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. :)