Category Archives: Deployment Retrospective

Something to Think/Write About

2015-09-10 09.27.32Last night when it was time to read stories before bed, my daughter found a book long hidden in our collection.  I had gone downstairs to tuck her in and when I saw it at the top of her stack, I said “Oh, you found ‘The Librarian of Basra’.  Did you like it?”

She answered, “I loved it!  I am feeling so many emotions from this book right now!”  Wow.  I had never seen her respond to a book like this before. She asked many questions about it, so I promised to find out as much as possible for her about the librarian of Basra.

I hadn’t looked at this book in a long time.  It was discovered in the most unexpected of places, a scratch and dent store in Independence, Missouri.  I was cruising the book section, not really looking for anything at all, and then I found this book.  I stood in the store and read it, not quite believing the great fortune I’d stumbled upon.  Reading the story made me feel connected once again to people I had known and lost — friends on the other side of the world who I never would have met had it not been for a war.  People who did nothing to deserve the wrath that had been raining down on them.

The story is written and illustrated by American author Jeanette Winter, known for creating vibrant true tales about real life heroes in a way that is palatable for younger audiences. This story is about Alia Muhammad Baqer, the chief librarian in Basra, forced to give up her building and livelihood when the governor decides to use it as his new headquarters. Baqer’s courage and tenacity saves around 30,000 rare and valuable books from destruction when the library burns to the ground during the early days of the Iraq war.  Although she cannot save every book, Baqer’s efforts prevent the entire collection from being lost and she becomes a local hero.  At great risk of her own safety, Baqer chooses to rescue knowledge, because as a librarian, she knows how intrinsic books are to the survival of her culture.

American cartoonist Mark Alan Stamaty, also depicts Baqer’s story in a graphic black and white comic book format, also child-friendly.  In the reviews section of Stamaty’s book, a reviewer by the name of Judy K Polhemus had this to say:  “As a girl, Alia had read about the Mongol invasion of Iraq and the burning of the Baghdad Library. She equates the burning of a library and its books with the destruction of the culture of her country. Burn a library and you burn a collective recorded memory.  Alia singlehandedly assumes the responsibility… She stuffs her purse and loads her arms under her shawl and walks out, loads her car, returns for another load.  City and military officials who now occupy the library, daring the enemy to bomb their library, pay her no heed.  She fills her car.

Night after night she comes home with a car full of books.  Her husband, bless him, unloads them into a closet, then guest room, then into other rooms.  (I’m a librarian and understand her distress and need to save the books!).  Then neighbors and friends, and those who hear about the effort, and then many other people help rescue the books.  The only books intentionally ignored are those about Saddam Hussein.”

Further research cemented my respect for Baqer, her courage, her passion for books, her legitimate concern that the destruction of the library would mean severe damage to civilization itself.  In Pam McAllister’s blog post Lawbreaking Librarians: A Legacy of Courage, Alia is the featured heroine who rescues a critical piece of her culture in the face of “the war against books”.  Not too difficult to imagine Baqer’s source of courage.  She is a book lover after all, and to her, books are the most important tools for building society.  Knowledge is power.

On women’s history site A Mighty Girl, Winter was asked in an interview how she made her stories, often about heroes in nearly impossible circumstances, accessible to young readers, and whether these stories are even historically valid to these readers.  Winter asserts that her works, especially ‘The Librarian of Basra’ depict stories in an “even-handed” manner, through strong, colorful graphics and easy to understand language, allowing young people to find meaning that they can comprehend.  Winter also states that despite the academic argument that children care little for history, it is possible to cultivate love of learning through “good, accurate story-telling”.

Illustration of Alia Baqer dreaming of peace and a new library, from Jeanette Winter's 'The Librarian of Basra'.

Illustration of Alia Baqer dreaming of peace and a new library, from Jeanette Winter’s ‘The Librarian of Basra’.

This morning I was well equipped with several sources to back up the story of the Librarian of Basra and give my daughter the information she wanted.  I know that she is a book lover like myself, and she also cares deeply for others, so she would find what my discoveries quite valuable.  We had a nice talk before school.  I showed her a photograph I found of Alia Baqer in 2013, on the tenth anniversary of her mission to save the books.  She is now an old woman, sitting at a desk, working with a large hard cover book.  She looks like she is happy and at peace.  This photograph made my daughter very happy.  It made me happy and sad.  It’s difficult to explain how books and stories can create common bonds from across the globe, but I hope that somehow, Alia Baqer can know that her story inspired a little girl in the United States to be a courageous person.

My daughter asked me about my experience in Iraq.  I showed her my collection of photographs — friends and places once visited and long since left behind.  I told her some of the stories of heroes I met there.  I told her why people were scared of Saddam Hussein, and why the bombs were falling on Basra when the librarian was trying to save all the books.  I explained to her why it is important to save knowledge and tell stories.  She gave me a hug and said “I love you Mom” when she left for school.  I looked at all my books and smiled.



I wrote this post because I was so touched by my daughter’s interest in the story of Alia Baqer.  I have noticed that, as Ms. Winter asserts, children really are fascinated by history.  Effective tools, such as children’s books like ‘The Librarian of Basra’ and Mr. Stamaty’s true life comics, can help us teach important history lessons to younger generations.  More importantly, we as parents and educators also need to have conversations with children and answer their questions so that our history as people is not swept under the heavy, musty rugs of time.  


Links for more information about the librarian of Basra:

Iraqi Librarian Saved 30,000 Books During Invasion

Photo of the Librarian of Basra

Lawbreaking Librarians: A Legacy of Courage

Too Soon or Censorship?

