel so removed from it.  I’m not allowed outside the wire, and mostly no one is allowed in, so here I am in the middle of Afghanistan but in my own little world.  The first time I saw an Afghan child was at the bazaar last Saturday.  They looked so sickly.  The images still stick in my head.  If I’m in Afghanistan, and I can feel removed from the fighting, how do Americans stateside feel?

“He wondered how the distance that he felt in the Pentagon affected the decisions made in the building.  How would his feelings about the conduct of the war change if everything he’d just seen the boys who had lost their potato salesman father, the girls with the blowing-over blackboard, and all the wounded attempting to walk the streets of Kabul with the pieces of limbs the land mines and cluster-bombs had left them, were just numbers on a laptop screen.”

I think we can all feel this way.  If war casualties are just flashes on a ticker on the bottom of CNN or the fallen young men that gave their lives in Vietnam are just names on a black wall in the middle of Washington, we lose the meaning of their sacrifice.

We’ve been at war in Afghanistan for 9 years.  Before, during, and after this time, extremists are building wahhabi madrassas.  These are schools that indoctrinate the students with extremist ideas and raises them to only know hatred for Westerners and jihad as a way of life. 

Mortensen says, “I’ve learned that terror doesn’t happen because some group of people somewhere like Pakistan or Afghanistan simply decide to hate us.  It happens because children aren’t being offered a bright enough future that they have a reason to choose life over death.”

My friend, Natalie Committee, is volunteering for a year in Uganda to help the women there provide for themselves and their families.  Natalie mentions this same sort of theme in her blog that Mortensen does.  Natalie writes:  “The point is that many of us have been told since we were little that we could be anything we want to be.  Many of the girls here, on the other hand, have grown up seeing the other women in their lives treated as inferior beings, not worthy of a proper education, working hard their whole lives and still struggling just to survive.  In addition to that, their country and their lives have been ripped apart by the devastation of war and violence, leaving them with many bad memories and few opportunities for a productive future.  So when I ask them about their dreams, it is no wonder that I was met with nervous giggles and blank faces.”

All over the world, young men and women do not have the opportunities we do.  They have no hopes and dreams, because they can’t picture a future without war, violence, greed and destruction.  If you don’t care about the poor and starving children elsewhere in the world, if you would like to claim it’s just their problem, well then maybe you would want to help for even selfish reasons.  These children, the ones who are poor and suffering, who have no opportunities, are the ones who are going to take the opportunity to make $100 burying a land mine on a route for American troops.

Mortenson discussing the cost of the war in Afghanistan says, “for that much money you could build dozens of schools that could provide tens of thousands of students with a balanced nonextremist education over the course of a generation.  Which do you think will make us more secure?”

I’m not writing this to preach or to state certain views.  I'm writing this because this book got me thinking, and I wanted to provide an impetus for people to start thinking too.  Think about all the opportunities you have, think about the world you were born into, and think about the world you want to leave.  I'm over here because I support our troops and I believe that they are helping the people of Afghanistan.  I just hope that once the dust settles, we will continue to help them rebuild, so the cycle of intolerance does not continue it’s eternal spin of hatred and death.

“You have to attack the source of your enemy’s strength.  In America’s case, that’s not Osama or Saddam or anyone else.  The enemy is ignorance.  The only way to defeat it is to build relationships with these people, to draw them into the modern world with education and business.  Otherwise the fight will go on forever.” – Brigadier General Bashir Baz of Pakistan in Three Cups of Tea

22 November 2010

Operation Christmas for Our Troops

We are so excited to make Christmas presents for our troops that come into our center!  Please help us make it happen by donating any of the above supplies!  I also have a flyer that can be used for churches or groups if you would like me to e-mail it to you, please don't hesitate to contact me: skemp@uso.org.

We need all donated items to be shipped on Monday, December 6th, to ensure they get here in time for us to give them out on Christmas Day. The cheapest shipping method is to use Priority Mail APO/FPO Flat Rate Boxes from the US Postal Service that ship regardless of weight for $12.50 each. Please send boxes to the following address (note there is no street address, and Kandahar and Afghanistan are NOT included anywhere in the address):

Sarah Kemp
APO AE 09355

Our troops sacrifice so much and we look forward to giving them a sense of “Home Away from Home” as they open their Christmas present from all the men and women back home in the states who are thinking about them.

Thank you for being a part of Operation Christmas for Our Troops!

21 November 2010

I like pandas!

My French lessons are going well and we speak mostly in French now, which is really fun!  My tutor is leaving in a month though, so he is going to have to introduce me to some new Frenchies to teach me.  I know some basic Dari (language spoken in northern Afghanistan): Hey, How are you doing?  I'm good, how are you doing?  Goodnight, Thank you, You're Welcome, What's up?  Nothing Much.  Now, another interpreter heard me speaking Dari and he said that I need to learn Pashto (language spoken in southern Afghanistan).  He has taught me, "How's it going?" "Senga yai?"  I think if I ever get a masters it will have to be in some sort of study of languages or international affairs.  I find it fascinating.

