Why Am I Here?

The real reason I am here is to work in the Role 3 Multinational Military Unit. We spent two days learning about the Trauma process which culminated in a Mass Casualty Drill. Some of the current staff members actually played the part of the patients and were painted to look like they had bruises and wounds. My team had to care for a detainee who was brought in with his hands taped at the wrists. We have to cover our names on our uniforms with tape and only call each other by our first names when caring for detainees.  We do not want them to know our last names. While they are in the Trauma ER and anytime they are being transported throughout the hospital, we put ear protection and eye protection on so that they cannot see the layout of the hospital or overhear anything that could be used against us.

We were then given our assignments throughout the hospital. I have officially been assigned to the ICU, but we are constantly available to assist in the Trauma ER as well if needed. It is a 12 bed ICU with teams of 5 nurses on each shift. We do 12 hour shifts. Half of the teams do nights for 6 weeks while the other half does days, and then everyone switches. My team is currently 3 weeks into their night rotation, so I will start on nights and then go to days in 3weeks.

ICU bed

Right now I am going crazy. I have been on days since the 22nd and had to do my first night shift on the 28th, needless to say, I didn’t sleep but 1 ½ hours the next day. Then I crashed and slept from midnight until 11:30 am the next day. Now I have had two days off and do not go back to work until tomorrow night, so I am back on a sleep at night, awake all day schedule. Because most everyone else is working it is really boring around here with not much social interaction until dinner time. There just isn’t much to do around here and trying to stay awake all night when you are off is pretty much impossible. I can’t stay awake all night in my room because my roommate is trying to sleep. The Moral and Welfare (MWR) building is open all night and has television and board games and is a place where you could stay up and read, but it is kind of a far walk and women are not advised to walk around on base after dark by themselves, so I don’t really feel safe to go there. I have to keep reminding myself that I can do anything temporarily. I only have to do 26 weeks of nights, 6 mos total.At least it’s not permanent.

Aaah! My roommate finally came home from work and we ran into a couple other people who were not ready to go to bed yet, so we decided to go exploring. We walked around the boardwalk, only to find that everything closes between 9 and 10pm except for one coffee shop that is open 24/7. We then walked down the road to the MWR, but there was a group of guys practicing heavy metal on their instruments very loudly. Between their obnoxious raucous and the horrible smell of sewer wafting in from the Poop Pond, we couldn’t take it for much more than 5 minutes. The Poop Pond is the open-to-air sewer treatment system right in the middle of the U.S. zone here on base. If the wind is blowing in the right direction and hard enough, you can smell it in our dorms, which is probably almost a mile away. But the MWR is about 2 blocks from there so it smells in that area most of the time. I feel bad for the people who live in the tents near there. The U.S. PX (military store) actually sells t-shirts with the Poop Pond on them that says something like, “Just another day at the Poop Pond Café.”

4th World Country

I have to say that KAF (Kandahar Airfield)  is a 4th World Country because it is unlike any place you could possibly imagine. There are people of all nationalities here. The military personnel are U.S., Canadian, British, French, Dutch, German and Australian. The civilians are local nationals and other people from all over the world. There is also a plethora of cars, trucks, vans, Humvees, MRAPs and bicycles. I am actually more afraid of getting run over by a vehicle than I am of getting hit by a rocket. Thus, we are required to wear our glow-belts with decreased visibility. I am actually glad now for my bright, ugly yellow PT uniform shirt because I know the drivers of the vehicles can see me better!

As far as the terrain, I think I saw a mountain range maybe the second day I was here, back behind the airstrip, but then a sandstorm rolled in and is just now starting to move out. It looks like it is always foggy here, but it is actually the baby-powder fine sand (which looks more like dirt than sand) floating around in the air. I can just imagine everyone coming down with chronic respiratory problems down the road from breathing all this stuff in day after day. However, it has been much cooler because the sand blocks out the sun, so that has been a relief. It is actually nice out at night, probably mid 80s.