Harcourt Books Interview with Jeanette Winter


Ten Years a Veteran

Last week was special for my husband and for me.  To us, Veteran’s Day is as festive as Christmas, Easter, our wedding anniversary, and various family members’ birthdays.  I have now been a veteran for ten years, a little longer than I’ve been married, making this a milestone year in many ways.  I’ve always been reluctant to bask in the adoration of well wishers on Veteran’s Day, but my husband loves free lunches, so he was impatient to get me out of the house.

“Are you ready to go?”  he shouted into the bathroom while I was still shampooing my hair in the shower.

“Absolutely.” I yelled back.   “I think I’ll just go like this.  Naked and sopping wet.”

“Okay, I’m in the truck then.”

We were going to hike in a beautiful state park, eat a picnic lunch, and talk about sentimental things (my idea), but the weather intervened.  The temperature dropped, the wind picked up, and a hike no longer sounded remotely fun.  Van suggested we get as many freebies as possible and take advantage of the Veteran’s Day sales with some early Christmas shopping.  It turned out to be a fantastic day, and tagging along with him, doing everything that made him happy, made me happy.

Photo credits: Stacy Pearsall, Veterans Portrait Project.  I retain no rights.

Photo credits: Stacy Pearsall, Veterans Portrait Project, 2014. I retain no rights.

I haven’t always been able to relate to my veteran status.    When I returned from deployment in 2004, I just wanted to scrub everything about the Army off of me and be a civilian again.  I bought girly clothes, high heels, and lots of new makeup.  I dated a couple guys, one who was also a veteran and actually remembered seeing me working in the chow hall at my camp in Baghdad!  I got a job as a receptionist and shopped at Wal-Mart in the middle of the night when I was really bored.  I didn’t spend much time thinking or talking about my deployment experience.

Five years later, it was time to celebrate five years of marriage to a soldier, and the Army life had become a steady reality.  I’d traded in camouflage and combat boots for formal ball gowns and impossibly tiny handbags that nothing fits inside.  Now here I am again, another five years later.  I wear fewer dresses and more denim.  People tend identify me as an Army spouse rather than a veteran, and that is okay because that is my more active role.  The old guys at the VFW will need a bit more time to process that I earned my veteran status before my husband did, but eventually they will catch on.  I do talk about my service more, but it still isn’t a comfortable topic.  It’s taken time, but I can accept praise, even though, as my sister claims, I am still terribly humble.

My son, the original reason why I went to Iraq: a better future for him.

My son, the original reason why I went to Iraq: a better future for him.

I’ve also become accustomed to the reality that not everyone loves a veteran.  This Veteran’s Day, a man gained national attention after posting a harsh anti veteran statement on his Facebook page.  The rant went viral and incited angry responses, phone calls, and even death threats. It was sad to see, on a day when we veterans should be celebrating our roll as protectors and peacekeepers, so many were caught up in one person’s ignorant outburst.  It’s no fun to read something nasty pointed in one’s general direction, but receiving insults simply for ‘being something’ should never deter us from continuing to be good people, and veterans are the best.   I hope that this man, and others who deeply dislike veterans, could see through our eyes for one day, and look at the world from a warrior’s perspective.

Sharing MREs with a breathtaking view  in one of Saddam's palaces.

Sharing MREs above a breathtaking view in one of Saddam’s palaces.

Although it has been difficult to feel as though I deserve the title ‘veteran’, after ten years I am now proud and grateful to count myself among the courageous and loyal.   If I hadn’t joined the National Guard and deployed to a combat zone, I might not have learned the most important lessons for life. First of all, people in a war zone take care of others before taking care of themselves.  I don’t see that happen very often in the civilian world, but I see it all the time among veterans and military families.  It’s called Selfless Service, and it is one of the Army Values.  While deployed, I also witnessed many acts of kindness and courage that resulted in lives being saved.  Some of these incidents involved soldiers saving the lives of Iraqis, with no forethought to their own personal safety or profit.

In the combat zone, generosity was another lesson learned.  Every day I witnessed soldiers showing generosity to each other and to Iraqi children, often giving away their only blanket or last ration of food or water without complaint.  No questions were asked, but if a need was identified, it was filled immediately.  Soldiers also cultivated deeply loyal friendships with each other, and would do anything to support and uplift their friends.  Ask any veteran if he or she has a lifelong friend from war time, and odds are that veteran will have a very interesting story to tell.  Personal sacrifices every day become commonplace habits for soldiers who work closely together, and selfishness fails to exist.  But perhaps those who go to war are the only people who really understand this system of camaraderie.

A little girl who tugged at my heartstrings, and continues to do so.

A little girl who tugged at my heartstrings, and continues to do so.

Connections also form between soldiers and civilians in occupied regions, even if this is not popularized or publicized.   I was told a story by a weary young soldier who tried everything to save an Iraqi girl suffocating from an asthma attack.  Seeing that he was a medic, the girl’s father thrust her into the soldier’s arms and begged for help.   Unfortunately, the unit had no medicine for asthma, and the girl perished as the soldier held her.  Another young soldier single handedly arranged a massive humanitarian mission to donate school supplies to refurbished Iraqi primary schools in the Baghdad area.  Her mission was so successful it enabled Iraqi children to return to school with the kinds of supplies American children take for granted.  Another soldier tried to adopt an Iraqi toddler when her parents insisted she take the girl so that at least one of their children would “have a rich and safe life in America.”  The soldier pursued adoption through Army legal channels, but was informed that it would be impossible.  She was too young, too poor, unmarried, and Iraq had no political infrastructure for her to make a legal adoption.  To this day she remains brokenhearted over what she views as her failure.