Speaking of international affairs...another Albanian story....So I was waiting in line at the DFAC (dining facility) and three of my Albanian friends were behind me in line.  It is super cold here at night now (35 at night, 65 during the day).  I was shivering because I forgot a coat.  The Albanians had on these nice tan/white-ish fleeces.  They said, "Hey Sar-ahhhhhh" and said, "You need dis." and pointed to their fleeces.  I agreed that they were nice coats and I needed one.  Then one of them said, "Yes!  uhh, umm, I like pandas!" My face immediately contorted as I gave that what in the world are you talking about look?  Why did he just suddenly confess his feelings about an endangered species?  I was completely lost.  He looked to his buddies for support and they mimed brr chilly and then some sort of animal with claws and growling and said, "Bear?"  I caught on and yelled, "ooOOOooo not panda, polar bear!  You look like a polar bear!"  And everyone laughed and shook their heads in approval.  Good times, those crazy Albanians, they crack me up.

This weekend was wonderful!  I got to spend some time with some friends before they left for FOBs/COPs (Forward Operating Base and Combat OutPost - I am at KAF which is Kandahar Airfield which is a HUGE base, FOBs are smaller and then COPs are even smaller than FOBs).  It felt so nice to have a "normal" day.  I woke up and went to the bazaar.  They let local Afghanis come in and set up stalls and sell things.  It is mostly pashminas, belly dancing outfits, jewelry and movies.  I have a friend who is an MP (military police) and he volunteers on Saturday mornings there to help teach the Afghani kids before they start selling stuff with their families.  I want to look into volunteering to do that.  I'm not sure if they let females though, because I know it is all Afghan men and boys at the bazaar.  After the bazaar my friends and I went to Tim Hortons on the Canadian compound and had Iced Cappuccinos and donuts!  The donuts were a big deal, because usually Tim Hortons is out of donuts (due to that darn Taliban blocking trade routes) and the empty shelves just taunt you as you walk in the door.  We devoured them!  After eating 5 donuts, one of the soldiers said, "You know I forgot for a lil while that we live in a shithole."  It brought a smile to my face.  I was so glad to be a part of that, just for a little while, I helped him forget what he is going through, and I enjoyed myself too.  The other day at the center we had a soldier come in and he was well, to put it nicely, rude.  We gave him his computer card and off he stomped.  He came back about an hour later and was so incredibly sweet and nice. I think he just probably came right off from the field and was still in work mode.  He probably saw something he didn't want to see or do something he didn't want to do, but after he got that time to unwind in the USO, he was his normal self.  Again it was another moment of, yep, that's what I'm here for.

Back to my day, so later on in the evening I went to the boardwalk and watched my friends play some volleyball and then it was salsa night!  They play Latin music and gradually everyone dances.  It is really interesting to see events like salsa night, karaoke night and cornhole tournaments without alcohol.  It seems like back in the States no one would do karaoke until they "had a couple in them."  Here there are no excuses.  Back in the states, I would not salsa, I would be afraid of looking like an idiot because I have no rhythm.  Here, I feel like really, I'm in Afghanistan, who is going to judge me?  My roommate/coworker/other Sarah/Sarah #1 or 2 depending on who you ask, pulled me onto the floor and we busted a move.  It also didn't hurt that I was one of only a few females so there were many men eager to have a partner to dance with.  It was a lot of fun!

I worry about the friends I have made that push off to other smaller bases.  It is this conflicting feeling of being so proud of them and happy for them because they are excited to head out and "do their job"  but feeling sad for myself to say goodbye to another friend who has to move on and scared for them to go to a more volatile place.  I knew this was part of the deal getting into this job, that making friends is difficult because they either leave to go home or leave to go to a FOB, but when it actually happens it takes some getting used to. 

12 November 2010

Things I Miss...

I love what I'm doing, and I am so grateful to have this opportunity, but of course there are things I miss.  
Fishy faces of Christian and me
    rock climbing at Summersville Lake
  • Ritter Park this time of year with the sound of leaves crunching under my boots and the smell of fireplaces in the air
  • Talking to Erin about 5 times a day...at least
  • Living a block away from Christian and Faith
  • the familiarity of going to the Union and knowing 75% of the population there
  • Chipotle, Qdoba or Moes - guacamole!
  • The sound of a furnace kicking on
  • The porch on my old apt where I could people watch and drink coffee
  • rock climbing with the Damrons
  • The comforting silence after a big snow
  • DiCarlos pizza ($1 bag extra cheese please, and no crust)
  • my fellow road warriors who helped me have fun even if it was a fair with 2 attendees or no AC or a boring conference
  • my Marshall recruitment family who taught me, nurtured me and encouraged me to be my best, you made me honestly enjoy coming to work (almost) every day!
  • Having somewhere else to read/use a computer/write/do anything else besides work and eat, other than my bed
  • tofu seasoned with curry and sauteed with mushrooms in a fajita with avocado and cheese
  • cooking
  • a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon
  • my mom's chili with cheese sour cream and rice
  • burrowing my feet under my roommate/family/anyone I know sitting next to me on a couch on a cold day's bum
  • Glee, Bones, So You Think You Can Dance, Modern Family, The Office
  • Two days off a week
  • the ability to jump in my car and go somewhere if I wanted to
  • belly dancing class with Michelle
  • watching Law & Order SVU marathons while napping on my couch on a Sunday
  • Fr Dennis in Wheeling and Fr Dennis at the Newman Center's homilies
  • Newman Center fun
  • not wearing shoes in the shower     
  • Sweeeeeeeeeet Caroline! Oh Oh Oh!
  • baths
  • Singing loudly when I feel like it
  • Daily Show and Colbert Report
  • iPhone (sad, but true, to be able to see the text conversation back and forth and e-mail and internet and apps!)
  • sushi
  • trips with Gretchen
  • fall or Christmas smelling candles
  • pumpkin spice lattes
  • all my friends and family!

