U.S Air Force Photo / Senior Airman Stephanie Rubi
This is an inspiring update to a terrifying flashback.
A lot of my readers know what happened in June 2007 while I was deployed to Iraq as a combat correspondent on a three-man team. (If not, you can read about that experience HERE.)
It’s been three years since I kissed goodbye that bald, sweaty head of my teammate JB. At that moment, we were in an Iraqi kitchen that had been converted into a makeshift clinic. His clothing had been cut away and he was covered in a tarp, shaking from the shock and meds. I was trying to assure him he’d be fine, trying to keep his mind off the fact his legs had just taken the brunt of the shrapnel from the mortar. Army soldiers announced the helicopter had arrived, and within seconds, they were running out with him on the stretcher.
That was the last time I saw JB, and while I’d seen photos of him since then on Facebook, I hadn’t ever seen a picture of his legs.
Until last week.
He’s still serving in the active duty military and his base public affairs office wrote an article about him and his recovery. They posted photos, and I gasped when I saw his legs. Those nasty scars startled me.
But his focused face didn’t. Neither did his bald head. Some things never change.
I’m so proud of him. Not only has he been so dedicated in his recovery, but he also just recently earned his bachelors degree. And he’ll be retiring soon, and living the good life.
I really have a lot of respect for single parents who do it themselves alone all the time. It hasn’t even been two weeks since Julie left to do her Air Force Reserve duty and yet it feels like it has been much longer because the action never stops. At least Julie will be home soon and i do like having this time with the girls. I miss my wife, though.
I have been sleeping on our family room couch. Part of this is because I am so exhausted, I just fall asleep as I watch television, but it is also because I don’t like sleeping by myself in our bedroom. The bed seems too empty. I often crashed on the couch when she deployed a few years ago for the same reason.
Lola is also missing her mom. Whenever the phone rings, she says, “Mom? Mom? Mom?” and gets very loud wanting to be on the phone. Even if we tell her it is not her mom, she still wants to talk as if it is. Julie’s been calling here in the mornings, which is great because both girls are really happy in the mornings and are eager to talk. It’s a good way to start our days.
Sunday was a day we definitely did not rest. With Lola, it doesn’t matter what day it is, she is always up around 8 a.m. the latest.
So we started the day with some cereal for breakfast. As I was cleaning the breakfast table off I started cleaning the kitchen.
After a couple hours of rearranging cabinet space and carrying a lot of food downstairs to store it was time for Lola to take a nap. I thought i finally have time to sit down for a moment but that’s when Miss C suddenly got the idea of sweeping the floor. Which turned out to be a great idea. over time I didn’t realize how light our floor actually is. Of course my break was over. I helped her changing the water and myself i started on cleaning cabinets, stove, sink, fridge and freezer. I even went so far as going behind the fridge and under it. It’s amazing how much dust is collected there.
Soon it was time for Lola to wake up and we decided to go to the park with Patches.
It was beautiful outside. Miss C met some of her friends from School at the park and she was off playing with them. Lola in the meantime took it slow and sat down on the bench to just sit back and relax and watch the other kids playing before eventually getting in a swing and letting Miss C push her.
We had so much fun we didn’t realize how fast the time went buy. The days are getting shorter and we realized that it was time to go home because it was rapidly getting darker. From here on everything happened quick. Lola got cranky because she didn’t want to go home. Once we arrived at home she was cranky because she was hungry. i quickly made some pasta with old fashioned tomato sauce and as soon as everthing was cleaned up our bedtime routine began. Miss C got her book and started reading while i went with Lola upstairs to get her ready for bed. Once she was in bed it was time for Miss C to get ready as well.
All in all we got a lot done around the house and had a lot of fun at the park today.
That’s how I have been feeling the past two days since Julie left for her military duty. The kids are fine, they are actually doing great. The pets are okay, too.
It’s childcare, though. I have called mostly everyone on our list of regular babysitters, but I could not find anyone available to watch the girls this weekend when I have work at the bank.
And it is not like I waited until the last minute for this. I have been calling since last weekend when Julie left. But it was not seeming to work out for me. And that is very stressful. Normally Julie is here with the girls so it is not a problem. But now that she is gone we have to find someone. Usually it is not a problem. But of course the week she is really gone for a long time, it’s a problem. Of course.
Fortunately we have our very good friend Suzanne. I didn’t think to call her because she lives a little bit further away from us and she is really Julie’s friend from the military. When I got a hold of Julie to let her know about my situation, she suggested Suzanne. I was a little nervous to be calling her because it would seem kind of random, right? But she was very nice and actually seemed excited about taking the girls. And why should I have worried? Suzanne was in the military. Her husband is a military photographer for a very important guy and he travels a lot, so she of all people probably understands the most what it is like to be a married single parent. So I am incredibly grateful for her. And I know the girls will have a good time.