When I deployed ten years ago, I didn’t realize that people who despise veterans actually exist, or that I would be accused of being some type of soulless, mindless government robot trained to create carnage and desolation.  I want to encourage other veterans to remember this: Your service is not defined by what someone thinks of you, and you don’t owe anyone an explanation.   I didn’t serve in the capacity or manner that anyone else can imagine, and  my character isn’t defined by my service or by a stranger’s opinion of me.  I endeavored to serve mostly as a humanitarian, holding my hand out to the downtrodden.  And I continue to do so.  That is the role that I believe every veteran is responsible to uphold throughout life.

The last time I kind of looked bad ass.

The last time I kind of looked bad ass.

One last story, told to me recently by my husband.  This is the kind of behavior demonstrated all the time by soldiers and veterans in my life (and after being around such positive energy, why take any haters seriously?).  A soldier new to my husband’s unit was in a minor auto accident and needed medical attention.  Another soldier saw the accident and could have just driven away in the dark; instead she reported the accident and insisted on driving the injured soldier to the hospital.  She then sat with the soldier until my husband arrived.  She had no obligation to do so, but she put the needs of a fallen teammate first, sacrificed her time and requirements, and acted in the truest form of kindness by saying “Put some of that burden on me”.

Ten years from now I hope that she looks back at her time in service and feels good, the way I feel good, about being a veteran.


Be Here!

I admit it, I have really let my blogging sit on the back burner.  I have been letting my laptop gather dust, losing my Blog Ideas! notebook under the bed, in the desk, in the car, etc. and generally not caring about my readership stats.  No, I am not severely depressed or on drugs (or both).  I am just really busy genuinely enjoying life, and apparently that does not involve blogging.


The thought occurred to me a couple of days ago that with Veteran’s Day approaching I really should have a thoughtful piece typed up.  You know the piece — something that would induce tears, smiles, or philosophical introspection.  But there will probably be so many of those posted and published on much larger formats, and I am quite an underdog.  And besides, I have way too much going on that I am genuinely enjoying right now.  I can always work on my introspective pieces later…

Three BuddiesSo what do I want to write about for Veteran’s Day; what do I really want to say?  What important message do I want to convey to others?  Simply this: live.  Live today, don’t wast time.  Yesterday is over, tomorrow might not come.  Be in the moment, be a friend.  Reach out to those who are hurting, who need a caring ear that will listen, a shoulder to cry on.  We outgrow so many things in a lifetime, but let’s never outgrow kindness.

The two Iraqi friends pictured in this post were killed in 2005 by a terrorist RPG shot into the car they were riding in while they were on their way to work with Coalition Forces.  I miss them, but I am thankful to have had time with them.  The most important lesson they taught me, that I can pass on to you, is to really live every day.  They lived in a world that was literally falling to pieces around them, and do you know what they did each day?  They laughed, told stories, shared food, played pranks, and they squeezed the life out of each moment and formed meaningful relationships because they hadn’t outgrown basic human kindness.  They were truly alive every single day, and for me, they always will be whenever I see flowers blooming in Spring and leaves changing color in Autumn.   Do not let today pass by without being present and accounted for!

Happy and Blessed Veterans Day


Blessed 4th of July

Last week I had the honor of meeting with photographer and fellow veteran Stacy Pearsall at the Junction City USAA for a portrait session through her Veterans Portrait Project. It was an incredible experience. Persall, an Air Force veteran, is an energetic woman with eyes that reflect  a kind heart. She guided me onto the stool and helped me find a comfortable pose. Often shy in front of the camera, I end up looking stiff and imperious, so she asked questions about my tour of duty while placing my hands in a natural positions and turning me toward the camera.


Photo credits: Stacy Pearsall, Veterans Portrait Project.  I retain no rights.

Photo credits: Stacy Pearsall, Veterans Portrait Project. I retain no rights.

She asked one of those typical questions that I love to hear — so, deployment/family?  And I blurted “Oh, going to war is great practice for raising a family.  Dealing with children is similar to dealing with terrorists, and vice versa!” and her lighting assistant gave a belly laugh.  After that I felt more at ease and tried to charm the camera.  It was a fun session, and having my portrait taken this way was extremely special.  I often don’t give myself credit for my work in Iraq; I step back and let better veterans, more deserving veterans, take credit.  And I’m okay with that.  But on this day, it was about me, and it was nice.

Stacy took several silly photos of me with my kids, and then gave me a big hug.  The paperwork to fill out — so the pictures would be sent to me — included a question about what being a veteran meant to me.  I wrote ‘continued support and service to those in the military’.  I love the photos I received.  The images are perfect.  They show a person who isn’t a soldier anymore, but who wants to continue to serve.  And someday I will have them enlarged and framed for each of the kids, not to glorify the fact that I was  on the battlefield, but to convey a message that even though war must split up families, it doesn’t change the fact that love remains.

Have a blessed 4th of July.


Please take time to look at these images of the men and women who have served.


One Door Closes

Stretching out a bit during the long layover in Ireland.

As is so often the case in my life I find myself asking “where did the time go?” once again.  November seemed to fly away!   I browse through my notepad looking at writing topics and see that I can fill at least one more November, maybe two, with stories from my deployment.  However, because Christmas will be upon us very soon, I have decided to take my blog in a different direction in December, and then revisit the Deployment Retrospective in the Spring of 2014.  Readers who enjoyed my stories about deployment, don’t worry.  There will be more.

