30 December 2011

That butter container is for me to WHAT?!?!

Everyone is called to do something in this life – using their talents for others.  Helping Africans in Uganda is not mine. 

These are the words I wrote in my journal while I spent two weeks in Uganda in February visiting my friend Natalie Committee.  Don’t get me wrong, I LOVED the experience and am so glad I went; it just felt so weird that I actually missed Afghanistan.  I was on vacation in a beautiful country, and I missed my warzone.  I needed to rid myself of guilt and realize that discovering what I’m not meant to do is a vital step in figuring out what I am meant to do.

Natalie and I knew each other since she was about 3 because I grew up with her big sister, Christina.  We were in her sister, Christina’s wedding in the summer of 2010.  Natalie had just decided to move to Uganda for a year and I had just had my first interview for a position in Afghanistan.  To most of our friends and family we were either mentally unstable or living a dream that they wished they could.  We held strong to each other and supported one another in our “crazy” adventure.  When Natalie first told me about her idea to volunteer in Uganda I promised her I would visit.  At that point I was still working at Marshall and would need to save for years to afford that trip, but I knew somehow I would make it happen.  After all, how often do you have a friend to show you around Africa?  Thankfully fate stepped in and I got a job in Afghanistan and could save the money to see Natalie.

We met up in Kampala, the capital city.  It is bustling and quite intimidating.  We rode “boda bodas” everywhere.  These are dilapidated motorcycles that you have to hold onto the back bar and balance on (you never hold the driver) while the driver weaves in and out of traffic so close to the other vehicles that your knees literally brush the sides of vans that are whizzing by.  Natalie and Jess Blackwell (Natalie’s friend who was visiting and helping out for a month) greeted me with huge smiles.  I brought them icing and hot sauce! (delicacies they couldn't find in Africa).  We stayed at the Red Chili Hideaway.  If you ever find yourself in Kampala, this is the place to stay.  There were people there from all over the world.  At night we each got a beer and just relaxed outside talking to Australians, Brits, Macedonians, Germans and whoever else waltzed by.  We then took a 3 day safari around Murchison Falls.
Jess, Me and Natalie in front of some murderous hippos

The safari was absolutely incredible.  We saw all the “biggies” elephants, lions, hippos, crocodiles, wildebeests, warthogs, and meerkats.  The whole cast of The Lion King was there.  At night we stayed in tents with warnings to not venture outside because you might get run over by a hippo.  They kill more people than any other animal in Africa!  After the safari was one of the most nervous times I have ever been in my entire life.  We needed to go north to Gulu, but our safari was returning the 3 hours back south to Kampala.  Natalie decided we could just hop out at the next big town and jump on the next bus that was going to Gulu.  Fool proof plan.  I wasn’t a big fan to begin with.  It all sounded too up in the air.  There might be a bus at this time, hopefully it’s not too full, we should be able to find a place to wait.  Well then our safari van broke down, in front of a military compound so Ugandans came chasing after us with M4s to move.  As we waited at a restaurant for the van to be fixed and the minutes ticked by, decreasing our chances of catching the last bus to Gulu which came some time in the afternoon, I went from being not a big fan, to downright obstinate about Natalie’s “plan.”  But she was the Africa expert after all, so we went with it.  At the stop, the van dropped us off and our only American friends – a 7 month pregnant woman and her husband, wished us well and gave us a look like "I really hope I’m not going to be interviewed by Nancy Grace about what happened to those cute American girls we went on safari with."  We got to the stop where the busses fly by and there were Ugandans all around trying to sell us goods and shoving meat on sticks in our faces.  We had no idea if a bus to Gulu had passed by or not, and there are no hotels or anywhere else to stay for literally hundreds of miles.  Also of course we are the only, Mzungus – Whiteys, for hundreds of miles as well.  Thankfully a bus pulled up marked Gulu and we hopped on.  It was the most relieving feeling ever, until I smelled the live chicken in a cage next to me.

We arrived in Gulu and then took boda bodas back to Lukodi where Natalie lived.  She worked for Child Voice International.  They are an organization that rehabilitates women who were former child soldiers or ravaged by the war.  The Lord’s Resistance Army ravaged northern Uganda for years raping women and killing men.  Many of the women at the center were forced “into the bush” where they lived for years off the land in the forest to escape the murdering and raping that was occurring in their villages.  They are the strongest women I have ever met.  Through all this tragedy, watching their family be murdered in front of them, having children from rape, instead of wallowing, they want to make their life better.  They came to the center to learn a trade, so they can provide for their children.

Natalie's mud hut home
Our hammocks, bath tub, water jugs, dishes, and pee cups
One of the women braiding Jess' hair
I thought I understood “poor.”  I had no idea.  All of these women and children have one, just one outfit.  It usually includes a shirt with holes in it, ratty pants, and a pair of incredibly thin and worn flip flops.  We all ate the same meal twice a day, everyday.  Rice and beans.  Natalie had commandeered some spice packets from the last girl that volunteered, so every night we chose to convince ourselves we were either eating chili, enchiladas, or anything with hot sauce on it.  Although these women had little to nothing, they were always trying to do things for us, give to us.  It was amazing.

We lived in a mud hut with no running water and electricity for only a couple hours per night.  It was February and sweltering hot.  We slept in hammocks with mosquito nets to prevent disease.  The first morning I awoke to Jess’ alarm clock tone which sounded eerily similar to the mass casualty alarm on KAF.  I freaked out trying to get out of the net I was zipped in to jump to the floor, then I remembered I was in Africa.  Natalie was incredibly proud of the fact that she managed to get me my very own…pee bucket!  A lovely used butter container.  For any other matters, there was  literally a hole in the ground (no seat of any kind) with a wooden shed around it.  When I first took a tour of the grounds I saw a cage of rabbits and thought they were adorable pets for the children, I was quickly corrected that they were delicious special holiday treats for the children. 