Our dorms are near the main center of activity, the Board Walk. Here you can find stores that are run by local national and several operated by people from the Philippines. Unfortunately they charge a fortune for everything. There is also the T.G.I. Friday’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken, aFrench bakery, a pizza place, a coffee shop and a Kabob place on the boardwalk. The boardwalk forms a square around the perimeter of a large open dirt field where there is a basketball court, a volleyball court, a softball field and a hockey field. Usually these activities occur in the evening when it is cooler.

Boardwalk

Care Packages

Since people are asking what they can send, here is a list. The only things not allowed are alcohol and liquids of any kind.

Things not available here that would be appreciated:
Small trash bags
Sticky notes
Extra fine point Sharpie pens
Splenda
Secret Deodorant Sheer Mineral
Healthy non-perishable snacks
Kashi bars

Other nice things:
iTunes gift cards
Barnes and Noble gift cards
A set of twin sheets
Chapstick
Toothbrushes

If you want my address, please e-mail me at ktpenn11@gmail.com to request it as I cannot post it on my blog for security reasons. Thank you all for your support!

Trepidation

Saturday cont.:

I can’t quite describe what it was like to see approximately 140 Navy medical personnel, plus a few civilians and other miscellaneous people, packed into a C17 plane. A C17 is not like a commercial plane, it is all open and you can see the innards of the plane. There is a line of seats that runs along each wall of the plane and then seven seats across the middle in each row. There was almost no leg room and I had to put my feet on top of my carry-on because there is not much room under the seats. There are no overhead bins because there is no dropdown ceiling like in the commercial planes.

We were told the flight would be about 3.5 hours long and that we would not have to put our body armor and helmet on until we began the approach to the runway, so many people just slept the majority of the flight. It was quiet, for sure, and not much conversation was taking place as I think everyone was feeling a sense of trepidation about what the future would hold over the next couple hours, especially when it came time to land the plane in a combat zone, to what type of experiences the next six months will bring to our lives. My room-mate started telling me that shedidn’t think she would be able to sit all cramped up in the seats like this for 3 hours and stated that she wished she had some valium. She kept squirming in her seat and finally I told her to take off her weapon because it would make more room in the seat for her. After she did that and we gotour carry-ons situated a little better, she calmed down. I listened to Sting on my iPod to try to calm my anxious feelings.

Just as the Air Force personnel had said, at around the 3.5 hour mark, we were told to don our body armor and helmets. Then the lights were switched to a darker, red bulb that made theairplane feel a little ominous. We were informed that the purpose of the red lights was to make it more difficult for the enemy to see as we approached the airfield.

Everyone was quiet and when someone spoke, then tended to speak in a whisper. As we began descending, the plane actually sped up and began to shift direction approximately every 10-15 seconds; this is to make it more difficult target for anti-aircraft artillery. Because there are only very small windows about 6 feet off the floor of the plane, we could not see the approach and just had to wait until we felt the giant bird suddenly hit the runway. Then an ear-aching surge was heard as the engines were revved to help slow the plane down. We came in at such a high speed, it felt like forever before the plane finally slowed down. I can’t imagine how long that runway must be. It took a long time for the plane to taxi in and, in the meantime, everyone continued to remain relatively quiet. Once we came to a stop and the voice over the intercom announced, “Thank you for choosing to fly with the U.S. Air Force on your trip to Afghanistan as we know you have so many other options.” Everyone finally relaxed a little, laughed and then clapped for getting us safely on the ground.

We all filed into a very old building with sections of the plaster missing, exposing the underlying brick. Not sure if the damage was war-related or time-related. We were told that this building was where the Taliban held their last stand before they lost control of the government in Afghanistan. Now it is the headquarters for Kandahar Airfield, referred to around here as KAF, pronounced like the word “calf” but without the letter ‘l.’ It also serves as the airport terminal. Sorry, but no pictures allowed.