One final deployment related thought for now:  coming home and transitioning from a soldier to an Army wife was not as difficult or scary as I originally imagined.  For me, the process of one door opening while another closed actually took place almost exactly this same time ten years ago, so I always reminisce about it during the Holidays.  In November I attended my final National Guard drill before leaving military service.  It was anticlimactic, disappointing even.  I spent most of the drill collecting urine samples for the 100% accountability drug test as the Unit Prevention and Abuse Resistance Officer.

This was not how I imagined exiting my National Guard career, but it was rather fitting.  After sixteen months of locking horns with leadership and fighting to be taken seriously as the youngest female NCO in the company, I got to sit behind a table and tell everyone to have “Happy Holidays” as they handed me a warm cup of pee.  Nice.  I will admit, I was a bit distracted during the drill though.  See, there was this guy in Texas and I had realized that I had really blew it by turning down his proposal that I run away with him and live a very happy life (because I was a chicken shit).  So I had to think of a plan, and quick, to get this guy back!

My beautiful picture

Not even three weeks later I was walking down the stairs of the Bexar County Courthouse in San Antonio Texas, hand in hand with my new husband, a handsome ROTC cadet who was just hours away from commissioning as a Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Army.  I had finally recovered from my fear of becoming a military spouse, and together we took the leap.  After frequent and frantic conversations with this great guy, I somehow convinced him that I would not flake out, and somehow I charmed him into thinking that he could not live without me.  No more chicken shit!

One door closed and another door opened.  My days as a soldier in the National Guard were over.  Now I had become an Army wife, still serving in the military, but in a different way.  I have never looked back at this transition with regret or wistfulness.  And my life has been rewarding in more ways than I can describe!  Constant traveling, living in different parts of the country, raising Army Brats, and making new friends everywhere we go is our story now.

People always ask me if I miss being a soldier and wish I could go back to serving, wearing the uniform, the whole “Hooah” bit.  I don’t have to think twice before saying no, that was a prior chapter in my life.  I lived it, I enjoyed it.  I served well.  Now I am living a new chapter.  This is my life now, and I still serve, but I am part of something bigger.  A family, a team, and that I wouldn’t trade for anything.

— G

My beautiful picture

The very last time that I wore my Army uniform, just one day after getting married. Here I am, ready to put my family in the forefront.

A Day in the Life: Surveyors at BIAP

Me at Breaktime

On a survey mission, 2003.

” A 51 Tango is a hell of a soldier…!” was part of a cadence we sang at survey school in Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.  And it’s true.  51 Tangos are a unique breed of perceptive, eccentric, innovative soldiers who must be kept busy or else we will mastermind elaborate pranks to terrorize each other.  Luckily we were busy with many survey projects during OIF 1!  Sadly, I do not have detailed notes about the projects from my deployment, but I remember enough to piece together the image of a typical day for a surveyor at BIAP.  When my company arrived in the summer of 2003, my survey team of 3 was absorbed by the Battalion’s much larger team, and we became part of a great adventure.

The Battalion surveyors were not the only Tangos we encountered; there were also surveyors at the Brigade and Group level (the corresponding levels of hierarchy for Army units).  More surveyors lived across the road in neighboring engineer battalions, so the potential for collaboration on engineering projects was tremendous.  We were only limited by the hours of the day, our own energy levels, and the parameters given by our OICs (Officers in Charge).  We were very lucky because the OICs had clear foresight of missions that needed to be accomplished and they trusted us to do our jobs without micromanaging us.  To that end, we were free to roam around BIAP unsupervised and explore areas in which most other soldiers had never set foot.

My beautiful picture

A surveyor on top of rubble in a bombed palace.

A typical day for a 51T would start after breakfast with a pow-wow in the Battalion survey office.  We would receive our mission for the day or simply plan to continue a mission that had not yet been completed.  After packing up necessary equipment and MREs (because we would likely be out all day) and checking the vehicle for operational readiness, it was time to load up and leave camp.  The early days of deployment included many topographic surveys and blueprint development for new camps, roads and such.  Surveying is tedious work under often strenuous environmental conditions, so we welcomed distractions such as fields full of unexploded ordinance or bombed out palaces that demanded further exploration.  We took every opportunity to walk through the abandoned palaces, assessing the damage and puzzling over the immense luxury of the interiors and the bizarre murals painted on the walls.  Saddam with a mermaid?  Okay.


Surveyors had the best view at lunch time: high up on a palace ledge!

Lunch breaks were an opportunity for adventure too.  At one remote camp we took a cool dip in a broken water bladder, which could no longer store water, but was a perfect mini swimming pool!  We packed our PT uniforms at the direction of our NCOIC and when lunch time came around we hopped into the “pool” to cool down and wash the day’s worth of grime off our arms and faces.  After we dried off it was back to work.

We also “crossed the wire” on occasion, or left the secure area of BIAP, and ventured out into what was sometimes referred to as the Wild West, to buy things other Tangos (who weren’t on the mission that day) had requested: cigarettes, soda, ice, even Black Market items.  This errand was usually run at the end of the survey mission, especially if we needed ice.  The kibosh was put on our errand running a few weeks into the deployment when it was deemed far too dangerous for soldiers to be crossing the wire and buying items from the roadside stands.  Before that happened, we could get funny cigarettes and even smoke apple flavored tobacco from hookahs with the Iraqi market people before heading back to camp!

Roadside stands selling all kinds of items outside the wire.

Roadside stands selling all kinds of items outside the wire.