The kids were my favorite part of the entire trip.  They don’t understand a word I am saying but they laugh and play just the same.  When we would go for our evening walk and come back they would all rush the gate screaming, “MZUNGUS!!!” and leap into our arms.  We felt like rockstars.  When we were on our walk, Ugandans would stop us and ask in their language that only Natalie understood, “What are you doing?!”  It was such a foreign concept to them that someone would walk for no reason other than to walk.  They get so much exercise from doing all their daily tasks of preparing meals by beating grain with a large bat, doing laundry by scrubbing clothes against a metal plate, fetching water in huge containers from the well that is far away, that one would never need to talk a “walk.”  
The kids watching Natalie and I paint a hopscotch

They were all so sweet and so welcoming even after all they had endured.  Natalie and I talked about how much guilt we felt.  Guilt that we were born into a life of such luxury in West Virginia while these children in our eyes were born into despair.  To them though, it's not despair.  They thank God everyday in beautiful hymns that they were so blessed to be spared.  They lived another day, and that was something to thank God for.

In Uganda to say Good Morning you say, Apwoyo Matek which literally translates as, “Thank you for waking.”  I was dirty, stinky, without caffeine, hot and cranky, and yet every single Ugandan I pass is thanking me for being alive.  What a simply beautiful way to live.

26 November 2011

Team Daren

I ran a marathon.  But this is not a marathon blog.  While yes, mile 18 was my big fat brick wall and by mile 20 my knees were screaming noooooooooo, stop the horror!  Nonethless, I ran, I walked, and I ran and with my sister’s encouragement, lots of water, and lots of sports beans later we crossed the finish line.  But, like I promised that is not what this is about.  This is about a boy, like many great writings have been.  A boy who through his passion for life inspired couch potatoes and military super athletes alike to run a race in his honor.  This blog is about Team Daren.

Have you ever met someone’s family and thought to yourself, okay that explains it.  I’d be a wackjob too if they were responsible for my raising.  Well upon meeting Daren's family, it was the exact opposite experience.  Daren Hidalgo’s parents, brothers and sister are exactly the reason why we all loved that boy.  I had spoken with friends and family of Daren’s in the months after his death, but had never met any of them face to face.  Well minus the one time in a DFAC I saw Miles across the room and recognized him from Daren’s Facebook but didn’t want to be a creeper so instead I chose to just awkwardly stare at him while whispering and pointing to my friends that I thought that was Daren’s brother.  (because just introducing myself and saying hi would’ve been the embarrassing alternative, riiiiiight).  Miles later told me, he definitely did notice the table of girls in civys that said USO and knew it was me. 

Anyway, first time meeting Jorge, Daren’s father, and upon seeing me he says, “SARAH!” and embraces me in one of those awesome bear hugs!  You can literally feel the love this family exudes.  In Jorge, Andrea, Jared, Miles and Carmen, you can see his radiant smile in theirs.  

The day before the race there was a marathon expo  and you picked up your registration packets from The National Infantry Museum.  You could choose to run in memory of a fallen hero.  They had small bibs to place under your race bib with the fallen hero's name.  We already had ours, 1LT Daren M. Hidalgo, but they had a table set up if you didn’t personally know a fallen hero, so you could pick one to honor.  As I perused the table one name jumped out at me, “PFC Jesse Dietrich.”  I attended his ramp ceremony.  I was there when he was loaded into a plane in Afghanistan to start his final journey home.  I read the brief synopsis and he was 20 years old from Venus, Texas and killed August 25th in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan by small arms fire.  I thought about how this race was bigger than me, bigger than one girl hoping to finish 26.2 miles.  It was a race to honor those men and women who fight a war, so we don’t have to.  It was the Soldier Marathon.

People came from all across the country to run in Daren’s honor.  Some knew Daren from Pennsylvania or Wisconsin, others from West Point or 3/2SCR, others were there as friends of one of Daren’s family.  While waiting in line for the spaghetti dinner I overheard an older gentleman behind me say, “Well look at that, they know my grandson.”  My sister and I had the race bibs with Daren's name attached to our bags.  We turned around to introduce ourselves to Daren's grandparents.  It seems it doesn’t matter who you meet through Daren, every single person is going to be overwhelmingly nice.  

Overall there were more than 50 runners gathered on a FREEZING 40 degree morning huddled together in heather gray shirts emblazoned with “TEAM DAREN” across the front to run for our fallen hero.  Some ran the marathon relay, the half marathon, or the full.  My sister and I chose the full.  By mile 15 I was saying, “Okay Daren, why couldn’t you have sponsored a 5K, really?!”  But his motto was always, “You only have one life to live, so go big!” and that we did.  I just tried to stay focused and remember who I was running for.  I remembered messaging Daren while he was back at the COP about one of his soldiers telling me a story that he had to wake Daren up one morning so he looked for the smallest dude in a sleeping bag and told him to wake up.  Daren immediately woke up and karate chopped his way out of his sleeping bag.  Daren’s response to this story was, “F yeah I karate chopped my way out of the sleeping bag, I hate those people that don’t start moving.”  So I kept moving!

At mile 6 there was a hill with Drill Sergeants "encouraging" us.  "YOU THINK THIS IS A HILL?!  YOU HAVEN'T SEEN A HILL!  OH YOU BEST NOT BE SLOWING DOWN NOW, KEEP IT UP, KEEP IT UP!"  It was hilarious and helped push us to the top.  Also thankfully, it was the last of the hills.  The scenery was gorgeous and people were sweet along the route yelling, "Go Team Daren!"  The route also looped around itself so we got to see other Team Daren runners and yell at them along the way too.  There were soldiers stationed all along the route to support us.  I did feel a little out of my element, wait a minute, I'm the one supposed to be supporting you.  At mile 25 we passed a man waving a Steelers "Terrible Towel" announcing to each of us, “You’re a marathoner!”  Those are words I never planned on hearing in my life, but was ecstatic to hear.  Because of one boy's presence in my life, I’m completing something I never dreamed I could.  Before this marathon I had ran one 5K.  ONE!  Now I’m running 26.2 miles.  Gretchen and I came around the bend toward the Avenue of Flags at Fort Benning 5 ½ hours after the race began.  I knew we’d see our parents waiting at the finish line.  What I didn’t plan on seeing was an entire crew of Team Daren fans shouting and clapping for us - probably the last Team Daren team members to cross the finish line.  As we neared the finish, the announcer said, “And now crossing the line are Number 255 Gretchen Kemp from Martinsburg, WV and Number 256 Sarah Kemp who took leave from Afghanistan to come here and run this race.”  (Turns out Daren's father, Jorge, had told the announcer the last bit as we were jogging up the avenue.)  I swelled with pride and jogged through the pain as Gretchen and I lept across the finish line in full cheesy fashion.  Then soldiers coined us and placed a dog tag medal around our neck.  Free beers and massages followed.

