Sleepless in Iraq

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by Virginia Wright Peterson, 2/9/08 • I haven’t slept soundly since I arrived at COB Speicher. No one I have talked to has either. A steady stream of Apache, Blackhawk, and Chinook helicopters make their landing descent over our CHUs. The roar of the engines comes so close the CHU shakes. I am convinced some of the pilots are having a contest to see who can fly the closest to the roofs of our CHUs without hitting them.

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.”

In addition to the aeronautical disruptions, the CHU walls must be made of cardboard. We can hear into each others’ rooms with startling acuity. Respiratory illnesses, like the sinus infection I had last week, are prevalent here, so we constantly wake each other up coughing, blowing our noises, and sneezing. We hear more than the loud noises coming from each others CHU’s; we can hear each other roll over in bed.

My colleague Nicole in Baghdad at Camp Liberty reports that UXOs (Unexploded Ordinance Devices) are often brought onto base there to detonate under more secure conditions. They tend to detonate them while she is sleeping. She reports that the she still jumps when they go off even though she knows what they are. And then she falls back to sleep.

All of this sleeplessness or unsound sleep causes bags under our eyes and contributes to a malaise and irritableness sometimes encountered on base among civilians and service members. The best way to avoid being grouchy is to stay focused on the mission, which has it rewards.

This week I passed several messages that caught my attention. The first was for a serviceman whose thirteen year old son was in the process of being medically airlifted from his small town in California to a children’s hospital in Las Vegas because of a respiratory problem that might require intubation.

Another case came from a mother who stated that she received a call from her son, a deployed soldier. During the call, he yelled that he had been shot and the line went dead. This seemed very unlikely. Unfortunately, we get calls like this that turn out to be pranks. This one was not a prank. We checked through the army casualty office in Washington DC whose job it is to notify next-of-kin. They had no record of any incident involving her son.

Just to be sure, we checked with his unit over here, and sure enough, it was true. The command told us that the unit was in a remote area where the soldiers were given the opportunity to call their families on a satellite phone when a sniper opened fire. Fortunately, the soldier was not killed, but was being transported to a hospital for treatment. As a mother myself, my heart went out to that woman, who heard her son being shot. I can’t imagine what the next hours were like for her until she received word that her son was still alive.

The last case relates to the floods and tornados in the States. We received a message from a family indicating that their house had been terribly damaged in the tornados in Kentucky. The family was okay and under the care of the local Red Cross, but they wanted the serviceman to know what had happened and how he could reach them at their temporary housing. The soldier was a member of a special forces team, and they are tough to find over here. They move a lot and their locations aren’t highly publicized, to say the least. Our Baghdad office had transferred the case to me, thinking the team fell under a command I cover.

I must have made a dozen phone calls when finally I got a hold of a first sergeant, on a phone with a terrible echo. They were way out somewhere, on FOB Hope, I think. There was significant echo and delay on the line. The sergeant took the message, noted that they were a small unit. He knew the soldier and said he’d get the message to him right away. I really felt like this time I was talking to someone on the front line, not someone in a safe, semi-comfortable S1 office like I usually do.

At the end of our brief conversation, the sergeant said, “Thanks, we appreciate everything the Red Cross does for us.” That meant a lot to me; it made making the twelve calls to find them more than worth it, to know that the serviceman was going to get the message about his family’s situation and to know that what we do is appreciated, especially by the teams in remote, hard to find locations.

I called our Baghdad office to let them know I was able to pass the message on this case since they had sent it to me unsure. After I updated them, I thanked them for something. Nicole replied, “You, betcha.” I felt like I was home in Minnesota for a few moments, where I hear “You, betcha” all of the time. She reminded me of the good friends we have become while working over here.

Maybe I’ll sleep better tonight. I’ve found that watching movies helps. My current favorite is “Madagascar,” the animated film about four animals who break out of the New York City zoo in an attempt to seek adventure in the “wild.” I like it because it is funny and maybe it parallels what I am doing out here. The movie is a great tribute to the value of friendship when urbanized beings take to the wild and makes me thankful I’m out here with some really good people even if we do get a little cranky from time to time.

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