Wednesday, January 7, 2009

I am happy to say I am writing this - my last blog entry - from my couch, with my dog curled up at my feet, Sara and Naomi singing with Amy upstairs in the bathtub. It was a long trip, both the 15 months leading up to it, and the actual travelling back home. But I would expect nothing less from the Army. So to give you a feeling for the end of my time in Iraq...

Our unit - the 86th CSH - was sent home in waves of about 120 people each starting in mid-December. I was in the middle group - which had its ups and downs. It was very bittersweet to say goodbye to our friends on the first group. As anytime you say goodbye to family. Even though a lot of us knew we would never see each other again, there is a bond there that being in that hole-in-the-ground brings out and solidifies. Not to sound too corny, but it is a real brotherhood. So the first group went off - which also left us a little short staffed for a short time. We compensated by not taking any days off, which was probably a good thing to help make the time go by that much faster. About a week later, the next unit started to arrive - the 10th CSH out of Fort Carson, Colorado. We were very happy to see them. So much so, that some of our nurses spent the whole night prior to their arrival 'pimping' out the gators with which we pick up patients from the helicopters. We were 'dead' tired the next morning... But while we continued to have the fun that has kept us sane (maybe insane) throughout the entire deployment, we still were kept busy enough to keep out of any serious trouble. Although it seemed that most of our
patients were medical type patients - the kind that you tend to see in a normal ER back in the US.

This whole transition was taking place around Christmas time, so in typical DFAC (dining facility) tradition - they interpreted the holiday in an unique fashion. We had Abraham Lincoln make another fashionable appearance. Unfortunately I misplaced the picture of me sitting on his lap asking for a holiday present. By far the greatest addition to the decorations, though was the aardvark's head made out of frosting. With 'realistic' blood where it was freshly shorn. Sometimes, even there, you just need to scratch your head and wonder. And no, it was not aardvark flavored frosting ( I tried).

Our send off from Baghdad was a bit of a surprise - basically "ok, thanks, get on the bus.". We had gotten our awards already, had our bags packed, and were nicely kicked out the door on Christmas Day. We bundled up for the cold (or what we thought was cold after 15 months in the desert) and headed over to Baghdad Airport (BIAP) for a few days. In our typical fashion, we couldn't just sit still and decided to go explore the base around the airport. As usual, we were awed by the megalomania of Saddam and his cronies as we toured around the"water palaces" which are several imposing residence's and offices surrounded by hundreds of acres of man made lakes. Which, by the way, were built during a drought in Baghdad that was worsened by the diversion of the Tigris river for the filling of the lakes. They were proclaimed 'The People's Palaces'. He was such a humanitarian...

Eventually, after a lot of 'hurry-up-and-wait', we traveled to Kuwait for another day or so. A lot of sitting around looking at sand in that country. We had to come up with things to do - like make our weapons more friendly to the local nationals who we came across. Those googly eyes did the trick.

Finally, we were off to the US with a brief stop in Germany. As we were coming in for a landing in Bangor, Maine (don't ask), watching the snow covered ground come up to meet us, I realized it was finally over. Thank god, it was finally over. It seemed very fitting to come home to a state that Amy and I hold dear to our hearts. Even though traveling for almost 5 days, smelling wonderfully, unshaven - we were greeted as we got off the plane by a cadre of local Veterans and well-wishers. Walking out into the terminal, they stopped us all, one-by-one, and shook our hands, thanked us, and welcomed us home. It really made for an emotional return home.

Then, of course, the plane broke.

We sat in a locked room in Bangor Airport for about 12 hours, trying to stave off insanity. It didn't help that there was a locked cafe in the room with an advertisement for some beer. We were still under the constraints of 'General Order #1' which prohibits alcohol. One of the soldiers felt it appropriate to alter the sign.

Finally... we were off to Fort Campbell. We landed on New Years Eve, shortly before midnight. They marched us in for a brief reception and turn in of some of our gear - and then... I was home for real. Amy found me in the crowd. It was one of the greatest emotional rushes I have ever had to be there with her. She had come down to greet me and spend New Year's with me before heading back to pick up the girls at her parents'. We celebrated the New Year and all of its promise together as a couple along with the new family I had gained while away for so long. And yes... they kicked us out of the bar at 0430, something I am very proud of.