10 November 2010

Home of the Free, Because of the Brave

It is 11 November 2010.  It is Veterans Day.  Last year I was excited to get a day off work.  This year things are different.  

I am in Afghanistan working beside a soldier on crutches who was blown up a week ago, lying flat on the ground when a rocket siren blares, seeing the dust outline of a pair of sunglasses on a weathered face that just came in from battle, watching a Marine grasp his weapon when a balloon pops.  This year, I'm not remembering those who served, I'm serving those who serve.  

I am incredibly proud to have this opportunity.  I am thankful to all of you for taking the time to read about my adventure.  I look at this blog as not only a way to keep my family and friends updated of my life, but to inform others of the great sacrifices our troops make every day.  They don't ask for glory or admiration, they just simply ask me for 10 minutes to call home, or for more sugar for their coffee.  

I believe that if I can have one of my friends let one of their friends know about my blog then maybe they'll let one of their friends know and my one little self can create a ripple affect to remind all of us that the war is still raging and young men and women are still fighting.   

I know that before I came here troops were statistics.  I didn't know any of them.  It didn't affect me, so it didn't bother me, it didn't haunt me.  I'm hoping that this blog can offer you a link to meet these troops, get to know them, and remember them.  Be affected by them. 

I ask each of you to take the time today to pause and think of any soldier, sailor, marine, or airman you know.  Ask the Lord to bless them and hold them and keep them safe from harm.  Pray for their families who miss them.  Thank the Lord for the horrors you will never have to see, because they are experiencing them for you. Pause to remember those who have made the ultimate sacrifice, those who lost their lives.  More than that, TAKE ACTION.

All it takes is one person to set an example and others will follow:
  • Write on any troop's Facebook wall you know.  Fill the whole Facebook news feed with well wishes for troops!  Show how much you value what they do for you every day!
  • Anytime you see a man or woman in uniform, wherever you are, airport, grocery store or gas station, shake their hand and thank them for their service.
  • Donate to the USO, so we can provide a home away from home for the troops.
  • Donate to the Wounded Warrior Project, so injured troops can know we have not forgotten their sacrifice.  I see Wounded Warriors all the time with only one outfit from the Wounded Warrior Project because their uniform was blown up and they don't have any others yet.
  • Adopt a soldier through Soldiers' Angels.  They'll help you find a troop to send letters and care packages to.
  • Let me know if you would like to find a way to specifically support our troops here at KAF.  I'd be more than willing to help you find a troop I know personally to send a care package.  

To all the vets I’ve known for years or just a few days, thank you for your service and sacrifice!   

and every troop that walks through my center's doors

Photo by Gretchen Kemp

And I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free.
And I won’t forget the men who died, who gave that right to me.

09 November 2010

You Deploy, I Deploy, Jack

My coworkers/roomies and I were talking about, well what else do 3 single girls talk about, guys!  We were discussing the possible merits and drawbacks of being married to a guy in the military.  We talked about our experiences here and how they made us realize how hard it is on military spouses.  There are long and frequent deployments, constant threat of losing your loved one, raising your children without your spouse, lots of secrets about their job and the list goes on.  It's a lot to worry about while you would be back in the states.

My coworker said, "Oh yeah that's why I know if I married a guy in the military, it'd be: you deploy, I deploy." I immediately thought of the Gilmore Girls episode, You Jump, I Jump, Jack, which the phrase is taken from the classic love story, Titanic.  I completely agree with my coworker.  No need for me to stay at home and worry about him, he can worry about me!  You Deploy, I Deploy, Jack.

Friendships are a tricky thing in a warzone.  Every detail of your life is more intense.  Back home if I saw a guy at a coffee shop reading the same book as me, I would probably not approach him.  If I did, it'd be a 2 minute conversation and done.  But over here I yearn to make connections.  Life can get boring, monotonous, and very stressful.  I think we all yearn for these connections to others and relationships because they provide a sense of normalcy to our lives.  Normal people discuss books.  Normal people get coffee.  Yes, I am discussing this book with you at a coffee shop while you have an M16 strapped to your back and I'm sporting the ever attractive accessory: the neon yellow reflective belt, but it's some form of normal.

