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