Finally, a few days later - I flew back home to New Jersey where I was greeted by the other two loves-of-my-life (along with my sister and parents, who are important, just in a different way). The girls saw me and recognized me right away and started screaming and clinging on to me. Sara brought the Paddington Bear that I had since childhood and asked her to keep safe for me. She carried it around with her for the next few days, reminding me how she had kept him safe. That night as I was putting Sara to sleep, she said what was one of the greatest and saddest things I have ever heard - "I am glad you are home Daddy, so I don't have to cry anymore." Still makes me tear up a little bit.

Anyway, I am home now. I will never be able to thank all of you enough for your support while I was gone - to me, to my unit, to the soldiers over here, and to Amy and the girls. I learned alot over there, grew a bit, made great friends and memories - some to cherish, some to hope never to relive again. We laughed, we cried, but mostly we laughed and enjoyed what we could when we could. While I would never want to do it again, I am glad and proud that I did. It was an experience that changed me in many ways. Thank you all for being there with me.

Don't be a stranger and please keep in touch.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Re: Latest Update

Well, finally it is here.  Sorry theree are no pictures on this one, and it is going to be short due to having to share the computer with a whole to of people who want to communicate back home.  But, in a nutshell, we are on our way home.  About a third of our hospital left in Mid-December, our replacements arrived about a week after that.  The we finally got to leave the walls that have confined us for the past 15 months late on Christmas day.  But fully decked out with Christmas hats, and plenty of good cheer to be getting out of there, we hopped a ride on some Chinooks (really big helicopters) and flew over to BIAP (Baghdad Airport).  In typical Army fashion of 'Hurry up and wait', we then sat around the airport until late last night when we flew off on some C-17s and arrived here in Kuwait (one giant pile of sand and porta-potties) early this morning.  We should be out of here in a day or two!  Then finally back to New Jersey and the girls about a week after that.  Despite the propect of returning to the state of New Jersey (sorry Lavemen), I am pretty damn excited.  As are most people.  Thankfully traveling with a good group of friends makes the torture the Army dishes out a little more tolerable.  It is hard to believe in a little over a week, this group of people who became my friends and family will scatter back to all over the world.  Some back to Hawaii, Texas, Germany, wherever.  There is a strong bond between us that I will truly treasure, but I am very happy to see farewell to them.  At least in the short term.  So I will update the blog with the final pics when we get back to the US.
I hope you are all doing well and are planning for a great New Year.  I know I am!  Thank you all for the support you have given me and the girls over the past 15 months;  and the support for the soldiers you see on a daily basis.  Those kids that are out there on the front lines, literally living in holes in the ground - have become my heros.  So thank one if you pass one on the street. 
Can't wait to see you all.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Well, I know I just wrote in this blog a week or so ago, but I figured in celebration of the end, I would try to keep up a little better. At least for a little while longer. Besides, with the end so close now, I feel a whole lot more energized. As do most people here. The advance party of the incoming Combat Support Hospital should be arriving here today or tomorrow. We are very excited. In fact I can't remember the last time the entire unit was excited about the same thing at the same time before.

The first 'wave' or group of people will start leaving soon, to be replaced by the 10th Combat Support Hospital. Once the new unit is up and running, the rest of us will start our journey home. I hope the incoming group has a great deployment (it is at least shorter than ours by 9 months) and I hope they have as great a group as we lucked out with in our ER.
Again, to pass the time and to show some of our visiting ER docs around the International Zone, we took a lesiourly stroll to some of the sights. Found a few new interesting things, including a collection of old Iraqi aircraft that had been taken apart for spare parts (or maybe to make IED's, I don't really know). They were on the back side of the Iraqi Monument to the Unknown Soldier. I had been there before, just never been on the backside. It had been turned over to the control of an Iraqi Army Honor Guard, so you have to get permission to go onto the property, something not so easy since I don't speak Arabic, and they don't speak English. You basically point and grunt, and they grunt back and nod their heads. It doesn't hurt when you bring a female nurse along, either.
We headed over to another FOB, 'Prosperity', for some lunch and to check out the local shops. Luckily they were selling the 'Barbie' beach towel I was looking for. Found a few interesting areas, including another stone relief made by Saddam of the US killing children (sick man). And later, we got a chance to play on some artillery units that were parked nearby.