After waiting for 40 of our people to assist with loading the palates of baggage onto two trucks, we were loaded up once more into old rundown tour buses and taken to the NATO Dorms where we will be living for the next six months. I noticed groups of people sitting out at picnic tables, playing cards and chatting in a language I didn’t recognize. As I was walking toward the buildings, suddenly I heard a very loud siren coming over loud speakers. Immediately the people sitting at the picnic tables jumped up and began running inside the building closest to me and the other people in my group. A man held the door open and told us to quickly get inside, so we followed him. We all crammed into the hallway, still wearing our body armor.

We were told we were hearing the alarm that goes off if a rocket is detected breaching KAF airspace. We were told that once you hear the alarm, you have 2-3 seconds to either hit the deck and cover your head or get inside the Dorms. The NATO Dorms are supposedly rocket resistant. After about 3 minutes, because we had run into a male Slovakian dormitory and because most of us were women, we were directed to, quickly, go back outside and walk across into the U.S./Canadian female dormitory.

We had a brief in Kuwait prior to departing as well as another brief on the plane ride over about what to do in case of a rocket attack, but I never expected to experience one less than ½ an hour after arriving! Luckily no one was injured during this attack. About 15 minutes after the sirens went off, an announcement came over the loudspeaker stating, “All clear. All clear. All clear.” Then it was back outside as if nothing had happened. We were immediately put to work forming our assembly line to, guess what, unload the seabags and rucksacks.

Once we were done unloading the trucks, one of the Chiefs responsible for handing out keys to the new Navy arrivals, shouted out the names of those people who had rooms immediately available in the dorms. About 30 people had to temporarily stay in another area on base in tents. Because we have to go through some sort of orientation and transition period here before the people we are replacing can leave, they move “non-essential” personnel into tents to free up rooms for “essential personnel,” those that work in the Trauma ER, OR and ICU. However, they also let the “essential personnel” that will be leaving but whom are still working in those areas to remain in the NATO dorms until they leave. They refer to the process of leaving KAF as “ripping out.” So, until they “rip out,” the people slotted to move into their rooms have to stay in tents.

Although I know that it’s important to remain flexible, I really wanted to be able to move into my room right away and sleep in a real bed and take a real shower in a bathroom that has sinks, toilets and showers all in the same room. I was tired of having to use the hot-box porta-potties which are also too small for a uniform-wearing, gun-toting person, even someone of my size. Every time you have to go to the bathroom you worry about your gun dropping into the urinal while you are squatting over the toilet. And when you come out you have sweat streaming down your face. Hopefully your cover (hat) or sunglasses haven’t fallen on the floor by accident either or else you will have to disinfect them with hand sanitizer.

My roommate and I waited anxiously to hear either one of our names called. The Chief seemed to be calling off names in alphabetical order, but he went right through the p’s and on to the q’s and r’s. My heart sank. But then, suddenly, he called out my room-mate’s last name, which was at the end of the alphabet, and then mine with hers. We were so happy, we gave each other a high five and walked up to the table to get our keys.

The NATO dormitories are the nicest structures on the entire base, besides the hospital. They areset up just like a college dormitory with two people to a room and the bathrooms down at the end of the hallway. We each have a desk, a bed, a nightstand with a lamp and a large locker/closet. But we were starving and hadn’t eaten since we were back in Kuwait almost 10 hours earlier, so we were all on a mission to find someplace with food. There is one DFAC (dining facility) that is open from 11:30 pm until 3:30 am, so we all went there to grab something to eat. Once our bellies were full we went back to our dorms, pulled out our sleeping bags and crashed for three hours before having to get up to report for Hospital Orientation in the morning.

Pictures of my dorm room.

Base of Despair

Friday:

I feel sorry for anyone that has to stay at Camp Virginia more than a few days. What a horrible place. It has been 120 degrees and it is so flat and sandy. All the structures on the base are brown or dark green and covered with so much sand that they pretty much look brown as well.  I couldn’t wait to get out of there.