We returned to our hotel room with the lovely Sarah Brahm and Megan Pringle who were our roommates for the weekend.  I had never met either of them before, but knowing that they were Daren's friends was good enough reason for me to believe they wouldn't drug me and steal my belongings while we slept.  They, of course, turned out to be absolutely lovely ladies.  We all slathered ourselves in icy hot, placed ice bags on our legs, knocked back some pain killers and lamented about our sore muscles.  Later that evening we all went to Fudd Ruckers for a Team Daren reunion.

I was mingling with friends and family of Daren when it finally hit me how I recognized one particular man who ran for Team Daren.  All weekend I tried to place him.  He was Captain Garcia from 3/2SCR, G Co,  Daren’s unit in Afghanistan.  It was the first time I had recognized someone in the states from meeting them in Afghanistan.  We immediately began swapping G Co stories and USO tales.  It was nice to make a connection with someone who had been there for all of it too.

It was also a chance for my parents and sister to meet Daren.  Although they can’t meet him in the physical sense of the word, they got to meet him that weekend in the smiles, laughs, ridiculous and heartfelt stories that everyone who knew him shared.  They got a glimpse at the boy who everyone loved.

Through it all I think about the way Daren has changed my life and somehow finds ways to continue to do so.  A year ago this month I spent some time with Daren in Afghanistan.  He happened to be at KAF, and it was my day off so I needed to do some laundry.  There were plenty of washers available, but upon our return after gathering my stuff there were none.  I was pissed.  So I gave up on the laundry and instead we just talked.  He asked me about what I wanted to do after this.  I told him that I loved writing, but always got nervous that it wasn't good enough.  He shared with me his journaling so I wouldn't feel as self conscious about my blog.  Then he told me something I will never forget, “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. “  Well Daren, I write, and I run for you.

Please visit www.rememberdaren.com to learn more about Team Daren and how you can honor our fallen hero.

My sister Gretchen and I running down the Avenue of Flags.  I have a look of determination to get to the finish, hers is  a look of joy that the finish is so near!
We're marathoners!  The medals looked like dogtags.

Toward the end of the race soldiers were running with the racers to encourage them to finish strong.
Virtually everyone in this picture is part of Team Daren.  My mom, sister, Sarah Brahm and Megan Pringle at the foreground.

09 November 2011

I'm running a marathon. Yep, still sounds weird.

I'm running a marathon...on Saturday.  On a scale of 1-10, I'd give my nervousness about an 8.  I mean I'm not near the "about to vomit in anxiety" stage, but I'm way past the "oh I'll be fine" stage.

Now I'm prepared as much as I think I should be.  I didn't go plotting out water points or thinking up my peeing strategy (apparently some pros suggest this), but I'm pretty well stocked up.

1. I have my awesome/amazing Team Daren shirt.  Now mine is actually of the moisture wicking variety, but because I am getting SO prepared, it is in the washing machine (so as to not irritate my sensitive skin by giving it an ol' wash before the wear), so I borrowed my mother's for this pictorial.  The shirt serves two purposes, one it makes me feel like a badass like Superman with the big S on my chest.  It signifies I'm part of something bigger, a group of people that through their loss they want to do some good.  Two, when I'm hurting, and Lord knows I will be, I can look down and think this 26.2 mile sacrifice is nothing compared to what Daren and many others have sacrificed.  (And if he were here, he would mercilessly make fun of me for not finishing).

2. I have my Nike watch, which is one of the coolest inventions in the world!  It helps me keep my pace and says encouraging things at the end like, "Good effort!" or "Record Time!"  I'm thinking this time it will say, "What were you thinking?  Start ingesting painkillers now."

3. Which brings us to #3 - Drugs.  (Okay so actually they are some anti-inflammatories, and maybe some Flintstone vitamins thrown in, hey they make a body strong!)

4. My Wounded Warrior Project wristband.  I'm running a 5K to benefit them on Christmas Eve, well assuming my legs still function by then.  Each band says a different word, I picked the one that says, "Country."

5. Sports beans!  They are delicious, nutritious and my friend JD gave them to me.  He is a runner extraordinaire and has helped me train every step of the way by politely encouraging me to run 5Ks at 5 am.

6. My green shoes!  They're purty.  I do need to wipe some of the dust off though.

7. Knee band, because I tweeked my knee a couple weeks back running on these uneven surfaces they call "roads" out here that are just dirt with some rocks thrown in that twist your knee.

8. My Camelbak Randy got me!  She even had them embroider a nametape for me!

So I have all my necessary accouterments, well minus one sister, but I'm meeting her down there.  I read the reviews and they said there are drill instructors on the hills to "gently encourage" the runners, and soldiers at all the water points, so I figure it will be just like "home!"  Also I did the math, okay Google did it for me, and there is 3,000 feet of elevation difference between Kandahar, Afghanistan and Ft Benning, Georgia, so I figure that has to give my endurance an extra ehhhhhhh 6 to 10 miles, right?

My cousin, Michelle, completed a marathon last weekend, in a wicked fast time, but at least it shows me I can do it!  Also I have the motivation that my sweet boss told me before I left, "If you don't finish, don't bother coming back."  (Of course he was kidding...I hope.)  Then there's the excitement of meeting all of Daren's friends and family that are just as stoked about running this race in memory of him.

I couldn't resist sharing that because a year and half ago that was my life.  A lil Law and Order SVU Marathon on Sunday while doing laundry in my apartment in WV.  Now I'm running 18 miles, doing laundry next to a Bulgarian and living in Afghanistan.