KozakWe spent as much time as possible exploring, and we could brag that we stepped into palaces and abandoned buildings that most soldiers never set foot in.  We climbed over rubble heaps and perched on majestic window ledges to get the best views.  But survey missions weren’t all fun and games.  We worked very hard, standing in the unforgiving sun, sweat dripping into our underwear, shooting points and pounding stakes as fast as we could to prepare sites for the earth movers.  It wasn’t funny when the tripod refused to level and it was 120 degrees in the shade; then by the time we did get it leveled the Geodimeter experienced a malfunction wouldn’t work for the rest of the day.  Or there were days when we would go out to a site where we had smashed fingers pounding in a half mile of stakes for a new road only to discover that an equipment operator had run them all over because he thought that the stakes indicated, “that was where I was supposed to drive”.

Kracker in Hole2

Although we did have a few run-ins with equipment operators who did not understand our use of stakes, a few patient explanations (and a few screaming fits) set things straight and our rapport with the earth movers was quite copasetic.  Aside from traditional survey, we also squeezed in quality control of concrete at the BIAP airport on occasion.  This meant a rare treat: a visit to the gorgeous airport and a chance to work with Iraqi civilian engineers, both a challenge and a learning opportunity.  On top of all this we had the soils lab for our geotechnical team.  Surveyors who exhibited a particular interest in working with soils were given the opportunity to spend time in the lab testing soil characteristics, sometimes late into the night depending on the nature of the tests.  We collected a wide variety of soil from BIAP sample zones and ran as many different tests as we could in the lab to make determinations about the cantankerous soil underfoot.  Working in the soils lab gave us the chance to get dirtier than we had ever anticipated, and there were many spontaneous mud fights when nerves got a little frayed…

Me and 'Kraker Jack' trying to kill each other with mud.

Me and ‘Kraker Jack’ trying to kill each other with mud.

As the typical survey day drew to an end we would return to the office and drop off equipment, recharge batteries, do PMCS on the vehicle, and sit around to BS before dinner chow.  Conversation would take the same turns.  What did we miss about home?  Who were our significant others back home and what did we miss most about them?  What kind of food were we craving?  Who deserved the latest prank and what kind of prank should it be?  Did we have time to do a prank before dinner?  We passed around a cigarette or a bottle of soda before chow time, talked a little about nothing, and tried not to think about the fact that we were all just a bunch of scared kids in the desert.  Just a typical day for a team of surveyors, some 51 Tangos.  A 51 Tango is a hell of a solider…


It was a good day of surveying…

Copyright 2014.  All photographs are the property of Georgeann Van Delist and  Use and/or duplication of any material from this site is strictly prohibited without express permission from the site owner and author.

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Letters From Michael Dudikoff (Part 2)

Because you know you want more, I gathered up the rest of my letters from an Air Force friend who used the name ‘Michael Dudikoff‘ on the return address.  His letters, always humorous, often a bit flirtatious, were motivating reminders that I had friends who cared in all corners of the world.



Dear G,

I’m sitting here in my office on a Friday morning only a hop, skip and a jump from your tent.  Think about it.  I’m on the same continent as you!  Never thought about it that way, huh?!  You know, it’s funny.  I have zero interest in Asia or its history, but here I am in Korea.  Maybe it was intended for me to be here and find out that the Orient is nothing I expected…

Currently, I’m working semi-hard on this pet project that a General wants done.  He went to the commissary one day to get a bottle of Jack Daniels and they were cleaned out.  So now I am researching how our ration control system works and our vulnerabilities to black marketing.  It’s kind of interesting actually, and I don’t mind being tasked with it.  I’m also heading up our unit’s PT plan and execution.  [The] Air Force is going back to the good old 1.5 mile run, push ups, pull ups, instead of that weak ass bike…  For me it’s no biggy because that’s what I’ve been doing for the last four years at the Academy.  For others, well, let’s hope they get to the gym soon.

Going to work every day isn’t bad.  Since we’re agents, [the] uniform is usually pants and a polo shirt.  If I want, I can wear BDUs but most days I choose the former.  I usually work 0730 to 1630, but there are times when a case needs to be done immediately (sexual assault, suspicious activity, porn, counterintelligence, etc.).  I usually tag along.  I’m enjoying my time in Limbo because I get to watch but don’t have to do any of the typing and other administration.  Hopefully, I’ll qualify on the Uzi pretty soon.  Yeah Baby!  I’m not a gun nut but it definitely beats sitting in the office.

Well, it’s Memorial Day Weekend.  I don’t have anything going on, but we’ll see what comes up.  Write whenever you get the chance.  Let me know what you are currently up to.  Hope you are well.

24 September @ Night

Dear G,

I haven’t written all that much in the last week.  Sorry about that.  I’m trying to wrap things up these last few weeks before I go TDY to the States.  There’s a whole bunch of stuff that seems to be caving in on me.  AHHH!  Oh well, I’m looking forward to training…just hope I don’t screw it up and let down those that hired [me].  I’ll be working my ass off for sure.

My sponsor and friend who showed me the ropes and helped me on this first assignment left…  That leaves me as the Officer and Second in Command.  Before, I was just the “Other Lieutenant” but now it’s kicked in that I am the LT.  Not that anyone relies on my decisions, but it’s still something to consider.  I have a lot of respect for the enlisted and especially those who have been sticking with it for longer than anyone looking for the “easy life”…

Well, I’m going to make this letter short.  I’ll write you soon.  Take care.

My beautiful picture

Taking a stroll at the Air Force Academy.