So, I am not pulling out my hair anymore which is good because I really don’t have that much to pull. Ha. Ha.
The night before, Miss C and I labeled all her school supplies and she was so excited to go back to school and be a second grader, she didn’t even mind going to bed early. Our time without Julie/Mom was off to a good start.
But the next morning, I woke up about an hour late. It was so late, I woke when I heard Lola talking in her crib at around 7.30 a.m. I was glad I had packed Miss C’s lunch the night before, and Julie had her clothes laid out already. Lola, as well, had her clothes picked out, so we just had to get everybody dressed, a quick bite to eat, and we were out the door.
I later discovered the alarm clock’s time was blinking, which means electricity was lost at some point in the night, and my alarm did not go off as planned.
But I got Claire to school on time, even a little bit early, and she got to her classroom just fine. Not-so-good was the traffic on my way to work, which made me 45 minutes later than normal because all of the county went back to school, and obviously, parents were all driving their kids around.
By the time I got home, I was so exhausted. But somehow, the kids and I pulled off dinner and were able to talk with Julie online. And now Lola is in bed and Miss C is working on her first homework assignment and I am able to relax a little.
This photo is actually from last year, but I only got it recently so I’m posting it now. It was taken in May 2008 at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Ohio.
A few of my photos from my deployment in 2007 were on display there as part of an exhibit honoring Air Force combat photographers. Both JV (standing left of me) and I were featured, and both our fathers got to attend the event opening. Pretty cool!
In another month, it will be the one-year anniversary of the day I left for my deployment. In a lot of ways, I’ve been able to put the deployment behind me as any other life experience. But even now, almost a year later, something will be said or something will be seen that makes me remember.
One such thing happened today. I promised Miss C this morning that I would pick her up from preschool, so I did. It was getting a bit late and since not a lot of kids were left, all the age groups were playing together in one room. I noticed two teachers watching over them, especially since one was Muslim with a traditional head scarf. But I focused on Miss C as she bounded up to me, excited that I had fulfilled my promise.
“Mom, this is my friend,” she said, introducing me to the little boy who followed her over to me. He had big dark eyes and thick black hair. He gave me a shy smile. I smiled back. My daughter prattled off to me the events of her day as I gathered her things. That’s when I noticed the teacher with the head scarf approaching me.
“You are Miss C’s mom?” she asked, her English thick with an accent. I nodded. “I have seen you come here before. You are in the Army?”
“In the Air Force, yes,” I corrected with a smile. She seemed to gain confidence by this.
“I have heard about you from the other teachers,” she said. “My name is Safia*. I am from Iraq. They said you were there.”
I assume that my face flickered some recognition, some reaction, because she seemed to really open up as I confirmed that I had been deployed there, in Baghdad.
“My family … we are refugees. We got asylum a few months ago,” she explained. “I am from Mosul. My husband worked with the Army.”
I told her that I had been around Baghdad and that I thought the country was really beautiful, that I could see that it was once very beautiful. Her face grew wistful at this.
“Yes, we had a big house there, nice things,” she said.
“Maybe in 10, 20 years, when things are better, you can go back,” I offered, but she shook her head.
“We can never go back. My husband worked for the Army,” she said again, and I knew what she was implying. Because of her husband’s affiliation with the Americans, his family will always be at risk. I could only shake me head and ask how things have been going for her. She said it was hard having to start all over with nothing. But at least, they were here in America.
By then, though, the little boy Miss C had introduced me to before was wrapped around the teacher’s legs. She put her hand on his head.
“By the way, this is my son Ali,” she said. “He and Miss C are very close. They are good friends.”
Miss C was beaming at this bit of information, and she wrapped her arms around Ali. That’s when it occurred to me that this boy was the boy Miss C’s been talking about for months! Every day, she told me of something she and Ali did together, but I never met him until now. I could see he really admired Miss C.
On the drive home, all I could think about was the conversation. I wondered why she approached me. I could only assume it was to reach out to someone who she knew would understand where she was coming from. When she said she once owned a big house, she knew I would know what she meant. I had seen the homes in Iraq. When she implied they could never return because of her husband’s work with the Army, she knew I would understand exactly what that means.
And even though we didn’t speak of it, lord knows I can recall the sense of dread and sick anticipation that hung over that country like a cloud. What I can’t imagine is what it was like to raise a family there.