Happy Veterans Day to every man and woman who has served our country!  I try every day to live a life that is worthy of the sacrifices for our freedom made by our Wounded Warriors and our Fallen Heroes.


Out here it seems that death is tragic, but it is something to be “handled.”  Last September one of my friend/roommate/coworker/Afghanistan family lost a close friend to war.  I had only been in country for a day or two.  It was like being slapped in the face by reality. 

Then in December another soldier killed, another friend’s close friend lost.  Then in February, Daren was killed.  The moments I spent holding a weeping friend were now being returned.  It was my turn.  The love I outpoured was in the most literal way being given back to me.  I can still remember vividly, the morning after I had attended Daren’s ramp ceremony and found out he died.  I was lying in bed not sleeping, but just staring, when my roommate just walked into my area, said nothing, and climbed in my bed and held me.  She was a good friend of Daren’s too.  She lost him too.  It was the sweetest, most selfless act of not needing or wanting anything in return, but just being there for me.

Now another friend has lost another loved one.  It is painful to watch her knowing all too well that pain myself.

Sympathy is an act of kindness, empathy is an act of understanding.

Knowing how strong she is and being on the other side of it, I am certain she’ll get through it, but knowing the outcome doesn’t mean her path will be any easier.  Out here we are literally thousands of miles away from all our friends and family.  These are the people you desperately wish weren’t just a voice on the other side of the phone, but an arm around your back and comfort in your soul.  So we form our own bonds and try our hardest to be a proxy, a stand in, a poor man’s whomever.  We’ve made an Afghanistan family that is there when nothing makes sense at all.

Pain throws your heart to the ground
Love turns the whole thing around
No it won’t all go the way it should
But I know the heart of life is good
-The Heart of Life by John Mayer

To all those who we weren’t ready to have taken so soon…


09 October 2011


As with most homes, the heart of our house is the kitchen.  On the single most high traffic area of the house, the fridge, smack dab in the middle, my mom has placed this quote, 

When I speak of home, I speak of the place where – in default of a better – those I love are gathered together; and if that place were a gypsy’s tent, or a barn, I should call it but the same good name notwithstanding. – Charles Dickens

I am currently 7,180 miles, 1 ocean, a couple continents, and 8 ½ hours of time zones away from home.  Most days I don’t dwell on that fact or even give it more than a moment’s reflection, but during the holidays that distance because a nagging throb in the forefront of my head that chants, “You’re missing out on everything. You miss home.  Your family misses you.  What are you doing?”

Last Christmas I considered trying to forget it was an event all together.  I thought if I skipped Christmas I could skip the homesickness.  Well, life doesn’t work like that.  (You can read the full story of how that worked out here.) As I tried to conjure up ways to make myself feel better it finally hit me that the other 25,000 people on this base are feeling the exact same way.  There’s no excuse of ‘no one understands me,’ because get this, every one does.  We are all missing our family traditions: Midnight Mass, getting to search through our stockings but nothing else until our parents wake up on Christmas morning, Dad always joking that we have to eat breakfast first before present opening and us kids begging him no, Christmas day gift exchange with the cousins, watching White Christmas and singing the ‘Sisters, Sisters’ song with my sister, and the sight, smell, and silence of a perfect winter snow.

The thought that got me through it all was simple, my family supports me so I can support them.  From the outpouring of love in e-mails, cards, care packages, phone calls, Skype dates and more I have my spirit renewed and my hope strengthened. 

Last year we asked friends, families, churches, community organizations and anyone else we could think of to send care package items to us so we could make gifts for our troops.  We received enough to give a present to every Soldier, Sailor, Marine and Airman that walked through our center doors on Christmas Day.

My own parish sent numerous boxes of items including a homemade fruit cake!  My aunt sent packages with a note that said she always donates to a charity instead of giving her adult daughters Christmas presents, and this year she was sending care packages to our troops.  I couldn’t help but swell with pride knowing that my family and friends made Christmas happen out here.

No experience can match the feeling I had after handing a troop a bag and watching their face light up and, “For reals?  This is for me?!” come out of their mouth.  It meant so much to them to receive the gift not just from USO Kandahar, but from the American people.  It might have been just a small gesture, but it sent a huge comforting message to the troops that they weren’t forgotten.  People still care.  Just like school children at lunch, most of them sat down and immediately began trading Slim Jims for candy canes and hand sanitizer for razors.

This year we want to do the same, only better!  This is where we need help.  We need gifts from people back home to fill the bags.  I have posted the flyer below with our mailing address and wish list.

This Christmas I will again be thousands of miles from the place I call home.  I will be in a large tent, in the middle of a desert, surrounding by dirt, dust and the constant threat of violence.  But it is there that people will be gathered, they might not be my loved ones, but they are somebody's.  So here we will gather in our home away from home, “Until Every One Comes Home.”

My One Year Anniversary

September 11, 2011 marked my one year anniversary working for the USO. 

10 years ago changed my life in ways I never saw possible.  I was a scared shitless 16 year old who thought the world was crashing down around me.  Now here I am 10 years later, 26 years old, confident in a world that literally is crashing down around me.

The horrendous acts on September 11th sent my generation, some my friends, to war.  In a roundabout way September 11th also sent me to a warzone.

My coworker Sarah York set up a table in our center with a board for anyone to write a message to remember the lives lost on September 11th and in OIF and OEF.  She set out tea lights so they could light a candle in memoriam.  It touched my heart as I watched a Marine pilot walk over and look at the lit table with curiosity, then realize it’s purpose, and take the few moments to light a candle and then bow his head for a couple precious seconds afterward in prayer.

Also on September 11th Outback Steakhouse came to Kandahar and cooked their food in the DFACs.  It was AMAZING!  We had the most delicious steak I have had in a year, spinach artichoke dip with FRESH bread, and cheesecake that I almost had to fight a dude over to get the last piece.  Randy, York and I all agreed that Outback made the meal especially for our anniversary dinner. 

Upon returning to the center, Randy, York and I wanted to get a picture to commemorate our year, no sooner had Richard our boss taken the snapshot than the rocket alarm siren blared.  We fell to the floor and laid flat on our bellies.  I guess the Taliban wanted to celebrate our anniversary as well.