Over here we never know when a troop might leave.  We have a lot of transients.  These are troops that are just here for a week or two to go out on leave (back to the states for 2 weeks of vacation) or they are here before they go out to a FOB (forward operating base) or COB (combat operating base).  They usually don't have much work to do, so they'll be in the USO Center all day, every day, for a week.  Then they're gone.

During another coworker discussion we talked about the Afghanistan Time Conversion.  It was decided that 2 months here is like 1 year in the states.  I've only been over here about a month and half, but I assure you I know more about my coworkers than I know about some people that I've known for 7 years.  I also think that with the void of media and pop culture the topics of small talk are severely limited.  It's like re-learning how to create small talk.  Therefore, the conversations become more complex and deep, quicker.  Instead of discussing did you see Glee last night, it's did you hear that rocket attack last night?  Instead of did you see Lindsay Lohan entered rehab again, it's did you get to talk to your son yesterday on his birthday?

In other news:
My friend, Valerie, is interning for Life Gives Heat - a non-profit dedicated to adopting creative ways to empower Africans to form sustainable economic development in their towns.  Currently they do this through selling Suubi necklaces.  I found out about these necklaces through another friend, Brittany, last year and I purchased two for Christmas presents, and brought one with me to Afghanistan.  The necklaces are beautiful, only around $20 and they are made of recycled paper by African women.  Good for the environment and the African women!  You can find more information at their website here: http://lightgivesheat.org/suubi.

Valerie had this posted on her facebook yesterday and it really resonated with me.

and once you live a good story, you get a taste for a kind of meaning in life, and you can't go back to being normal; you can't go back to meaningless scenes stitched together by the forgettable thread of wasted time.'-donald miller

07 November 2010

I might be married to an Albanian...

It's true.  I could possibly be married to an Albanian, unbeknownst to me.  Have you seen any Albanian Special Forces lately?  They are these crazy strong, bearded, intimidating, arms bigger than your head, speak barely any English, look like Gaston from Beauty and the Beast men.  Yet, they are all incredibly sweet, well mannered men.  Well at least my future children will be able to lift my couches up as I dust under them.  Anyway, I digress.  So yesterday I was the French PX waiting on my chicken baguette with cheese and mango freeze.  This is no DQ syrupy freeze.  They actually put real mango in a blender.  Deliciousness!  I had passed by a crew of Albanians outside a few moments before.  As I was quietly waiting near the door, an Albanian soldier who frequents the center quickly saunters in the door hands me a carrot juice box, flashes a huge smile and then rapidly exits as I awkwardly say, umm thanks! (I didn't want to be rude).  There I am standing in a French PX next to a British soldier holding a juice box I just received from an Albanian in Afghanistan.  Interesting. 

So last night I'm retelling this story to a Lieutenant Colonel who volunteers at the center.  He immediately interjects, "You didn't drink it did you?!"  I answer, "Umm no, why?"  "That means your married in Albania. You do know carrot juice is the juice of Albanian fertility, right?"  For a moment I thought he was serious, but then I realized he was completely kidding and cracked up.  I mean who needs flowers when you have carrot juice boxes?

In other news, I'm starting to learn ranks!  I almost have mastered the Army enlisted ranks.  I'm working on the Army officer ranks.  I just started with that branch because there are the most of them, and I had a patient Army teacher.  More importantly than learning ranks, I'm learning slang.  Most of it is degrading terms they use for one another who they think aren't as badass as themselves.  There's also the 2-9-2 rule.  Apparently a chick can be a 2 in the states, then magically metamorphose into a 9 simply by stepping foot in Afghanistan and then just like Cinderella when the clock strikes midnight she transforms back into a 2 when stateside.  Yep, that's right troops, I'm sharing all your secrets!  I also learned a little Dari.  It's a language spoken in northern Afghanistan.  The language spoken in southern Afghanistan is harder to speak, so the interpreter who taught me chose Dari instead.

Salam, chtor asty?  Tashakor, khob astam.  Shuma, chtor astyen? 
Hello, how are you?  Thank you, I'm fine.  You, how are you?

I can also say thank you, you're welcome and goodnight.

About once or twice a week, I've been going to the French compound to have coffee and refresh my French.  I was told I had "great basic French."  Well, crap, according to my college diploma I have a minor in it!  Guess, I'll have to do some more intense studying! 

Today I saw one of my units who always come into the center.  They've been bummed lately because they have not had a chance to go on missions.  I asked them how they were today and one said, "We actually went on a mission today."  I excitedly answered, "Awesome, way to go kick some ass!"  This was answered by laughs and one said, "You're adorable."  or he might have said "You're a dork."  He tends to mumble, but in my head I'm going with adorable.  That's me, troop cheerleader!  Go USA! Beat Taliban!