I peered at my daughter through the rear view mirror during that drive home. For a long time, I worried that my experience would become this place that hovered in her history like I imagine Vietnam did for children of that generation. We don’t talk about my deployment, and even when we do, Iraq is never mentioned. She just knows I was far, far away. It’s hard to articulate, but there were many times in Iraq when I thought of my daughter, and I couldn’t believe how truly far away I was from her and my world here at home. I couldn’t possibly imagine any connection between her and Iraq – two things so unrelated and so foreign from each other.
I couldn’t help but be amazed that she had somehow unintentionally forged her own connection with Iraq. There is no way for her to know what the first years of her new friend’s life were like. She probably doesn’t even realize he is “different” than her. He’s just another friend to love.
Yet, lo and behold, Miss C’s connection to Iraq is one based on two of the most beautiful things – promise for Ali and his family’s future, and friendship one can only find in the heart of a child.
Contrary to what the initial news releases reported, he was an Airman – not a Soldier.
Staff Sgt. Chris Frost, a fellow public affairs sergeant from a base in New Mexico, was killed in Iraq Monday after the helicopter he was in crashed in the midst of a sand storm.
He was the lone American on board. The rest were Iraqi airmen/aircrew.
He was deployed to Baghdad to do the type of job I did – to write articles and capture images of our efforts there – but he worked for the multi-national force, to cover their missions around Iraq whereas I worked for the Air Force alone and traveled all over. I can only speculate that he was on board to cover the Iraqi aircrew and their capabilities. It was stressed to MY news team that one of our goals was to shed light on the Iraqis making progress whenever possible, and I can imagine those were his marching orders as well.
As Air Force public affairs is very small, I met and worked with Sergeant Frost over the years. I ask that my blog readers keep him and his family (he leaves behind two young children) in your thoughts and prayers.
It’s the night before Christmas Eve 2007 and while the television is airing a bunch of Christmas movies, I prefer this story, which is true, and it involves JV, who was my team’s photographer during my deployment.
Back in 2005, JV was shooting photos at Arlington Cemetery. He knew of a small group of people who traveled down from Maine to the cemetery every Christmas, bringing donated wreathes to lay on the tombstones. Every year, a few servicemembers volunteered to help accomplish this – as there are a lot of tombstones there – and JV was there to take photos of this important work.
JV got a lot of photos that day of people in uniform placing the wreaths. But then he snapped a photo that didn’t have any people in it. Instead, it was just a photo of the rows of tombstones poking out of the snow that fell the night before, made colorful by the green and red wreaths.
Those photos were posted on Air Force Link, as are all of JV’s work. It’s a public site, so anyone can access the images, and somebody did. This person, who has never been identified, downloaded the photo of the tombstones, attached it to an e-mail with a poem, and then sent it out to friends, who then sent it to their friends and so on.
That one photo and poem circulated the globe, drawing attention to this small group of people from Maine. And the following Christmas, the crowd of volunteers who showed up at Arlington to help distribute the wreaths was bigger, and contained more people who weren’t in uniform – they were ordinary citizens who had received the e-mail and who wanted to help.
The media got word of this and the story got bigger. And then, this year, CNN did a feature about it, of how this year’s group was the biggest yet.
he media got word of this and the story got bigger. And then, this year, CNN did a feature about it, of how this year’s group was the biggest yet.
And it all started with JV taking a photo.
I love that story because it contains so many lessons that are so important, especially around Christmas time: no action is ever too small to be insignificant; one person can make a difference; never underestimate the impact you can have on other; people really do care; and last but not least, kindness is contagious.
Thanksgiving was a little quiet at our house. With no plans whatsoever, Martin, Miss C and I slept in until the early afternoon, missing the Macy’s Parade on television, but waking just in time for pre-game football specials. I don’t think we even changed out of our pajamas.
At some point, though, Martin remembered he had won a free turkey the week before and would give it a go. So he coated it with butter and herbs and whatever else he thought would taste good. And three hours later, we had ourselves a nice, golden turkey along with the instant potatoes and canned asparagus he made as well. I couldn’t help but laugh at how excited he was to have prepared the whole thing himself, but I have to admit, it was the most stress-free Thanksgiving ever and a great way to start off the holiday season.
A few days later, we packed up the car and drove to Ohio for a more traditional, if not belated, Thanksgiving dinner with my family, which my Aunt Mary Ann prepared. It an amazing spread, with all the trimmings, and as always, it was so nice to see my aunts, uncles and cousins, as well as some family friends we invited over as well.
Many hadn’t seen me since I got home from the deployment and I had brought some momentos – such as some vases, Miss C’s genie lamp and the Afghan burqa – as well as some photos and video. Once again, it was surreal to look at the photos and think that I was actually deployed over there months ago. It seems like yesterday.