When we cleared the center, York and I blew out all the memorial candles because we had no idea how long we would be in the bunker. After the “all clear” siren, we re-entered the center and began tidying up.  I started to throw away the old candles, and York said, “Stop, each of those were a prayer too.”  So in complete silence York and soon Erin joined to relight every candle.  We filled the table with candles all suddenly much more aware that even though September 11th was 10 years ago and we’ll never forget that date, every single day lives are still being sacrificed.
The tealight memorial with lit and burnt out candles

24 September 2011


Googling has a perverse power over me.  Out here I have a lot of free time without all the distractions of “normal” life.  So when most people in casual conversation say, hmmm I wonder if we had a Quaker president, they then let the thought quickly pass.  Instead, I catalog these moments to later google.  Today I spent a good half an hour researching the religion of each president.  Dwight D Eisenhower was raised a Jehovah Witness!  Who would’ve thought.  Instead of leading NATO in WWII, he could’ve been at your grandma's front door telling her why birthdays are evil.

I also like using google after I have any type of military conversation.  I need to look up all the acronyms of what they just said that I nodded my head in agreement to when really I’m thinking are 40 Mike Mikes like 34 DDs?  Are they bigger than say, 40 Mikes?  Are there 40 Mikes? 

So I google it.  I want to understand when someone tells me that they are 13Bravo and their PL was yelling at them when their MRAP narrowly missed an IED 2 clicks outside the COP then they got hit with RPGs and the ANA didn't do anything, but it’s all good because they now just went to DFAC and the MWR and can enjoy some R&R after taking off their ACUs and putting on PTs while hanging out in their RLB with their NCO.  Roger that?

The other night I awoke from a horrible nightmare that the marathon I am running in November was tomorrow and I was completely unprepared for it.  Now marathon training in a warzone is just about as much fun as it sounds.  There is a lot of dust and the constant stench of the poo pond.  It is also still really hot (about 93 right now mid-day), and I can’t do any training at night because it is not safe.  I’m not allowed to wear a tank top, but I have to wear a reflective belt.  Sexy!  Also it is hard to work out at the gym because it is always packed with guys wanting to get their deployment shred on by drinking muscle milk and doing mad reps in their ranger panties so they can go home ripped.  (Ranger panties are incredibly short shorts that are approximately two inches of material larger than your average speedo).  In spite of these disadvantages I have still somehow managed to run up to 16 miles in a stretch, which is right on track for the training schedule I had googled.  Yet, I still needed something to make me feel better, so  I googled.  Turns out Kandahar sits at 3,337 feet above sea level, and Ft Benning is at 310.  Instant smile!  That’s bound to give me some sort of advantage!

Google pulls through again!  Now on to google how to prevent losing your toenails while running 26.2 miles.  I heard it could happen!

31 August 2011

10 rocket attacks, 1 day

This morning you probably heard your alarm, pressed snooze and then eventually crawled out of bed and began your morning.

This morning I awoke to the jarring sound of a rocket attack alarm, jumped to lay flat on the floor with my hands over my head and stayed there for my 2 minute snooze until I could get up to hurriedly make my way to the bunker.  After the 6 alarms went off, I stood there for about an hour.  Then we got the "all clear," and I made my way back inside to start my morning and get ready for work.

Tonight after work you maybe worked out, grabbed a bite to eat, and watched some tv. 

Tonight after work on my way to the gym, a rocket attack alarm blared as we heard the impact of it hit base somewhere very nearby, my coworker slammed on our van brakes and flew in reverse to “park” our van in the middle of the road as we jumped out to race to the bunker at the corner we heard another explosion.  Upon entering the bunker I reacted with a, “Holy sh*t” as yet another explosion pierced through the sky and shook the ground below us making the rocket feel closer than I’ve ever experienced in a year, and then there was one more thud to follow. 

10 rocket attacks, 1 day.

Obviously, I am safe and sound and so are all my friends out here, and this is not a "usual" day.  Also, I am fully aware I knew where I signed up to work and I don't want you to think I'm complaining; I wanted to rather explain.  With the end of Ramadan, the Taliban now have full bellies to complement their full souls of hatred making this week thus far particularly violent.  

I still went and did my job after the morning attacks.  I still got smoothies with my friends after the night ones.  That’s life out here.  You adapt to a “new normal.”  We’re the USO.  Their terror has no home here.

And we make each other laugh, because if you didn’t, you might just cry.

Judging by Facebook status updates and news stories in the past few weeks people in the states were scared...as they should be.  Mother Nature was attacking them with earthquakes, hurricanes and floods.    I watched interviews where residents said they were terrified thinking that a decision made in just one moment could make them lose it all.  I couldn't help but think that's horrible... but try feeling that for 365 days. 

That’s how long a soldier is fighting a fight out here, so you will hopefully never have to feel that kind of manmade terror back home ever again.

20 August 2011

Living dreams

I believe youth is the chance to forget the rest of the world and just focus on your own little one so one day you can figure out your place in it. 

In high school I wanted to be a forensic scientist (because I loved CSI), date the class clown, and be a super popular wise cracking couple.  In college I fell in love with writing and yearned to move to North Carolina (partly due to Nicholas’ Sparks portrayal of its beauty in every novel) and marry a reporter to become this journalism power couple of the south.  Now I’m not claiming these are big dreams, but I worked my ass off for them.  My senior year of high school I took Anatomy 2, Chemistry 2 and Physics.  I even drove to the crush’s house and put a can of chicken noodle soup on his porch when he was sick because I was a hopeless romantic.  In college I stayed up late, skipped some (not all) partying and worked my butt off to get good grades in journalism, then I moved to NC with a nanny gig just to get there and left one of the reporter boys in the dust hoping for him to pull through with a big romantic gesture. 

Obviously none of my youthful dreams panned out.  I’m not combing through DNA, married to my high school sweetheart, living in NC or part of the noon news power couple.  But that’s okay because new dreams replace the old ones and you realize that the old ones sufficed at the time but just like old shoes, don’t really quite fit right now, so you feel a little fit of glee as you toss them in the trash and know you will never wear them again.

