Friday, August 28, 2009

Life on the frontier

I have said all along that, here in Afghanistan, we are living in the days of the Old West, hence the nickname of our team—High Plains Drifters—and the name of my blog. The last few days, here in the province, prove that fact.

I continue to live at our forward base, where it is quieter than at headquarters, but still somewhat difficult to get much accomplished. We have one computer for business, that those of us up here share, and one phone. We attend meetings where everything is spoken in French but, thankfully, the PowerPoint slides are in English. And we attempt to do laundry in little machines that take two hours for a complete wash-dry cycle.

The worst thing? Communication home. I can e-mail but I had gotten very used to talking to my family daily and, sometimes, even twice a day. Now, I can only use Skype or buy phone credits, but I didn't bring my credit card, so that's impossible right now. Technology is conspiring against me. I can't get Skype to send my password—it seems I asked twice in 24 hours and thus violated some security system. How? I don't know. I never got a password reset, so have no clue.

The benefit? There is clean air, although it's still very dusty, and a very accommodating French medical team. While I walked around yesterday looking at our future accommodations, my medic had the chance to help with their daily Afghan sick call. And tomorrow, if all goes well, we will work together on some additional projects.

That is all from here. I return soon to headquarters where there will be decent facilities and a reliable way to phone home, but my ability to post will again decline. Such is the odd juxtaposition between these two places.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

I am still here

Hello, friends! I am still here, still in Afghanistan, still fighting the dust, wind, poor Internet connection and dysfunction of my deployed "family." I have written several posts but have been unable to upload from my personal computer, because of the non-existent connection from my room. I am online today at a MWR (Morale, Welfare and Recreation) facility at our forward base within the province. I snuck up here for a "break" from the craziness that is our headquarters at the big base where we usually live.

"Break" is a little tongue-in-cheek, as it is pretty austere up here: tent living, water rationing (for showers, not for drinking) and a very limited meal menu. You eat what they serve! But, there is a great coffee and pizza shop, the French are great hosts and the night sky is beautiful. We are allowed lunch in the French chow hall and I was shocked at the big rounds of cheese just there for the cutting. I had Gorgonzola brie and Havarti, spread on local naan bread! I could get used to this life!

While the team runs missions into some of the districts near here, I am continuing to network with our French counterparts, and will try to do clinic with the French docs tomorrow morning. Do you remember the local national who was injured in the thrasher machine in July? The American surgeons were unable to save his hand but he did survive the incident. (Infection was a very real possibility.) The hand was amputated and a skin graft done. I hear that the site looks good. I hope to see it tomorrow when he returns for a dressing change.

That is all from here. I see Nate is up so I am going to try to Skype with him before I max my 30-minute time limit.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

A man's world

Have I written yet that I am living in a man's world? Some days I don't notice and, on other days, it smacks me right across the face. Those of you who have spent any time in or around the Army are rolling your eyes. Of course, it's a man's world and we women are outnumbered. The Army still has career fields that are exclusively male and all of our security force here on the PRT [Provincial Reconstruction Team] are members of one such career field. I guess it just still catches me off guard, since the U.S. Air Force and the medical field, specifically, seem to have a better balance of men and women.

Here on our team, fewer than 10 percent of the organization are women, and I am the only female officer. We ladies stick together; none of us are too “girly” and we manage to fill the “little sister” role pretty well. We climb in and out of our big trucks without help, lug our 30 pounds-plus medic bags around and clean our own weapons. I even helped unload ammo from the trucks the other night after a long mission. These things do not bother any of us and they actually make us feel like valued members of the team. We can carry our own weight and pull duties with the men, thank you very much!

So how does it hit me in the face? There are portable toilets here where the seats are on a spring to stay in the “up” position.They're still easier to deal with than the ones that are just a hole to stand over. I won't even get started on that. Then, I was told the other day that there is a “discussion going around” that I shouldn't engage in talks or carry out what we call key leader engagements with senior Afghan leaders in our province, most of whom are men. Why? Because I am a woman and they don't respect women like westerners do. My response? “Reeeally? Huh. Well, let's go see the governor!” So we went to see him and the meeting was fine. Now, mind you, I will never meet alone with any male Afghan officials; my security and interpreters would never let that happen. They are pretty protective, which, to be honest, is where the being-a-woman-in-a-man's world thing is sometimes nice.

With the pending elections, it will be interesting to see what changes happen in our province. For example, here the governor is appointed by the president, not elected by the people. There are representatives in the province who are elected, and this is part of the pending process, as well. Two of these positions are held by women and they are true heroes; they must walk a very fine line between being a respectable Afghan women and promoting themselves as serving the people. I look forward to meeting them soon and telling them how much I respect them for their desire to serve their people under such scrutiny. They are truly finding their way in a man's world, so how can I complain about my own battles?

Friday, August 7, 2009

Deployment blues

I am singing the blues tonight so, rather than complain to my teammates, I will send it into cyberspace! First of all, I miss my kids and husband. They are having the vacation of a lifetime, seeing national parks and family all over the West Coast. They are visiting places Nate and I enjoyed when we first met, places we visited as we got to know each other.

They spent a day in San Francisco, where we got engaged. We only lived an hour from the city but, back then, Treasure Island was still a Navy base and we could stay there for a steal! We would take friends and families on tours all over the city when they came to visit. I remember taking my grandparents on one such day trip. We all had a great time! So, as I sit here in my dusty little room, I know my family is happy, but they are also storing up memories that don’t include me, and that hurts.

Next on my list of complaints? I miss good food!!! They do try here. The food is plentiful and likely as well as can be done when you are cooking for several thousand people every day, but I just miss the flavors from home: the meatloaf with provolone and fresh basil, the curry of every style, and a good steak with fresh green beans on the side. I miss skim milk. Here, milk comes in a box. It might be 2 percent, but I can’t read the writing. I miss real creamer; the powdered stuff just doesn't cut it on a daily basis.

What else, you ask? I miss technology. I can't just pick up the phone and call my parents, something I do several times a week at home. I struggle to post. The Internet connection in my room goes down every two minutes, and I pay for that luxury! I miss curling up on the couch to watch HGTV or falling asleep to Leno, although I hear now it is Conan? How is that working out?

I could come up with more: the wind, dust and dirt; the very small room and long walk to the bathroom; the smells that come from the bathroom and the fact that, for several days, I didn't get a hot shower.

But, for most of my complaints, I can also see the flip side. If I was at home, Nate and the kids never would have gone on the trip, and think how good that first home-cooked meal will taste next spring. Without technology, there’s more time for reading. At least we have a bathroom and a shower; it could be pit toilets and a bucket.

Enough with the blues. I am off to bed with the good book Rachael brought me—thanks, Rach!—and looking forward to a hot shower tomorrow. (There is hope!) And, did I mention that some days I manage to find Lucky Charms for breakfast? That, and knowing how much love and how many prayers are sent to us every day, will keep me going forward.

Thank you, everyone!!