Friday, July 31, 2009

One month down

We've been here a month, one MONTH! Four weeks ago, it seemed like the time here would crawl. Now I know how fast it really will fly, and how hard it will be to develop, source and complete projects while we are here.

One goal we all have is to see at least one project through to fruition. I realize that sounds odd, but many of the projects that are being undertaken in the region are complicated engineering projects that take months to complete and often span the deployment of two or even three PRTs (provincial reconstruction teams). What can we complete prior to heading home? We really do not know.

The process for vetting and developing projects really rests in the hands of the local populace. They—with questions and prompting from our team of specialists—nominate projects to their elected officials, who then set priorities. We take it from there and work to develop what the people want. But change will be slow, as it should be. It took the United Staters many years to become the nation it is today, and Afghanistan should not be rushed.

On another note, we had our first “medical emergency” last night. We had just finished a quick mission to coordinate some election information when one of our soldiers closed his finger in a hatch on a truck. The hatch weighed a couple hundred pounds. We were unloading the trucks when the solder's buddies, staring at his smashed finger, began calling “Medic!, Medic!” Mind you, all the soldiers are trained in minor medical assistance but the first instinct is always to yell “Medic!” His fingernail was barely hanging on, so we numbed his finger and took the nail the rest of the way off. A quick X-ray showed a small fracture at the end of the digit but this, too, will heal.

I was happy to see that our first injury was somewhat self inflicted, and the girls and I were able to improvise some supplies and make do with what we had. One of my favorite sayings here is “Dance with the girl you brought,” meaning, learn to deal with what you have. It may not be perfect but you can make it work. To clarify, we soldiers are NOT short on supplies or equipment but, sometimes, what you use at home just isn't available and you learn to adapt and overcome. Having to improvise isn't mission failure but a chance to lean on your ability to think out of the box, and it only serves to make us better medics when we return home.

Enough, I am off to bed and looking forward to another day. You never know what it will bring.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

A culturally broadening experience

I just ate my first official Afghan meal here in Afghanistan. (Technically, I had my first Afghan meal when we were fed a delicious traditional meal while in training, thanks to our language instructor and family.) Tonight, some of "those guys" (the ones who wear civilian clothes) came by and invited our team to a traditional meal as a thank you for taking them along on a mission a few days ago. I have to admit I was a bit skeptical initially. While I love strong flavors—we eat a lot of curry at home—I was worried about the preparation and potential aftereffects. I can't attest to the aftereffects yet, but the meal was wonderful! We had beef and lamb, yummy warm naan bread and even some yogurt sauce. After some hesitation, I tried it and then couldn't stop dipping the naan. It was fantastic!

We enjoyed some interesting conversation as well. One of “those guys” happens to be a cultural anthropologist who has lived in this area for years. Rumor has it he fought alongside the Afghans against the Russians. This gentleman has some interesting stories to tell and a wealth of cultural knowledge to share with our team. I learned so much tonight about the pending month of Ramadan and how this can potentially affect our mission planning. Imagine waking before dawn to consume a meal and then fasting from both food and water for the rest of the day, this during the hottest month of the year. In addition to the fasting, there are also frequent religious services that can affect the ability of our team to interact with the local population.

As an Air Force nurse, I am meeting people I only envisioned previously in my imagination: people who live among the locals, not to exploit them or extract intelligence, but to learn more about their culture and ultimately help us understand the best ways to interact and effect positive, necessary change. One of the things our team is doing really well is seeking out all the resources available to us and finding ways to work together. The duplication of effort that can occur is frustrating and, as a smaller team, we need to find ways to “work smarter, not harder.” I can't tell you much about “those guys,” but I have a feeling we will continue to combine missions and share knowledge, which can only be a win-win situation, especially when the thank you comes in the form of food!

Friday, July 24, 2009

War-zone living

As I write this, I am pondering the realities of living in a war zone. It is surreal, knowing I am in the most heavily mined country in the world and planning missions that include preparing what to do in the event the trucks are attacked, yet I just finished off my "surf-n-turf" dinner with name-brand ice cream. Please do not take the foregoing statement to mean that I have developed an attitude of complacency. The reverse is true: We are faced daily with the fact that this is a war zone and fellow soldiers are giving their lives to make things different here. It is just a strange way to live.