Well a year and a half ago I didn’t have a dream, big or small.  I racked my brain trying to think of what I wanted to do.  I remembered my college professor, Neff saying at graduation that I wanted to travel internationally and work for a non-profit.  I realized I had not taken a single step in the direction of that dream.  So, I started working toward it.  Now I’m here working for the USO in Afghanistan and I love it, but like the dreams in the past one day I will eventually out grow it, and scour for another that fits better.

Throughout all of these fleeting dreams of my youth, there has always been one thing that has brought me pleasure that I haven’t had to force and hasn’t disappointed me in any way like all the dreams before. 

Since as young as I can remember our family dinner time was wrought with my sisters interjecting in the middle of one of my wretchedly long drawn out dream sequence stories that “nobody cares, Sarah” or “get to the point already, snotface!”  Yet my parents would always hush the table and encourage me to finish as I would meander my way through the riveting climax of the nightmare I had with some big scary animal that was doing something horrible at some point in some kind of woodland scene that was somewhere.  In high school I would make up stories my friends and I called “scenarios” about sweeping romantic gestures our crushes would make (not a single one happened, they were more the fodder for Dawson Creek scripts than how a real live high school boy would ever act).  In college I wrote stories in my journalism classes and for the school newspaper, The Parthenon.  For the past two years I told the story of my college experience to prospective students every day. 

Now, I tell my story here.  I tell soldiers’ stories here.  I tell the stories of my family, friends, roommates, coworkers, vacations, tragedies, triumphs, and training. 

This is how I live a dream I never knew I always had.

10 August 2011

One smoothie at a time

30 Americans Killed in Afghanistan.  My mind immediately starts racing, who do I know in that province?  What was that SEALs name that did a United Through Reading a couple weeks ago?  Where there any MarSOCs or any other Special Forces in the crash?  What about our volunteer who is a Chinook pilot, I haven’t seen him a while?  I’m searching news websites for pictures, e-mailing friends and asking coworkers. 

Just a year ago these were just stories, this year this is my life. 

Every day I get a chance to help troops, and in this situation I feel absolutely helpless.  I can’t do anything to make it better.  I can’t take away the pain those families are feeling.  My heart aches for them.

I don’t think I knew any of the troops killed that day; I’m honestly still not 100% sure, but even if not, it does not make it any better.  There are still 30 families hearing the worst news of their lives wondering how they’ll make it through.  I read in an article that they interviewed a widow on the Today show and it was heartbreaking to listen to her as she had to correct herself from describing her husband as “is” to “was.”  Then there’s the 10 year old boy who lost his father and posted a picture to CNN because he didn’t want anyone to forget his daddy.

I just finished reading a moving book last week written by a Navy SEAL called, “The Heart and The Fist” by Eric Greitens.  He was a humanitarian volunteering in Rwanda and Croatia, then realized he wanted to do more and became a Navy SEAL.  He explains his reason for joining the SEALs:

We can certainly donate money and clothing, and we can volunteer in the refugee camps.  But in the end these acts of kindness are done after the fact.  They are done after people have been killed, their homes burned, their lives destroyed.  Yes, the clothing, the bread, the school; they are all good and they are all much appreciated.  But I suppose we have to behave the same way we would if any person – our kids, our sisters, brothers, parents – were threatened.  If we really care about these people, we have to be willing to protect them from harm.

These fallen heroes did just that.  They tried to make the world a better place for all of us.

 And a good life, a meaningful life, a life in which we can enjoy the world and live with purpose, can only be built if we do more than live for ourselves. – Greitens

This all still left me with a hollow feeling of what can I do to somehow make sense of this.  I can remember on September 11th when the world was crashing down around us and no one had any idea what was going on, I came home from high school and my mom simply said, “these chairs need painted for Angela (my sister).”  We spent the afternoon not talking about the fear or uncertainty, but painting chairs.  The horrific acts of September 11th were beyond our control, we couldn’t change the outcome, so we did something productive for someone else.  We found silence in our minds and some comfort in our hearts by working with our hands for others.

Today was my first day back from vacation and I had the honor of visiting the Wounded Warriors' housing and making them smoothies with my coworkers.  For 2 hours even though I was surrounded by literally suffering - these men have been blown up and have holes shot in them, I had a non-stop smile on my face.  At first they were a bit timid and shy, but even while limping they offered to help us carry boxes.  Then once the blenders got whirring, they came out of the woodwork!  I loved putting a smile on their face, and letting them crack me up too!  We were waiting on some of the other soldiers to show up and one of the Wounded Warriors said yeah they’re all the guys with concussions to which another soldier quickly responded, “Yeah they probably forgot how to get here.”  :D

I worked at a smoothie shop for 6 months during my senior year of college, but I don't remember a single customer.  Today's smoothies made in the middle of a warzone, in the middle of summer, in the middle of a room filled with wounded soldiers, I'll never forget.  It wasn’t much what we did, but damn it felt good.

Across the globe, even in the world’s ‘worst places,’ people found ways to turn pain into wisdom and suffering into strength.  They made their own actions, their very lives, into a memorial that honored the people they had lost. - Greitens

09 July 2011

The Beginning and the End

I originally wrote this post on 28JUN11.

Working for the USO and being one of those rare breeds on base we like to call females, I get to see some cool things.  I’ve flown on a Marine logistics flight to other FOBs, I’ve ridden in an MRAP and I’ve taken a tour with the PJs.

PJs are Pararescue Jumpers.  These men are in the US Airforce Special Operations, and they are responsible for the recovery and medical treatment of the wounded in a combat environment. (I knew all that but wikipedia just said it more concisely).  These are called MEDEVAC missions (medical evacuation).  They have to go to a specialized school for 2 years.  They must complete airborne school, survival school, underwater training, free fall parachutist school, and paramedic training among others.  Their motto is, “That Others May Live.”  They are basically badasses who save lives on a regular basis.