Friday, 17 October

Dear G,

I know it’s been a while since I last wrote.  I hope you still remember who I am.  Well, I’m not longer in Korea (at least for a little bit).  I’m currently in training for my job, and believe me, it’s not a vacation [on] TDY.  The training is intense, six days a week, and the days are busy with academics, field training, and PT.  It kind of reminds me of a watered down version of the Air Force Academy!  It’s good though, and I’m really trying to take it for what it’s worth…that was the most ambiguous statement.  What I meant was to learn instead of cram and flush.

I also feel like I’m in the best shape of my life.  I’m eating right, exercising, and my drive and motivation is going strong.  Damn, I sound like a Jenny Craig commercial.  I’ll try to trim the hokey, “Golly, Gosh” statements!  What else?  Umm, still looking around in this sometimes big, sometimes small fish bowl for the single ladies…Not that I discriminate against the taken girls, but it makes meeting the parents awkward (wink).  Maybe I’m too picky, or maybe I’m just not aggressive enough…What do you think?  I’ll try to put it on my things to do.  How are you doing?  I haven’t received anything from you…I hope you are well and that you’re still going strong.  Be safe.

I pulled this final note out of chronological sequence because I felt it would wrap the series of letters up nicely.  I lost contact with my friend but sincerely hope that he did ultimately find the right girl, excel in the Air Force, and continue to travel the world. 

 16 September 2003 @ 10:10 P.M.


Dear G,

I’m sorry I haven’t written in awhile.  I think I wrote five days ago, but hopefully I’ll get back on track.  You know what it is?  I got my TV/DVD to work again and it threw my multimedia abstinence off.  Damn that flickering device!  It does all the thinking for you!

I watch AFN (Armed Forces Network) and they have these annoying informative ads like “Don’t shake the vending machine…it’ll fall on you!”  Or “Did you know D.B. Cooper was the only successful skyjacker in history?”  Anyway, a commercial came on today while I was setting my new Ironman Timex watch (I was excited…I like gadgets).  It depicted a man running around in the brain flipping levers and switching switches.  The ad was about how stress can affect your mood, memory, and health.  It came to me in one simple answer: stress is a psychological mirage that does not naturally come with new issues and mental workloads.  So…just remove it from situations that arise because it’s not real.  That simple!  Of course, then I came to my senses and decided it was moronic and we’re not robots, but wouldn’t it be nice to not worry about things we cannot control or are so silly we don’t really need the stress?  That would give us the ability to accomplish goals or just get on with life, huh?


Patriot Stamp 001I don’t know, I thought I had a good solution there for a split second.  Just don’t stress out.  Well, besides the fact that I wish you were here partying in Korea instead of there, I had a solid weekend.  Movies, relaxing, walking and shopping around.  I don’t really shop, I execute a goal of getting a specific thing and then dining out…  Other than that, I’ve just been working, or trying to.  I’m kind of tired of showing up and talking with co-workers.  Maybe I’m in a lull right now.  I’m going to tackle tomorrow like it’s my first day though.  Work at something new, smile, and kick some ass.  Damn, I sound like Richard Simmons!  Holy crap, I AM Richard Simmons!

I try to imagine what you’re up to, what your place looks like, and where you sleep (in a non-creepy way).  I wonder if my first letter has reached you by now, if you are reading with pain or joy.  Mostly though, I imagine you’re happy, healthy, and laughing like you did in Colorado Springs.  I hope so…


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Letters From Michael Dudikoff (Part 1)

Anyone else get fanmail from Michael Dudikoff during their deployment?  I didn’t think so.  Well, actually it wasn’t really him writing to me.  It was a friend from the Air Force sending hilarious letters using the (dare I say it?) legendary actor’s name on the return address.  Why?  Because it made them funnier.

19 July 2003

Dear G,

I just got back from a month and a half in Europe, Israel, and various parts of the U.S.  I was happy to come back home and see 2 letters… I thought about you every time I saw a flight going to Baghdad or Kuwait.  I flew Space-A on military ‘hopovers’ to Europe and back.  I hope this letter finds you in good spirits, and that you haven’t given up on me — ha!  Well, graduation went well and I got commissioned and all that good stuff.  I really enjoyed hanging out with you.  I don’t know why, but I felt really comfortable talking to you.  I only wish I could have met up with you before you left.  Oh well, I’m sure we’ll meet again.

(I wonder if Michael Dudikoff is flirting a tiny bit?)

I went to islands in Greece (Crete and Ios), Israel, Cambridge in the UK, and Prague.  I finally went home after three weeks, to Colorado Springs for a wedding.  It was quite lavish…They do well enough to afford it, and my buddy getting married had a great time with his newly.  After about 30 days had gone by (I had 60 days of leave!) a friend convinced me to spend the 4th of July in D.C. with him.  We watched the fireworks between the Washington Monument and the Capital while lying out on the grass.  After that we took off for Spain to run with the bulls.  We landed at Rota, Spain…then a 14 hour ride to Pamplona where the Running of the Bulls was happening.  But we were so tired by then…we decided to chalk it up and just hang out in the South of Spain.  We went to Seville and [back to] Rota too.  Since I was on the road for more than a month I decided to head back…you ever feel like just chilling?  Yeah, I thought so.