I know many of you may wonder how we do live, and I struggle to tell you as I am always fearful of giving out information that is considered "secret." So, in broad strokes, I will try.

We sleep in wooden buildings that are divided into "private" rooms, but the walls only go three-f0urths of the way to the ceiling. Sound does travel, and if your neighbor sets her alarm for 5 a.m., you might as well get up, too. We have electrical power and can pay for Internet and cable TV that comes right into the room. The Internet is slow and unreliable, but at least I am managing to post. (So far, so good.) I didn't even splurge for the cable. Aside from the fact that I don't have a TV, I spend so little time in my room it seemed like a waste. There are several dining facilities (DFAC) on base, but all serve basically the same food. I have heard a rumor that one is better than the others, but my expectations are low. All in all, the food is fine—not spectacular, but palatable. I am thrilled with the amount of fresh fruit, and the chocolate-chip cookies are yummy!

I spend my day at the office doing any number of tasks. I do clinic work for a couple hours daily, but that is pretty flexible, depending on need or mission requirements. I spend the rest of my day doing whatever needs to get done—anything from planning a mission to sorting medical supplies to diffusing some confusion with the provincial governor. I have visited the Egyptian hospital here on base several times and am excited about the warm welcome I received and their desire to assist the people of Afghanistan.

A lot of what we are doing right now is trying to build relationships needed to complete our work over the next several months. I am constantly amazed at how many organizations—military and others—are operating in the area but how little project-related communication there is between them. We really want to build our network so we can reduce duplication of effort.

So, when do I find time for fun? At some point in the day, I usually manage a trip to the gym and, most evenings, I watch a movie or read before falling asleep so I can do it all again. My day is spent with members of my team, so I enjoy the peace and quiet that my room brings. I try to talk to Nate and the kids daily but, with their current travels, that has been hard. I find the times we do talk difficult. It makes me miss them more and the reality of the situation hits home. I guess that is the surreal part: The days become routine but then you are hit over the head with the realization that this IS a war zone and I am going to spend the next 8.5 months a long way from home! Heavy for a Friday night, but that is where my mind is today.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

New sheriff in town

Friday, we had our official transfer of authority ceremony here in Afghanistan and took over full responsibility for the reconstruction of the province. It was a traditional military ceremony presided over by a colonel, with at least one general in attendance. We stood at attention while our unit flag was unfurled (that's me above, commanding our band of warriors), saluted for the national anthem, and sang the Air Force and Army songs.

Since then, we have been busy moving offices (trying to make the most efficient use of our small space), cleaning and sorting through all the supplies left behind. The medics who work with me—known around here as "the Girls"—spent the day sorting medical supplies and stocking our medical kits. It is difficult to decide what is necessary to carry versus what is just nice to have. So far, we are finding ways to strike a good balance. Ninety-nine percent of the time, we will simply need ice packs and ibuprofen, but it's that 1 percent of the time when we need to save a life that we don't want to find our supplies lacking.

When we are not working, we are enjoying what amenities we have here. There are two gyms within a block of our living quarters, two dining halls and even a USO with big comfy chairs to relax in. There is a post exchange store with all the comforts of home and a coffee shop. (I find the coffee bitter and am thrilled to have my own coffee maker in my office and lots of good coffee left behind for me to use.) If only my family was here, I would have all the comforts of home!!

[Editor's note: Lori's Internet connection failed just as she was completing this posting, which probably explains why the photo she refers to is missing. She will add the photo when her schedule permits.]

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

First mission

Finally, all the stars align and I can blog about my Afghanistan adventures. I have been plagued by Internet connection issues, computer problems and just all-around business since arriving two weeks ago. I have so much to write about. I struggle with where to start!

I went on my first mission this week, and it was thrilling! I am happy to say we experienced no adverse events and considered the two days a complete success. We spent much of our time looking at our current engineering projects (several sections of road and some school projects) but my favorite part was playing with the children. The photo is of several children at one of our stops.

They were initially very shy but, once the camera came out, they all rushed to have a photo taken. The girls are all a little hesitant and tend to keep their distance but will creep closer as the boys become more engaged. I found getting them busy doing something with me helps break the ice. Counting was easy. I would try to remember the numbers in Dari, often getting them wrong. The children would laugh and try to teach me. I would also point at various objects and ask the word, then try to teach them the English equivalent.