06 November 2010

No washers available

I haven’t written in a while.  I didn’t know what to say.  Recently, I met a really sincere new friend and he told me, don’t worry about what to write, don’t worry if you think it’s stupid or inconsequential.  If you thought it, it’s worthy.  Write it, even if it’s just that you got pissed today because there were no washers available. 

Yesterday I decided to be super productive and get the internet in my room fixed and do some laundry.  I stopped by the laundry place, and 4 washers were open.  JACKPOT!  I returned to my room, grabbed my dirty laundry, raced back to the laundry trailer and WHAM!  NO WASHERS AVAILABLE.  All 4 of them were now cycling away with other people’s dirty underwear.  Also, the internet place claimed to fix my internet and it still doesn’t work.  Super productive day out the window.

In 5 minutes time, my decision to go get my clothes changed everything.  I missed the opportunity to wash them.  In the grand scheme of life, this decision will be insignificant, but what about the decisions that aren’t? 

My freshman year of college I crossed a 4 lane, one-way street and got clipped by a car because the light turned green.  I ended up being a little bruised, but not much more.  What if I had chosen to step out just 2 steps later?  I would have been full-on hit and God knows what would’ve happened. 

So much is left up to fate, God, whatever you want to call it, but then so much more we have to decide ourselves as well.  I’m a 25 year old grown-ass adult.  I have big life changing decisions to make.  But how do I decide what to choose myself and what to leave up to something bigger?  When I made my decision to come to Afghanistan, somebody asked me how did you know you could do it.  I said because I never for one second doubted I couldn’t.  Now that may sound ridiculously stupid, like I didn’t put much time into the thought process of heading into an active war zone, but I did.  I thought and pondered and questioned for a really long time, but all throughout that process something inside me always said, there’s no way you won’t. 

Maybe it’s the fear of regret that propels me.  Maybe it’s because I’ve lost too many people at too young of ages that it resonates in me that life’s too short.  Maybe I’m bat shit crazy.  Whatever it is, I’m glad I am this way.  It’s the only way I know how to be and it fits me.  I’m living the kind of life I’ve imagined.

24 October 2010

Between two worlds life hovers like a star, twixt night and morn, upon the horizon’s verge. – Lord Byron

Psalm 91 is also known as the Soldier's Psalm. 
The Lord says 
"I will rescue those who love me, 
I will protect those who trust in my name.  
When they call on me, I will answer; 
I will be with them in trouble. 
I will rescue and honor them. 
I will reward them with a long life 
and give them my salvation."

I attended a “ramp ceremony” tonight.  This ceremony takes place when a fallen soldier is placed on a plane to go home for the last time.   It was midnight and there were a lot of troops from different nationalities there for this one fallen soldier.  We lined up on both sides to the entrance of the plane.  I recognized a soldier that I helped her read to her children.  Here she is saying goodbye to a friend. Across from me I could see a soldier in a wheelchair with a patch over his eye.  He was closest to the plane.  I can only assume that he was involved in whatever resulted in his friend’s death.

A soldier read some bible passages and announced the fallen soldier’s name, age, and next of kin.  He was younger than me.  He didn’t even have a chance to have a wife or children yet.  I felt fine and stoic and strong, until I saw the casket.  It was a metal box.  It didn’t look like any casket I had seen before.  It didn’t have sterling knobs with scrollwork; it wasn’t covered in a sparkling silver glaze and slid onto a rolling cart with an elegant cloth adorning it. It wasn’t hoisted by aging men in out of fashion suits who were friends of the deceased. 

It was a plain, simple, metallic box with an American flag draped over it.  It came from a large military vehicle and was carried by young soldiers.

The camouflage of the Dutch soldier in front of me began to blur as my eyes teared.  His back became a patchwork mural in my mind of every soldier, sailor and marine that I know the name of.  The one who reads to his 3 boys and 1 baby girl at home, the one who likes to play only Madden 11, the one who is learning to play Lord I Lift Your Name on High on guitar and on and on their faces flashed before me, their names echoed in my head.  This metal box could hold any one of them next. 

I didn’t sob, I didn’t even let a tear fall.  I stood there and I selfishly thanked the Lord that I didn’t know this fallen soldier, and I prayed for those that did.  I helped honor a fallen hero.  He gave his life for me and you. 

I watched his remains be loaded onto a plane to be sent to his grieving mother in the states.  As my coworker and I began to walk away a higher ranking soldier said to us, “Thank you for coming.”  He’s thanking me?  It seemed like such a ridiculous notion to me.  Me?  I’m just in Afghanistan taking names down for a phone and making coffee. This soldier was on the front lines taking enemy fire.  I am simply taking 5 minutes out of my time to stand here silently and watch him get loaded on a plane.  I have done nothing special.  I have done nothing grand.  I have done the only thing I know to do.

I think it’s important I went.  It is easy to get lost in the monotony of this job.  I need to remember that even though I only have to see a death maybe once a month at a ramps ceremony, the troops I see everyday may see it first hand everyday.  That’s why I need to do my best to give them, even if for just a minute, a respite from their thoughts and the world outside.

Today I ran a cornhole event for the troops.  I had so much fun.