Bathrooms

Today all we had to do was wait for an Administrative meeting in the afternoon, so I went to breakfast and then went to buy an internet card in order to use the wi-fi in our tent. Since there were rumors that we might fly out at midnight, I also began packing my stuff back up. The wi-fi didn’t work very well, so I just hung out in the tent relaxing on my cot and working on updating my blog.

In the meeting we were briefed on the rules and expectations we would be required to follow once in Kandahar. We also filled out paperwork in order to ensure that we would get paid. Lastly, we were briefed on transportation plans to Kandahar. We were not given a flight time, for security reasons, but were told to have all our gear ready to load up on the truck at 0930 because we were going to be bussed over to another base where we would fly out on a military aircraft. So, we made our way one more time across the base of despair to eat one last time in the Kuwait DIFAC (dining facility), then back to shower, and finish packing. I was also finally able to get online briefly to update my blog and e-mail Thomas to let him know I would be heading to Kandahar soon.

Saturday:

In the miserable 120 degree heat, once again we formed an assembly line in order to get all the gear back on a semi-truck. I am definitely building some muscle on this deployment, just from all the baggage loading we have had to do. After being bussed over to another base where there was an airfield, we had to go through a flight safety brief about when to wear our body armor, etc. Then it was back out to the truck to unload it and place the bags on palettes that would then be loaded into the back of the plane. It’s not like flying commercially where someone else loads all the baggage for you.

Once everything was loaded, we had to wait in a large building that resembled a barn on the inside for the call to board busses again out to the flight line. Despite having been given several briefs about this flight, we still didn’t know quite what to expect. We waited in the barn-like structure with anxious anticipation, munching on chips and drinking Gatorade provided free of charge. Then they called for our group to load up on the busses out to the flight line. Our last few moments before heading into the combat zone . . .

Waiting for take off . . .

And We’re Off

Wednesday:

At 14:15 Eastern Standard Time, Ft Dix Class 071910B Role 3 Military Medical Unit (MMU) Kandahar took off in a very large commercial plane to fly across the ocean. Taking off was difficult for me, knowing that I won’t be back to the states for such a long time.  I called Thomas just before leaving and then I started to cry. My roommate was crying too after she talked to her husband. But then it was back to business. The USO at the airport fed us lunch prior to boarding the plane. They had tons of food and snacks for over 150 people!

The first leg of the flight was almost 7 ½ hours long. They actually showed three movies and served us two meals. A lot of people just slept, but I wasn’t able too, probably because I was anxious of about what was to come. We had a 2 hour lay over in Germany where I bought some good German chocolate. I was able to purchase some wi-fi time and Skype with my sister, so that was nice! Then it was back on the plane and another 5 hours to Kuwait City. This time I finally slept a little bit.

Thursday:

As we flew into Kuwait, all I saw was a dusty haze and a lot of sand. I could see a small city with small sky scrapers at the edge of a body of water, but none of it looked appealing. I kept thinking, “How could anyone stand to live here?”

We were herded off the plane and into buses like cattle. The buses were run down tour buses, surprisingly of the Mercedes brand. There were dark curtains drawn over the windows that served two purposes, one was to help keep the heat out and the other was for security purposes, so that no one could see that the bus was full of military personnel. Each seat had a small air condition vent in the ceiling that put out just enough cool air to make it tolerable. I had to keep adjusting it so it would blow just right in my face.

After sitting in the parking lot for 40 minutes while we waited for our luggage to be unloaded from the plane, we were finally driven about 10 minutes away to a tent where we were instructed to wait for one hour until the local police arrived to escort us on the 2 hour drive to Camp Virginia. About 170 of us had to all fit under the tent that provided only shade, but no relief from the 120 degree heat. Even the wind that was blowing was hot and I felt like my hands were burning. Luckily they had large ice chests full of water for us to drink. It is amazing how quickly your body begins to feel dehydrated in that type of heat.