A couple months ago my coworker Duane and I got to tour their Black Hawks.  A PJ named Daniel gave us the tour and showed us all the equipment they use (I was shocked at how little there was, I remember even saying, “This is all it takes to save a life?  Any problem you have these few machines can fix?”  He said, “yes.” )  I put on his “kit” (bulletproof vest with attachments) on.  I nearly fell over from the weight and Daniel responded, “you don’t even have the ruck on yet.”  So then I put the ruck sack on.  It was so heavy, and he puts all this on and then squats or bends over to work on a patient.  They literally slide down a rope out of a chopper to get on the ground and save a troops life who has just been shot or blown up.  Then they throw them in the chopper and go.  Daniel had a large saw, I asked him what it was for, he said British “litters” (cots they put patients on) are longer than American litters and don’t fit on the plane, so they have to cut them down to size.  Of course since we’re in a warzone there is a 50 caliber gun and a Airman’s job who is to be the “gunner.”  Daniel told us a story of once the pilot was shot in the leg and he had to take his ruck and kit off and maneuver himself to slide up and over through to the cockpit to work on the pilot’s leg while they were flying back to KAF. 

I was so grateful for the tour and for what they do.  As we were walking back to get a bottle of water after the tour all of their pagers went off and they took off sprinting toward the choppers.  We got to see them all suit up efficiently and quickly and take off within 2 minutes to go save another life.  It was AMAZING.

Last night, my running coach, Capt. Simmons gave my coworker Randy and I a tour of CASF.  This is the area where they hold the wounded warriors near the flight line until a flight is ready for them to get on to be transported to a more equipped hospital in Bagram (Kabul, Afghanistan) or Landstuhl hospital in Germany.  After taking a tour, Simmons talked his way into letting us up in the control tower on the flight line.  We could see all of KAF.  It was breathtaking.  It is HUGE.  It is a city.  We watched C130s, and Chinooks fly by.  They say Kandahar Air Field has the busiest runway in the world.  It was crazy to be that close to airplanes that were constantly taking off and landing. 

While we were standing on the catwalk outside the tower, two Black Hawks approached.  Simmons told us they were a MEDEVAC mission coming in.  We watched two ambulances wait on the flightline while the two choppers landed.  PJs jumped out and carried the litters to the people waiting on the ground who put the wounded warriors in the ambulance (glorified humvee) and drove them the few feet to Role 3.  Role 3 is the emergency and critical care hospital.  Role 2 would be where you go for a sinus infection or the flu.  They didn’t seem very hurried so we took that as a good sign that the troops weren’t hurt too badly.  Simmons found out today they were Bravo, Alpha is the most critical that’s gun shot wounds or IEDs, Bravo is not as hurt.  As we watched the PJs jump back in and the choppers slicing through the air I thought of how I saw them at the beginning and the end.  The thing is I never want to see the middle.  I thought of my friends who have been MEDEVACd the ones who have died and the one who have lived.  How terrifying of a flight that must be.

Randy and I both said we could stand on that catwalk for hours and watch all the planes fly by.  We started to make our way around the catwalk and back indoors when Simmons pointed out Mortuary Affairs to us.  It is situated right behind the Role 3.  He pointed to the connexes where they keep the heroes (that is what they refer to the deceased as).  Simmons told us how sometimes mortuary affairs will go greet the PJs instead of Role 3.  That broke my heart.  Simmons even talked about how a few times he has volunteered over there to iron flags.  Just thinking about the incredible strength it would take to fill a metal box with ice to place a killed troop in, to iron the flag that will cover his final resting place, to say goodbye to a face that his own mother probably doesn’t even know is dead yet.  I took it all in.

Tonight Randy and I attended a ramp ceremony for 3 Marine heroes and 1 Army hero.  Before when I attended ramps I just felt a numbing sorrow.  This time I could picture it every step of the way, from the PJs getting the call, to the flight in, and the Role 3 and mortuary affairs.  It gave me some small sense of comfort to know that every single step of the way there were people trying with every last millimeter of their bodies’ limits to honor that troop.  The pilot of the chopper was racing to get to him, the medic on the ground was racing to keep him alive, the PJs were desperately trying to keep him going on the flight to Role 3, the doctors there tried their hardest too, and then mortuary affairs tried their best to prepare the body.  And me, well I’m a part of it too, because I’m trying my hardest with every ounce in my body to stand tall, place my hand over my heart while Amazing Grace plays, and honor that hero. 

Tomorrow I will write 4 new names on my hand when I run.  That’s one way I have found to honor them.  I encourage you to find a way.  When you send cookies to the troops deployed, adopt a soldier through Soldiers' Angels, make cards for our troops to send home through Operation Write Home, write a sister’s boyfriend’s best friend’s cousin who is deployed, donate to an organization that supports Wounded Warriors, thank any troop you see anywhere for their service, that’s how you can honor them.

I’ve seen the beginning and I’ve seen the ending, and I think both are in God’s hands.  It’s the middle, what you do with it, that’s what counts.  

18 June 2011

I ran.

Armed with an iPod full of GirlTalk (thanks everyone for the playlist suggestions, keep them coming!), and motivation on my hand I hit the treadmill.  I went to the NATO gym (also known as 2 Shoes, because you have to bring a second non-dusty poo pond remant-y pair).  I saw a trainer I know, JD.  I haven't seen him in a while so I told him about my marathon plans and he gave me some great tips on training.  According to him I need to add in some speed interval training, or at least I think that's what he said, I was a little enamored by his gorgeous Irish accent.

My goal was 6 miles, the furthest yet.  I ran 10K, 6.2 miles instead, (mostly because the treadmill is set to kilometers in the gym and my poor math skills only get me so far) in a time of 63 minutes, not outstanding, but awesome for me!  I felt like I hit my perfect stride midway through and that I could run for miles.  I even cranked up the pace for the last kilometer.

The craziest part of it all was an Air Force pilot who was on the treadmill next to me came up to me when I was stretching afterward and said, "You are my inspiration.  I wanted to run 6 miles, but I just couldn't do it, but I saw you just running along like it was no big deal, and I thought I can do this too.  Well I didn't make 6 miles, but you got me further than I would have."