Now I’m here in Santa Maria, California and by the time you get this I will be on my way to Osan Air Base, Repulic of Korea.  Sad, eh?  I don’t think I can get much sympathy from a girl in Baghdad…I really do worry about you being there.  I heard morale is really low.  Is it?  Anyway, getting back to better things…How is your son doing?  Who is he hanging out with while Mommy’s gone?  What’s the most interesting thing you’ve seen?  Do you have e-mail yet?  I hope you are well and that you remember who I am.  Listen, I will write you often and maybe when you’re having a bad day my letter will arrive and cheer you up…Be careful and Godspeed home.  May the sun always shine on your back and the sand stay out of your underwear!


Dear G,

It’s great to hear from you!  Well I can’t help but think about you and your health as the media provides daily news about the ongoing issues in Iraq.  However, I’m also a strong believer that uncomfortable, challenging situations help us grow and develop as human beings.  In that sense, I envy you.  I’m proud to know someone like you, who is over there doing your thing, and always strapping on the U.S. flag every time you go outside.

(Kinda putting me on a pedestal there, Buddy.  I may have to strap on a parachute to get back down.)

Korea is very interesting.  Everyone here keeps telling me that by this time next year when I supposedly leave, I will have learned more than I could’ve in a 2 or 3 year tour in CONUS.  I’ve been here for a month now and I don’t miss the States at all!  However, I will be going back in October for Agent Training before I return to Osan…The weather here varies between hot and humid and rainy.  Drivers are complete maniacs on the road.  Seriously!  I wonder if they realize that red means stop…Free time after work is an unusual feeling…I have more free time now to pursue my hobbies, goals, and education.

Where did you say you lived?  I remember South Dakota, but is that where you grew up or where you live now?  I hope your little boy is doing well.  He’s probably quite the little handyman with your father showing him the ropes.  How long do you have until you go home?  You should move to Europe when you return.  You know, live the Euro Trash lifestyle.  That’s hopefully where I’ll go sooner than later.  Germany or Italy or England (to study at Cambridge!).  I’ll do my best to write frequently and stay in touch.  After all, it’s the least I can do…Take care and say hi to your girlfriends for me!

P.S. I have handwriting like a 4th Grader, so sue me!

Giving the flight simulator a spin at the U.S. Air Force Academy.

Giving the flight simulator a spin at the U.S. Air Force Academy.

Wednesday, 3 September 2003 @ 1:00 P.M.

Dear G,

Everyday without your presence is like a day without the welcoming of the beautiful serene sunrise…I’ve always wanted to write that in a letter to someone deployed on the line!  I don’t know what line you’re on but you get the drift.  Did you like that opening sentence?  I figured I’d mix it up a little with some romance.  In all seriousness though, I really do wish that we’ll see each other someday.  I felt you were genuine, and that’s a quality that is rare.

(Hmmm…if my husband reads this post he is going to kick Michael Dudikoff’s ass for putting the moves on me via air mail ten years ago!  Well maybe not…)

I’m wrapping up a four day weekend (Labor Day)…I go back to the States in October.  I really don’t miss [the U.S.] that much but I look forward to stepping on U.S. soil…I just got off the phone with my parents (that’s why the first line of this paragraph is darker; I was outlining the words while talking to them).  Anyway, it’s their 28th anniversary and they were both on the phone.  So Mom says “Yeah, it’s been 28 years and 3 days and it’s HELL!” I started laughing uncontrollably and they were laughing too.  It’s the kind of humor that can only come from being married that long.  I hope I can have a marriage that good, honest, and loving when I tie the knot.  I think my first step should be to find a girl.  What do you think?

(I think you are adorable.)

I’m looking at my letter thus far and realizing it looks like a freight train hit it.  Scratches everywhere;  I think your son can write better than me!  Anyway, I know you’re probably very busy.  Just try to take some deep breaths, look up at the sky or moon, and appreciate your family, friends, and good health (if you’re not catching a cold).  It’s not everyday you’re in Iraq, right!  Feel better?  Be safe and take care.

Yours Truly

P.S.  Write down the date and time you send your letter so I know how long it takes from Baghdad to Osan AB, Korea.

P.P.S.  I’m a geek.

Friday, 5 September 2003 @ 1200 hours

Dear G,

How’s Iraq nowadays?  Is it cooling off?  It [has been] raining off and on now for the last week of August and into September.  I enjoy the sun if I’m wearing a shirt and shorts, but I prefer the cloudy skies otherwise.  If I’m in a suit, I don’t like the sun beating down…guess I’m just more of a temperate climate type of guy…I’ll have to send you a picture sometime.  I keep forgetting to take my camera with me when I go out.  I tried contacting Van before I left but he never returned my call.  Oh well, it was good to see that kid before I left.  He’s only become more ‘Texan’ since I last saw him.

(Good one.  He’s only become more ‘South Dakotan’ since I married him!)

I think about the Academy days and sometimes I get…I guess I’d say nostalgic.  I don’t miss the actual BS we put up with but I think “Man, those days are gone.  That step is over in my life.  I can never get that back.”  The trivial conversations with my classmates after Taps, the smell of morning dew, the serenity of walking to the cafeteria as another suns sets over Colorado.  This is what comes to mind.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m excited about pursuing my next goals and challenges.  It’s great.  Perhaps it’s the scariness of age and life and how quickly we can move through it and not notice.  That’s what one of my goals after graduation was: no more putting life on hold until next week, next month, next year.  Now I try to enjoy every day.  Key word is “TRY”.  Some days I wish I could just skip.  I speak to people who are between 26 and 30 years old and they mention their age as “old”.  I don’t want to be like that.  I hope I don’t embrace that mentality!  If I am still clubbing at 30, trying to get with 21 year olds I’ll be a little concerned…

(I hope you are not doing this now.  Cradle robber.)