Eventually, I decided to make my way back to the bus to see if I could move my extremely overstuffed backpack down under the bus so I didn’t have to risk cutting off the circulation to my legs by holding it on my lap for two hours. Surprisingly, I found the bus full of several napping sailors and the air conditioning running, so I decided to join my bus mates. Luckily I had kept my travel pillow out, so I was able to sleep since I had been going almost 20 hours now on only about 2 hours of sleep. The two hour bus ride through the desert of Kuwait went by quickly for me because I think I slept the whole way.

Around 4:30 pm Kuwait time, we finally pulled into Camp Virginia. Camp Virginia reminds me a lot of the desert scene from the first Star Wars movie, on Tattooine where Luke Skywalker grew up; mostly desert with a few dome-like structures here and there. We spend the first 45 minutes unloading the large semi truck that carried all our seabags and rucksacks. This part was pretty brutal as it was still around 115 degrees and most of the bags were pretty heavy, but we worked well as a team to get it done.

After we sat through a brief on the location of base amenities and the rules about no drugs, no alcohol, no porn and no sex, we were able to get settled into our temporary living quarters. We have been told that we will probably only be here for 24-36 hours. All of the females, enlisted and officers, are in one tent shaped like an airplane hangar with cots as our beds. Luckily there is air conditioning that keeps the tent at a cool 70 degrees!

Once I had my bed made up, several of us decided to venture out and find our way to the DFAC (dining facility) to eat dinner. Someone told us it was only a 10 minute walk, but it was more like twenty as our lodging is located on the far corner away from everything. After eating tacos for dinner, I made my way over the USO tent which is actually very impressive. The power here is run off very large generators, so the lighting is different around here. It reminded be a little of the casinos in Las Vegas because there are street lamps lighting many areas of the USO. There are multiple sections of the USO depending on what type of activity you want to participate in. There are large overstuffed leather chairs everywhere and televisions playing various movies. Ferris Beuler’s Day off was playing in one corner. There are video game sections as well and in another section, people were learning to macramé with 50/50 cord. The USO provides 30 minutes a day to place free phone calls back  to the states to each person who is willing to wait the 1 ½ it takes to reach your turn. I immediately placed my name on a list so that I could call Thomas to let him know I had made it to the middle east. In the meantime I visited the Exchange market to get some ibuprofen for my sore muscles after all the heavy lifting of luggage today. I then went back to the USO, enjoyed some free, cold, bottled water and watched Ferris Beuler until it was my turn to call Thomas.

After my phone call, I walked back to the female tent after almost getting lost several times. Everything in the desert looks the same and all the tents here are the color of the desert, so there are not many landmarks to use to find your way around. But, my battle buddy and I eventually made it back. Everyone is required to walk around base with at least one battle buddy, for safety reasons.

I showered up in one of the shower trailers and then climbed into my sleeping bag on my cot. I so looking forward to trying to finally get some decent sleep, however when the lights were switched off, instead of darkness, a bright green glow illuminated the entire tent from the exit sign over the door. On top of that, multiple people got up several times during the night to go to the bathroom. When you have to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, one has to put your socks and shoes on because the bathrooms are outside, and the cots in here squeak while your are doing this. Then at 3 am, several people started getting up and gathering their toiletries and towels to head to the showers. I pointed out to them that it was only 3 am and they refused to believe me, thinking it was really 6 am. Two of them left the tent only to come back a few minutes later stating that I was correct. So much for a good night’s rest.

Last Few Days in the States with Thomas

Saturday:

Poor Thomas had to hang by himself all day while I went and did the walking portion of Land Navigation. It was hot, we had to wear all our body armor and walk about 2.5 miles total,

but my team was the 2nd team to complete the two required courses. The first one involved using a compass to find our way to various points. The second one, we were just given a map of the terrain and had to find our way based on environmental landmarks on the map. It was prettychallenging because there were no trail and we had cut our own path

through the woods most of the time, but it felt very rewarding to finally make it to the end point. Then we had to sit and wait for all the other groups to come in. Notice the group relaxing around the green Camaro (one of the Army instructor’s vehicle). I was getting really antsy because I knew Thomas was waiting.