Wow.  24 hours ago I didn't want to run an inch, then somehow I found the inspiration through the sacrifices of our troops.  Now, unintentionally, I passed it on to a troop.  I love the way sometimes life just surprises you. :)

17 June 2011

Race Idea

So in November I’m going to run a marathon, that's 26.2 miles!  It's the Soldier Marathon in Ft. Benning, GA.  Today I ran a 5K race.  So far in my marathon training I am up to 5 miles, so a 5K should be nothing, I do it every other day.  Well, I started too fast, and it was super dusty, needless to say I’m making excuses for the fact that I was burning out toward the end.  I looked down at my wrist, saw Daren’s name and got an instant second wind.  I thought of all the sacrifices he made, and realized my running 3 little miles and donating 5 dollars to a military non-profit really is not that big of a deal, I can do this.  I also received some help from an extraordinary running mentor, SSG Jeremy Logan, who finished the race in 20 minutes (a “crap time” according to him, he usually finishes in 18), then jogged back down the course to find me and help me keep pace and motivation to get to the finish line.  A couple months ago Logan ran 46 miles in less than 24 hours for a charity run!

I’m also blessed enough to have Air Force Captain Robert Simmons as my running coach.  He has run some marathons including some 50 milers!  He is the one who has agreed to meet me 4 days a week in the wee hours of the morning to run, and never bailed on me even once!  He also helped correct my form so I wasn’t hurting my shoulders anymore (You’re wondering how do you hurt your shoulders running?  Well, let’s just say I looked like a drunk kangaroo when I ran).  Anyway, back to the race idea.

Tonight I was washing my face and dreading the fact that tomorrow morning on my marathon training schedule I have to run 6 miles, the farthest yet.  I started to doubt how I was going to keep my motivation up to keep adding miles and weeks until the marathon in November.  If it was that hard today to run 3 miles, what is it going to be like when I need to run 16, 18, 20?!  Then I thought about how I got through today, by looking down at my bracelet and realizing that in the grand scheme of life my feet hurting, or breath panting, or muscle soreness is nothing.  That discomfort will be gone in mere minutes.  I thought how a family somewhere in the US is mourning the loss of a loved one right now who was killed in the war in Afghanistan or Iraq, how their pain is incomprehensible to mine, and their sacrifice exponentially more.

That’s how the plan came about.  According to my schedule I should run 4 days a week, with one day being speed workouts, and one day being my “long day” and the other two just usual days.  That’s 4 days of motivation needed and an opportunity to honor those who have made the ultimate sacrifice. 

I am going to write the name of the heroes who have been killed in action since I last ran on my hand.  For them and their eternal peace, I will run.  For their families and the pain they are enduring, I will run.  For all their fellow troops who miss them, I will run.  For thanksgiving for their sacrifice for my freedom so I can run another day, I will run.  They’ll be my motivation. 

In June of 2010 there were 103 casualties in Afghanistan alone.  Every single day you can check the Department of Defense's website and see the news releases of casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

So tomorrow morning, my 6 miles will be for a Marine hero, Sgt. Mark A. Bradley, 25, of Cuba, NY, who died June 16th in Helmand province, Afghanistan and an Army hero, Pvt. Ryan J Larson, 19, of Friendship, Wis. who died June 15th in Kandahar province, Afghanistan. 

This one’s for you.

30 May 2011

Let us never forget.

JFK's famous words at Arlington National Cemetery

I’m annoyed this Memorial Day.  On the front page of my hometown paper there is a huge headline, “Memories of War.”  This article features four gentlemen who served for our country…in WWII.  Now while I know that their sacrifices are honorable and deserving respect it perturbs me that this completed the entirety of the coverage. 

I know one of the reasons I'm out here is to show the troops fighting these wars that they are not forgotten, but here in my hometown newspaper is proof that to some they are.  Here are four accounts that are nostalgic, but unrelatable to most of today’s population as the men discuss their war stories from 1944.  Have we forgotten that there are men and women still dying for us TODAY?

Where are the stories this Memorial Day from a soldier, airman, marine, sailor, who just returned from Iraq or Afghanistan?

There are also three editorials in the paper, two of three which mention have no mention of Iraq or Afghanistan.  I think we are doing a disservice to ourselves if this Memorial Day we just sit back and only think of these old troops who are enjoying their golden years, but still haunted by memories of their time at war.  They get to have their golden years.  

We also need to remember this Memorial Day the men and women who lost their lives this past year, and the past ten years. 
Temporary headstones and newly made plots at Arlington eerily waiting for casualties from Iraq and Afghanistan to fill them

The ones who will never get to see their daughter or son grow up.  The ones who were never even old enough to legally drink a beer.  The ones who fought hard and laid down their life for a friend.  The ones who never saw it coming.  The ones who suffered.  The ones who now live, but without a limb.  The ones who have seen a friend die right beside them, but still go out the next day to that same place to do their job.

Along with our WWII and Vietnam veterans we need to remember these men and women, our Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.  We need to not let a day go by that we don’t think about our troops, because that one day you forgot that they are out here at least one family is heartbroken because their brother, sister, son, daughter, husband, wife, friend has been killed.
Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

I encourage everyone to join the Facebook group, “Military Wall of Honor.”  It is a group that posts about every troop that perishes in Iraq and Afghanistan.  After posting the war casualty, this dedicated group of volunteers then tries to find as much information as possible about the deceased to make them real to all of us.  They put up pictures from their Facebook profile pics and list comments that people have left on the deceased’s wall.  They also tell the official story of how they paid the ultimate sacrifice for us. 

As I scroll through my news feed laughing at the latest pictures of my friend’s bar hopping or stalking someone’s statuses, I’ll come across a Military Wall of Honor posting.  For a moment when I see that young face of a smiling troop looking back at me, I am reminded he or she is gone now.  I always take a second, even if it is just a second, to say a prayer for the fallen troop and their family and loved ones.  In that moment they are not forgotten.

This is a link to the story, "The Marble of our Heroes' Headstones" shown on CBS News Sunday Morning about the creation of headstones at national cemeteries.  It features the creation of Daren Hidalgo's headstone.