The countryside is beautiful but barren. It reminds me a lot of southern Arizona, with beautiful blue sky and hidden canyons with flowing streams and trees. The living conditions are simple; often mud walls, few cars and true manual labor. We saw several wheat fields being harvested by hand and one area where the cows were being walked in a circle to separate the wheat.

I had the opportunity to meet with several doctors at the only hospital in our province, and they are very excited to work with our team. We hope to introduce a nutrition supplement for malnourished children at some point in our tenure here. It is a project that is having impressive results in other areas and the people of Kapisa would benefit greatly. There is also a physician training program here at the main base that incorporates didactic lessons with hands-on experience at all three international hospitals (American, Egyptian and Korean) and the providers were anxious to be recommended to the program.

We did have one medical emergency while staying overnight at a French base in the area. My counterpart who I am replacing (a physician assistant from California) and I were going to meet the French doctor for dinner. When we entered his clinic, we found him working on a local young man who had suffered a traumatic amputation of most of his hand. Somehow, he had put his hand into a thresher machine. The French team had stabilized him so, while my counterpart dressed the wound, the doctor and I called for help from the U.S. hospital. The goal is for the local providers to learn to care for their population, but this injury was so significant that we were able to send him to the American facility for surgery. We were thrilled to see this young man get appropriate care. It goes a long way to show the people of his village that we are there to help them.

This continues to be an amazing opportunity, and I look forward to the next nine months. I admit I miss my family terribly, but the time is flying by and, if the next 34 weeks go as fast as the first two did, I will be home before I know it. Nate and the kids are doing great and enjoying their summer travels—a much needed adventure to help their time pass quickly as well.
I promise to write more often, as long as the computer and connection cooperate!
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Saturday, July 4, 2009

I've arrived!

Hello everyone, and Happy 4th of July from Afghanistan! We left Indiana early afternoon on Monday and arrived in Germany to refuel in the early morning hours of Tuesday. After a short stop, we were again airborne and arrived in Kyrgyzstan that evening. Needless to say, the jet lag was horrible. We endured several required briefings, received our assigned follow-on flight for the next day and finally found the dining facility.

We ladies slept in a huge tent—the same size used for our dining facility in Indiana!—that held several hundred bunk beds. We were lucky! Fewer than 50 women shared the space with us and we all managed to get some sleep, but the jet lag kicked in and most of us were up within a few hours. Fortunately, there was wireless Internet and a 24-hour coffee shop, so we were set.

We left Kyrgyzstan the following evening (Wednesday) and arrived in a dusty, windy Afghanistan at dinner time. After enduring more briefings and collecting our baggage, we found our advance team waiting for us. We were so happy to see them and know our travels were over. After making a quick stop to drop baggage in our assigned “huts,” we went on a walking tour of our surroundings and found dinner.

It was interesting to observe our nation's birthday in a war zone. We celebrated by raising the American flag over our building and listening to a reading of the Declaration of Independence. We followed this up with a great barbecue hosted by the current unit. Now. it is time to get down to business as we continue to find our way around and talk to our counterparts on the current team. They have done an amazing job of managing their responsibilities in this diverse province, and we hope to do them proud as we continue their efforts.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

A way to support the troops

Remember those old WWII movies with the soldiers dancing at the USO with the lovely local ladies? Did you know the USO still exists?

They are an amazing organization and an incredible support to U.S. soldiers, sailors and airmen stationed here and all over the world. The United Service Organizations (USO) has been around since before WWII and continues to bring a touch of home to service members everywhere. They currently boast more than 130 locations throughout the world, and we have an incredible example right here at Camp Atterbury. The local USO is staffed by volunteers who provide hot coffee, cold drinks, snacks and always a smile. The building also houses two big screen TVs, pool tables, ping-pong tables, foosball, video games, board games, reading material, etc. The service is provided free of charge and is much enjoyed by all.

Another neat opportunity the USO provides: They will video-record you reading a book to your child, then give you the tape and the book to send home. I did this the first week I was here and my kids were thrilled. I hope to do it again before we head out of here.

Want to know more? Check out their website: Got a few extra pennies and wonder about a deserving organization? Send them to the USO. I can promise you the troops who benefit will appreciate it.