Tonight I was one of the first people to honor a fallen soldier.

I live in 2 worlds. 

19 October 2010

Typical Day

I haven't posted in a while.  I'm having some writer's block.  So, I decided the topic of this post would be what my typical day is like, just so everybody out there can know what I do.

  • 10 am - 11 am Wake up, hurry up and hit snooze and don't let it go off again, for fear of angering sleeping roommates, then check facebook, eat Clif bar, drink water, and get changed to go work out
  • 11 am - noon Work out in NATO gym with coworker Duane, we have to bring a pair of shoes, because your shoes get some dusty they won't let you wear the same ones to work out, also Duane and I get lots of looks because we're usually the only ones not in PT clothes working out (everybody else is military so they are in beige Army issued shirts, and we are in bright blue and red under armour), we probably also get looks because we laugh a lot in the gym about how pitiful we are and how I can only lift the bar and 10 pounds.
  • Noon - 12:45 pm Duane and I eat at a DFAC (dining facility), but you can't take bags in these, and we have to have a bag to take said second pair of shoes, so first we have to walk back to our mods (housing units) and drop off our bags, then go to the DFAC, either Niagara (which is my least favorite because they only have Thousand Island dressing and usually some form of mystery meat) or we go to Far East which has some yummy stir fry but little else.
  • 12:45-1:45 pm Shower and get ready for work, I wear some form of USO shirt and usually jeans and my Toms, then I bring a sweater or jacket because I freeze in the air conditioning
  • 2-11 p.m. I work.  This entails working the front desk which is monitoring people's usage on the computers and phones and helping distribute PS3 and Wii games.  I will also occasionally work UTRs (United Through Reading) where I help a troop pick a book and work the camera to video tape them reading to their kids and mail it off to the states.  I also am constantly making coffee, because they down it and making sure the place is clean and everybody's happy.  Sometimes I get a little time during the day to work on catching up with e-mails and planning programs.  As of yesterday I am officially the new "Programs Coordinator" for USO Kandahar.  Yay!
  • At some point during work I go to dinner usually at Harvest Falcon with a coworker or some soldier I guilt trip into going with me because I don't like eating alone.  Harvest Falcon is the American DFAC and my favorite.  They have Clif bars, Ranch dressing, ice cream and occasionally Dr. Pepper!  (It's the little things people!)
  • 11-11:45 pm I usually fiddlefart around and call my mom or dad or sisters or someone or just talk to some people after work
  • 12 am - 1 am Come home, tip toe into room with flashlight so as to not wake sleeping roommates, get ready for bed, facebook some more, watch some Glee on DVD or read and hit the hay to start all over again tomorrow

09 October 2010

Reality meet Sarah.

I'm in Afghanistan.  I am living on a base in an active warzone working with the troops.  I know this, I have known this, but I haven't really understood the implications of this until today. 

Ten soldiers were involved in an IED explosion a couple days ago, and they just arrived at our base.  They have the clothes on their backs and that's pretty much it.  They came into the center and one couldn't even hear, because he's still deaf from the explosion.  I know some of the "regulars" at the center are Wounded Warriors, but it's just a little different when I can immediately see the effects.  One particular regular who always has a smiling face told me that the unit with the 10 wounded was his unit that he was supposed to be with, but he got heatstroke and fell and his hurt his shoulder a couple weeks ago so he wasn't with them.  A regular that I know his name, I know his kid's name, I know his favorite game on the PS3, could've been blown up.  It's just more real now.  They are not blurbs on the news, they're not numbers, each single troop has a name, and I know some of them. 

I'm not using their names in this blog, because I don't think it would be appropriate, but I know them, I see them everyday.  Some of them are here because they survived someone trying to blow them up.  It's just all starting to register.  One regular is leaving us soon to go back out to his FOB (forward operating base).  I knew he was "blown up" as well, but I never noticed until today when he turned around his wicked huge scar on the back of his head.  Another volunteer today told me the reason he is here is because his vehicle rolled over and he had to get staples in his head, but luckily the IED they landed on didn't explode. 

These men and women are my age or younger.  They have wives, husbands, kids, friends.  They're just like me and you, they love to get on Facebook, they are sarcastic, they love when we have strawberry poptarts.  This is real, it's going on right now whether it's in your face everyday or not.  This war has been going on for 9 years.  I just think we could all use a reminder that there are men and women out there fighting.  Whether you agree or disagree with why they are here, they are.  We need to support them with our time (volunteer to make care packages), our donations (to the USO or Wounded Warrior programs), and our prayers and thoughts (of whatever religion or nonreligion you practice).  1.5 % of the US population is fighting, so the other 98.5% can not think about the fighting. 

I'm doing well.  I love my job.  I love what I do.  I've never felt this immense sense of purpose before.  I can do something as simple as fill the coffee maker, but to a troop in Afghanistan it can smell like home and just for a second I helped them get through another tough day.  My reality check tonight just makes me all the more dedicated to our mission: A Home Away from Home, Until Everyone Comes Home.

