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.