In between our explorations and adventures, we continue to do the healthcare thing. The mission that we were sent over here to complete. Thankfully, the amount of combat trauma continues to be low compared to months ago. It is definitly looking like a better Christmas and New Years season than last year in that regard. We do continue to take care fo the regular emergency patients, though. Including the recent birth of twins here (neither were named after me). Not the usual Combat support mission! In a twist of fate (maybe), we currently have a neonatologist (working as a general medical officer) here and a perinatologist (working as a researcher). Both of their skills were called into use.

That about sums it up since last time. I hope you are all doing well and that the winter season hasn't gotten too cold back home (I am sure my blood has thinned out over here). We will keep trying to have fun to pass the last of our time here, and I hope you do too.

(If you are wondering - we are trying to capture a small bird that had managed to wander into the ER. Very funny to watch a group of adults try this)

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Tick-Tock. The clock is continuing to tick down. The end of November is here - which means as of one hour from now I can say... "this month". Most people are starting to get very excited about leaving, a return to normality, the ability to wear jeans and whatever hat we want. Hopefully nobody opts to wear my Halloween outfit ever again. I say 'most people' because being here has a strange effect on some. It is like we live in a bubble where the real world (i.e., back home) doesn't really exist. People's problems and issues that are home are easily forgotten. We are in our own world here where we don't have the stresses of decision making in real life - what to wear, what to eat, who to be friends with. While I can't wait to get out of this 'bubble', there are people who are stressing over the return home more than they stressed about coming over here.

As for what is happening here - just more of the same. With the negotiations and recent SOFA (Status Of Forces Agreement) signing, unfortunately, work in the hospital has picked up. But we are still making time for the usual time killers. Trying to stay as sane as possible by... well... knitting. It passed the time for a few hours anyways. And now I can make a small 3x5 inch piece of knitted something or other. We have been running as usual to pass some time as well. And then there is another really stupid thing we did. In somthing called the 'DANCON March' or the Danish Contingent March, we actually paid money to march around the Green Zone for no real reason. One theory was that it was a giant prank prank played by the Danish to laugh at the stupid Americans and maybe even post it on 'You-Tube". Supposedly it is a ceremonial march that the Danish have everywhere that they have a military contingent deployed.

There is, of course the ever present need to exercise. We continue to look like giant fools and use the Nintendo Wii for regular boxing matches or other pseudo sporting events. I am sorry to say that I consistently lose to a girl... oh well. I have been able to continue on running pretty regularly, even up to the checkpoint of the red-zone. That has all stopped lately, though with the very special way that the various insurgents have been celebrating around our Thanksgiving (actually the signing of the SOFA much more than the holiday, I presum). But we do miss the freedom fo being able to run outside the hospital FOB. We did find a local "golf" course, though. Complete with 9-holes, par 3. It was a little 'ghetto' in that the holes were made of tin cans buried in the ground and they were marked by torn dish-towels with numbers on them. That and we were surrounded by cement T-walls and Barbed wire. The course is on the grounds of the NATO mission in the Green Zone and it has some nice inspirational signs up for us to contemplate.

In addition to the golf course Kristy and I found during one of our bike trips around the IZ, we also found one of the light towers that illuminate the Crossed Sabers parade ground unlocked. We took a trip to the top and were treated to quite a view of the Green Zone. Although inspiring a little bit of vertigo from the top, it was well worth it.

In addition to the views that we got, we also stopped for some food at a local restaurant. Surprisingly, we did not get the runs despite the swarms of flies that surrounded the place and dive-bombed our food and our faces.

Speaking of food - Thanksgiving was interesting again. The interpretation again by the caterers from Pakistan and Bangladesh was comical at best, disturbing at worst. It was our second Thanksgiving here, and it actually felt quite a bit different than the last one. For one thing, we knew what to expect both in the food and in the decorations. But at least it was like eating with family having spent the equivalent of a lifetime or two here in Iraq already. The people make it just about bearable. I have told them that while I feel pretty strongly about my friends here - I really don't want to see them again for a long time.

In the meantime, we will keep trying to stay sane for the time that we have left. Todd will keep trying out new patterns of Army camouflage. If you are interested in investing in some property in the Green Zone - there are some phone numbers that you can call. We hear there is quite a demand these days. And hopefully, the next time I send one of these out, it will be when we have started to pack our bags and are heading out the door.