Help make the holidays happy!

Our USO center here in Kandahar just opened up a couple weeks ago.  The holidays are quickly approaching and we have ZERO decorations.  We try to save our money to actually put toward fun events and keeping the center going with its computers, phones, snacks, and United Through Reading.  Therefore, we're asking all our friends and family to donate some decorations for Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanakkah, New Years or even any beyond that in the new year.  We want our center to be a "Home Away from Home" for the troops and decorating for the holidays would help with that. 

Any kind of decoration that you would put in your house, we'd love to have at our center!  You can send the decorations to me at:

Sarah Kemp
APO AE 09355

(It costs just as much as it would cost to ship anywhere in the States, I suggest using the Priority boxes at the post office, they're probably the cheapest bet).

Thank you everyone!  I think it will be especially nice when I see the decorations and I know that it came from someone that I know! :)

07 October 2010

...and this is why I'm here

Yesterday I was sitting on a couch and one Marine I know came up and sat down next to me.  We were just talking about stuff and he says, "Hey did you get the snacks I brought in?"  I asked if he bought the snacks himself and why.  He said, "Well this place is my home, and at home if I eat some snacks I go buy some more to replace them."

If I helped even in some teeny tiny way to help that Marine feel like he had a home where he could just relax and hang out while in the middle of fighting a war, then it's all worthwhile: the way I wanted to pee my pants at every noise the first day, the 12 1/2 hour flight, the soon to be missed Christmas with the fam, the going from an apt all to myself to a dorm room with 5 girls in it.  This is why I'm here.  

USO: Until Every One Comes Home.

Watch the new "Aftermath" PSA the USO created: www.uso.org

05 October 2010

Smells are a funny thing...

Yesterday I was at the Boardwalk and all of a sudden it hit me, I smelled home.  It smelled like my dad.  I immediately looked around trying to figure out what it was and that’s when I saw it.  Workers were sawing wood to make new banisters.  The smell of fresh cut wood conjured up this image of my dad in the basement blaring his John Denver 8-track crafting some sort of project that mom asked him to complete and he decided to “Tim Taylor” it up.  Smells are a funny thing.

Good news everybody, I LOVE MY JOB!  For the first couple days I was working the front desk.  This is where the troops come and check out a card to use the phone, computer or a PS3, Wii or guitar.  I have the 2-11 pm (or should I say 1400-2300 shift, I’m getting better at military time!).  It gets crazy busy around 9-11, because that’s when it is about 12:30 pm in the states, so they can talk to their families back home.  The front desk is fun just because I get to meet everybody and learn their names.  I probably know about 25 of them by their last names now.  They love that I can just call them out even if they’re in PT clothes (they don’t have a name thingy on).  I like it too because it feels like I’ve been here awhile now.  We have some great volunteers too!  I sometimes find it just hard to believe that a troop has been working hard all day, most times 12 hour shifts, and then they want to come into the USO and volunteer to work.  Some volunteers come on their only day off for the week, and work all day.  They’re all super nice!  We have 4 majors that come in a couple nights a week.  It’s just kind of funny to see 4 majors sitting there stuffing envelopes, but they’re setting a great example for the rest of the troops.

Yesterday, they taught me how to help with the United Through Reading Program.  It’s amazing.  There is no other way to put it.  We help the troop pick a book, that’s my favorite part, I always suggest Amelia Bedelia, just because I loved her so much.  One soldier said, wow, you’re really enthusiastic about this.  J  Then they write inside the little card, we put them in a room and push record. We send the DVD and book to the family back in the states.  When I’m placing the DVD in the card, you sometimes can’t help but see the message, it’ll break your heart.  One guy’s son’s birthday was yesterday, so he read to him.  Other men have 4 children, so they come back as often as possible, so they can read to each one.  One soldier asked me how much time he had, I said 18 minutes on the DVD, he said no, I mean in the room, I said as long as you need sir.  After he came out of the room his eyes were all teared up, it’s hard to stay composed yourself.  They have this really good book called, Night Catch.  It is a book for deployed dads that tells their son or daughter that they can still be connected by playing catch with the North Star every night. 

My coworker Duane took us on a tour of the base, IT’S HUGE!!!!!  I was just picturing a Marshall sized campus, but it’s more like 15-25 Marshall campuses.  At one point we could see through the wire, and we could see huts where Afghanis live.

I think my first program I’m going to start planning is a Halloween party.  I’m so excited! 

03 October 2010

Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore - Andre Gide

I'M HERE!!!!! Thursday morning bright and early Sarah and I hopped on a flight to Dubai and then to Kandahar.  It was a really nice chartered plane.  We met these really nice Navy men and talked to them all about Kandahar.  Then we get off the plane and they get this escort who immediately grabs their bags and puts them in a car, apparently they are some high ranking dudes.  One man's daughter is a senior in high school and they live in Kentucky, I was trying to recruit her to Marshall.  Old habits die hard!

