River of messages in Iraq

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by Virginia Wright Peterson • December 14, 2007 I am numb at the end of a week of relaying many, many emergency messages. It had been quiet around Thanksgiving. A week later, Julie and I are passing record numbers of messages for our time here.

World Views publishes stories, reflection and analysis with an international perspective and a Minnesota connection. This story comes to us from Virginia Wright-Peterson, a Minnesotan currently working for the Red Cross in Iraq. Her blog, On Deployment Now “describes my experience being deployed to Iraq with the Red Cross Services to Armed Forces (SAF). The inspiration for the name of this blog is the old WWII song “We’re In the Army Now.” I remember my Dad, who served in the Army in the 1950s, singing the first lines of this song when I was a child. He’d sing it when one of us got into something we were having second thoughts about but couldn’t back out of.”

Each one is unique: the death of an uncle who raised a serviceman in West Virginia. A wife having complications with a pregnancy while trying to care for five young children and two have the chicken pox. A sister scheduled for cardiac by-pass surgery in California. A teenage daughter has run away in Georgia. As I pass each one, I hear the names of the deceased, ill, injured or lost person and the detailed verification that is provided by a nurse, doctor, funeral director, or police officer. Each message is very individual and real.

But by the end of my shift it is like I have been sitting on the bank of a fast, rushing river full of names, diagnoses, hospitals, and funeral homes. I feel badly hours later when the serviceman calls our office to verify that he has received the message, I cannot remember if the message was about a birth, death, or illness.

In the midst of this work, some messages come through requesting that the serviceman or woman leave her post and unit in deployment to return to the States to support a family member having a bunion repaired, a tummy tucked, or a few teeth extracted. I am frustrated in the flurry of passing so many true emergencies that we have to service some messages that technically meet our definition of emergency, but look almost ridiculous in comparison to the severity of most messages.

These messages probably reflect the loneliness families are feeling, especially at the holidays with their loved ones stationed far away. And this isn’t the first deployment for most of these soldiers, most are here on their second or third deployments, and each one has been for a longer term. In the Army, the first deployments were for six months, the second deployments were a year, and now they are being assigned for fifteen months. The Marines started with six month deployments and now are assigned are for a year at a time. These multiple and extended deployments are bound to cause families to stretch out and try to get soldiers home, especially for the holidays. We may be in for a very, very busy next couple of weeks.

I stopped by the hospital this week with coworker Debby to deliver some Comfort Kits to three soldiers injured a few hours earlier by an explosion. The first soldier, Christopher, was a broad shouldered, dark haired young man who looked a lot like my future son-in-law, whose name is also Christopher. A lump grew in my throat as I thought about my Christopher safe at home in southern Minnesota, where he is finishing his teaching degree. The Christopher in the bed with dirt, perspiration, and blood dried on his forehead and arms belongs to a wife and a four year old daughter in Texas. He said he has had hardly spent time with his little girl since she was born. His leg was broken badly enough to require surgery, and he hoped they would send him back to the States to recuperate. He has served five years, and after the day’s explosion and a brush with death that killed the driver in his vehicle, he was ready for a break.

With regard to the holidays, colleague Julie and I went shopping Sunday to a spot along the front gate, which because of its proximity to the perimeter of the base requires wearing armor. So we donned our helmets and vests. And you thought holiday shopping in the states was rough. Check out the picture of us headed to “the store.”

Oh, yes – I almost forgot – we had entertainment on base. Male and female WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) wrestlers performed at COB Speicher. A couple of weeks ago the Washington Redskins cheerleaders were here to boost morale. Before that, a country singer performed. I missed all of these opportunities due to either sleeping, working, or washing my hair. My entertainment choices would be opera, symphony orchestras, a play, or a reading by a famous novelist or poet. I realize that my interests probably wouldn’t draw a large crowd here, but wrestling and cheerleaders?! Where is Bob Hope when you need him?

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