Our newest cousin, Audry, my cousin Brad’s little girl
We spent a few more days in Ohio. My sister Jill, who recently got accepted to the state police academy where she will train to become a police officer, gave us a tour of the police department where she works. Miss C was really impressed and I told her that’s the only time she should ever be inside a police station. All of Jill’s coworkers gushed about how proud they are of her. Martin and I are so proud of her, too, and I know she’s going to do well at the academy in January.
Anyway, we also visited a local mall and Miss C got to visit with Santa Clause himself. She was beyond excited and not at all nervous. She marched straight up to him, beaming the whole time, and had the cutest little conversation with him. She doesn’t want a lot this Christmas, just a doll house and some toy telephone she saw somewhere, and she made sure to thank Santa for all he does for her and other kids. The picture was adorable, but that’s no surprise. She’s yet to take a bad photo with Santa.
The next day, Martin and I went to my old elementary school, where I gave an hour-long presentation about my deployment to my cousin Andy’s eighth-grade class. It was arranged at the last minute, so I didn’t have my uniform or anything other than my photos, but my cousin Paula (Andy’s mom) thought it’d be interesting for the kids nevertheless. I hadn’t been in that building in almost 15 years, and while they’ve remodeled some of it and built a new gym in the back, the main building looked the same, as did the uniforms the kids have to wear. I arrived a bit early, and talked a little with the sixth graders. (I also had a little cousin in that class. I come from a big family!) They were really captivated and asked a lot of questions in the short time I had with them, actually groaning when the bell rang for them to change classrooms. It made me feel confident for the eighth graders … until they walked in.
I’m now convinced there is nothing scarier than a classroom of thirteen-year-olds, that’s for sure. They came barreling into the room, barely noticing I was there. Two of the girls were bickering with each other, and a third girl announced they were arguing over a boy, to which a group of boys answered with taunts. The bell was ringing, paper was being handed around as assignments were turned in and the teacher barked some orders for everyone to sit down. I noticed Andy – who I use to babysit when he was a baby – sitting in the back, looking a little too tall for the desk. He gave me a shy smile and I felt better. Yet, as I began to talk, I realized this was a tough crowd. There were some girls who seemed to follow me, but others just glared or did their best to look bored. Whenever I asked questions, only a handful of them raised their hands, whereas the boys were all about the questions.
“Did you shoot anyone over there?” “Did you see any blood?” “Do they have a McDonalds over in Afghanistan yet?” “Were you ever captured?”
I did my best to keep the conversation focused, while Martin manned the computer to click through my photos. I tried not to bore them with too much jargon or talk of the political challenges facing the countries, so I spoke of the kids I met, the places I visited and showed them the stuff I bought over there. Ultimately, though, I knew I would have to appeal to their “video game” mindset, so I finally asked if they wanted to see a video of me blowing up stuff (detonating the bombs the Afghans turned in to the Americans), there was a collective, “YEAH!” and lots of giggles.
Overall, I think it went well, although it was obvious that most of them did not take the fact that I was talking about war seriously. And that’s okay. I would rather them think it was like a video game over there instead of them experiencing the truth for themselves.
After leaving my school, Martin and I met a friend for lunch and after that, we returned to my parents’ house to pack up the car and return to Virginia.
And that brings me to today. This morning, I FINALLY had my appointment with an audiologist at Walter Reed Medical Center. Because it was morning time (hence, horrible traffic), Martin and Miss C came along so we could use the HOV (high occupant vehicle) lanes to get there. Since Martin had been there before to visit JB, he knew his way around and we found parking easily. We were very early (not knowing how traffic was going to be) so I was seen fairly quickly.
The audiologist was very nice. She took careful notes and looked over the information I provided. Then, she put me through a series of tests, which included shoving various equipment into my ear. At one point, I mentioned I felt like Shrek, the ogre who pulls a whole wax candle out of his ears, as the instruments were long and oddly shaped.
The whole thing took about 20 minutes and the results were good. She was able to explain what all the tests were for, and what the results meant. My eardrums look, as she put it, nice and shiny. And while there was still a difference in the numbers on the scale between my right and left ear, I still score in the normal range, and as long as I don’t go to heavy metal concerts every night, my hearing should remain that way.
She also told me that they are seeing a lot of similar cases with other servicemembers who are near mortar blasts, which can mess up acoustics and cause other problems in the ears. She did express concern that I wasn’t tested immediately after the blast, which would have been useful to compare results. But, she said, as long as the ear drum isn’t ruptured, the ear can heal itself and that’s what seems to be happening. She recommended I come in again after a few months for another test, to make sure the hearing is still good and/or improving.