Once we actually arrived my gut started churning.  I got really nervous, all the new sounds of jets flying overhead, and everybody carrying guns.  We unpacked and settled in, then I went to the Boardwalk.  The Boardwalk is this really cool hang out area.  It is essentially a big deck in the shape of a square with restaurants like TGIFridays, KFC, a kabob place and shops.  Then in the middle there is a stage, volleyball nets and the Canadians built a hockey rink.  I was still on pins and needles and knew that if I went back to my room all I would do is think about what in the world did I get myself into, so I went into the USO Center and just hung out.  It rid my mind of everything.  Then I came back to my room, fell asleep, and was awakened by an alarm.  There is a rocket siren that goes off if they think a rocket might hit base.  Base is so stinking big that it could hit 20 minutes from me, or it could be a dud, or it could just be an alarm.  I'll admit the first two scared the beejeezus out of me, but you get used to it.

I'm feeling GREAT now!  The job is so rewarding.  I had a troop come up to me and ask about our United Through Reading program and how it works.  I explained he can pick a book, read it to his kid on tape, and then we'll send the book and DVD to his kid back in the states.  He said, oh okay, how much does that cost.  It's free!  He said, wow, okay, I'm going to go tell my buddies, and we'll be back! :)  I'm starting to learn people's faces too, which is nice.  My coworkers are super fun.  I love my shift, it's 2-11, so I have the whole room to myself during the morning.  Oh yeah, I live in a room with 3 other ladies currently, but we're adding one more soon.

While still in Kuwait, we met some celebrities in our hotel.  Robert Patrick (Coach Tolley from We Are Marshall) was there.  I said hi to him and talked about We Are Marshall.  The lead singer of Staind, Aaron Lewis was there and played BS with us.  We also met Dennis Haysbert (Allstate guy, 24, and The Unit) he was the nicest!  He was complimenting us for going where we were.  Then he said, "Who knew they were sending such cute girls to Afghanistan these days?  Maybe you'll find love and remember don't settle for less than a 1 or 2 star."  LMAO!!!!  We also met some Football Hall of Famers (but I don't remember their names).  Okay, sorry for this super annoying paragraph, but I was just really excited about it!  I don't usually meet celebrities.  Oh and yes, Dennis Haysbert's voice is that soothing and delightful in person. :p

Okay time for work, gotta run, many more posts to come!  Love y'all!
Every girl knows you have to match your shoes to your flak jacket. :)

25 September 2010

The world is a book, and those who do not travel, read only a page. - St. Augustine

My travel companions: 
1. Passport
2. Journal with inspirational travel quote on the front
3. Three Cups of Tea - book about a dude who built schools in Afghanistan
4. hideous eye mask that makes me look like a dorky super hero (CVS didn't have any cute ones)
5. Super soft pashmina from India that can also be a blanket/pillow/head scarf
6. Visa
7. "Big G" - Lucky elephant from Gretchen's trip to India (I was going to call him Ganesh, because I remember Nitisha had elephant figurines that are an Indian god who removes obstacles, but I'm not sure if that would be offensive to call him that, so I've just named him Big G).

So leg one of my trip is finished!  We're in Kuwait!  I'm proud to say my luggage was exactly 50 pounds!  Woot!  No overage charges!  (well I had another one that was 30 pounds, and had my mom send some boxes ahead of time, what I'm going for a year!)  Flight was fine minus the guy next to me chewing tobacco and I didn't sleep at all.  We got in and there was a woman waiting to help us through getting our visas and going through customs.  Then they took us on a shuttle to the hotel.  We check in, finally take a deep breath and then all 5 of us had the same thought.  Uhhhhh guys, what do we do now?!  I was nervous for about a half an hour until Dustin knocked on my door and said that Ferron was here to debrief us.  Ferron is the USO liason in Kuwait to help us get everything done.  I love USO people.  Everybody acts like going to Afghanistan is no big deal.  Ferron said, oh yeah was there last week.  People in the headquarters in Arlington when I would joke and say yeah come visit, they'd say, oh we wish we could, actually I might be there in November etc.  When I say hey come visit to my friends and family they think I'm nuts!  It helps to have some people who downplay it, keeps me grounded and my head on straight.  Speaking of nice USO people, they threw us an impromptu going away shindig with cookies and cake before we left.  Hugs abounded and they all said the same thing, "We're so glad you're leaving!"  (not that we stunk, well at least I hope not, but because they knew we were itching to go out in the field and do our jobs).

I had an interesting thing happen in the bathroom in the Kuwait airport, bear with me, it's a good story.  I couldn't figure out how to turn the water on.  I thought, oh great, 5 minutes in and I already look like an ignorant American.  A woman in a burka came out of the stall and looked at the faucet and we both giggled and then she said, "Yeah I don't know how to turn the water on either."  She then pulled her veil over her heavily made up eyes and then offered me part of her burka and said, 'Here to wipe your hands."  I politely declined and said I had antibacterial in my bag.  It was so nice.  

Well, I'm going to go try to figure out how to turn on the shower.  Thanks for all the well wishes and prayers everybody!