Finally everyone was done and I was able to quickly pack up some things, meet up with Thomas and get on our way to Phili! We stayed at the Residence Inn in City Central with a big comfy King size bed. Oh, it was so nice to stay in a nice hotel room with a clean bathroom! It was also really nice spending time with Thomas. We walked around through Rittenhouse Square and then had a pre-dinner appetizer at an outside table just off the square where we were able to talk and people watch. Later in the evening we ate a fabulous dinner at a Cuban restaurant right near our hotel. We actually didn’t stay out too late because we were both tired and just wanted to enjoy being together.

Sunday:

So nice to just sleep in for once! We had a very relaxing morning and then we headed out for the Old City to see some historical sites. First we came across Carpenter’s Hall where Congress met for their very first meetings. Outside of the hall in front the country’s second bank, actors dressed in colonial attire were teaching tourists how to march and carry guns as if they were in the military preparing to fight in the Revolution.

We stopped off at an Indian restaurant and ate at the buffet because we were starving. Then we made our way to Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell. Tour tickets for Independence Hall were sold out, so we only got to see the building where the Declaration of Independence was signed from the outside. But the Liberty Bell was free and did not require a ticket, so we were able to see that exhibit. It is much small than I thought it would be, but I thought it was a nice thing to see before deploying to Afghanistan.

Sunday night we had Sushi because I know I won’t get good, fresh Sushi for a long time and then we found ourselves settling in at a local Irish bar. We stayed there talking and people watching until almost 2 am, then back to our comfortable hotel bed.

Monday:

We asked for a late check-out so that we could sleep in a little and have time to go eat breakfast. We found a hole-in-the-wall called Pinky’s where we had your typical greasy spoon breakfast of eggs, bacon, hash browns and toast. Then we just walked around the neighborhoods admiring the row houses. However, it started to get really hot and so we decided to pack up and head back to Ft. Dix.

This time I made sure to book a room at the All American Inn at McGuire Airforce Base to ensure that we didn’t have to stay in a skanky hotel again. The room was great and only $39 a night! We went shopping at the Exchange store and the Uniform Shop as well. Thomas was like a little boy in a toy store and we ended up buying him a really big knife for a great price.

Monday evening we drove to Pine Beach, NJ where my good friend Danielle and her husband live. Danielle and I worked together in the ICU in San Diego back in 2002 and have stayed in touch ever since. They invited us over for dinner and presented us with a phenomenal gourmet meal of grilled fish, steamed clams, shrimp and tomato salad. I also got to savor my last alcoholic beverage, a really good red wine. I also enjoyed hanging with Danielle’s four cats.

Tuesday:

Tuesday morning was difficult because Thomas and I had to say goodbye. We stopped at the Exchange store and mailed a package of things back to Seattle and then had bagels for breakfast. We both started crying over the bagels and had to quickly finish eating because there were too many people around from my unit. Thomas took me back to where my barracks were located and we sat in the car for a while longer, hugging and crying. Then we hugged and cried once more as I started to walk back to the barracks. We were both very sad to have to say goodbye for so long. Thomas then left to go back to D.C. to see his family for one night.

I, on the other hand, had to go pack up all my things and thoroughly clean out my room and locker. We had to lug all our seabags and rucksacks out to a large semi truck they had waiting for us to fill up. We formed an assembly line of people and quickly developed a system of rolling the bags so no one person had to carry too much of the weight because it would roll on by so quickly. It was amazing how quickly we were able to load about 150 rucksacks (large framed backpacks) and probably around 400 seabags! I felt very relieved to have all the Army training behind me and felt a sense of accomplishment as well that I had made it through some of the most physically demanding activities I have ever participated in throughout my entire life. I was also looking forward to finally moving on to the next phase of my deployment and getting over to the middle east.