Moving on to you.  What are your thoughts on this matter?  Do you agree, or think my thoughts are askew?  It’s always great to hear from someone wiser and more mature than me.  Do you have any days off there?  What is your tent like?  Do you have enough room to have privacy?  Well I hope to continue writing you without interruption.  I know mail is always cool to get from a friend, especially one as disturbingly handsome as me (wink).  I make myself laugh!  Yeah, I’m a dork.  Have you guys had any USO celebrity visitors there?  I’m betting Michael Dudikoff (Star of American Ninja 1, 2 & 4) will be there soon, huh?  That would be sooooo awesome!  All right, I hope this letter reaches you in good health.  Thinking of you.

P.S.  I wasn’t joking about Michael Dudikoff!

P.P.S.  No, seriously.  I will have Michael’s children one day!

P.P.P.S.  Stop laughing…Be safe please.

(Oh…so that is where the Michael Dudikoff joke came from…Now it makes sense.)

Me up Close

The World’s Greatest Cheeseburger


Too bad our MREs don’t come with the promise “Have it Your Way”!

I still think about it from time to time, when I am craving something that is no longer possible, something that probably doesn’t even exist, something that I can never go back for.  It was the best cheeseburger I have ever tasted.  There wasn’t anything inherently special about it, and maybe it didn’t even taste that great.  But it was a cheeseburger in a combat zone, a very rare treasure, and that made it remarkable.

Soldiers would travel through dangerous territory, risk the wrath of IEDs, mortars and rockets, then stand in a slowly snaking line in the hot sun, sweating their asses off to shell out hard earned cash for a bag of greasy Nirvana from the indomitable Burger King vendors.  Why go to such lengths to eat a humble cheeseburger?  These Whoppers that were so challenging to procure created a momentary transcendent connection to favorite memories: high school dances, first dates, football games, family barbecues, college graduation parties, honeymoons, newborn babies.  They were a conduit to the memories of American life that we all craved but couldn’t have.  Before dining facilities had been constructed and supply lines had been formally established, Burger King had opened up in a tiny metal hut on BIAP and was selling burgers at an unbelievable rate to thousands of homesick soldiers.

One of my tent mates brought me a Burger King Whopper one day.  A supply and arms room clerk, she had to make daily runs to BIAP’s Supply Yard to check on shipments for our company.  Any trip away from the Engineer Village compound was an excuse to do a little shopping, exploring, and “dining out”, and when she returned, she handed me a wonderful smelling paper bag with little oil stains forming on the bottom.  I don’t remember if there was a specific reason why she brought back a cheeseburger for me.  Maybe she owed a favor because I had kept an eye on the supply tent while she was picking up supplies.  I suspect that she just wanted to do something nice for me, because that is the kind of person that she has always been, and I remember uttering surprise at the sight of a real Burger King Whopper.  It had been ages since I had eaten actual American food.  A cheeseburger in the Middle East!  What a concept!

After choking down lackluster food for months on end I had come face to face with what I will forever remember as the World’s Greatest Cheeseburger.  The bun had been toasted on a grill, the beef patty  (I hope it was beef) was tender, juicy, and a little salty, the cheese had melted perfectly and fused onto the patty, and there was the perfect amount of mayonnaise and ketchup to add sauciness to the Whopper.  I recall a small piece of onion as well — not too much and not too little, but just enough to enhance the flavor.  I don’t remember if the cheeseburger came with lettuce and tomato, but it would have surprised me if it did.  It was quite difficult to get fresh vegetables during OIF 1 and tomatoes and lettuce wouldn’t have traveled well back to camp, but I digress…

Once I had tasted that Whopper I became a bit obsessed with cheeseburgers but never had another like that first from the BIAP Burger King.  I went back once during my deployment, stood in line for two hours sweating profusely and questioning the rationality of it all, but when I finally got the burger it didn’t taste nearly as delicious as the first.  Cheeseburgers in the chow hall were a joke — overcooked, rubbery, tasteless hockey pucks on bland bread with boring accoutrements.  Nothing came close to that first Whopper.  It had ruined me for cheeseburgers!  It still ruins me.

I somehow ended up with a centerfold of a burger — yes, this is true.  No pictures of sexy men in my corner of the tent, but I did have pictures of food!  I often looked longingly at my sexy burger (so pathetic) and thought of the day that the yummy Whopper had been delivered into my astonished hands.  The World’s Greatest Cheeseburger was exceptional for two reasons.  I was so homesick that the novelty of classic American comfort food made me feel nostalgic as I slowly savored every last bite.  The fact that, as she stood in a very long line for a very long time in the horrid Baghdad sun, a friend made the decision to pass along a kindness to me in the form of a humble cheeseburger. That act of kindness has resonated through the years.

— G

To prove that I did not hallucinate my entire cheeseburger encounter, check out the links below!  The first is by a WordPress blogger who was also in Iraq during OIF 1 and who also experienced the wonder of the Whopper on BIAP.  I recommend this article for another veteran’s take on life at BIAP and the challenges of procuring Burger King.  Enjoy!

Survey Notes from Badghdad

Dirty Deeds

After U.S. troops occupied Iraq, who do you suppose was instrumental in developing the infrastructure to support the camps and Forward Operating Bases?  It was the 51 Tango, the survey engineer!  Tangos surveyed timeworn sites to which no known maps existed, trod ground on which no previous American engineers had ever set foot, and created sense and order out of chaos so that camps, airstrips, helicopter pads, schools, clinics, roads, canals, and civilization itself could be built up and maintained I ran into my former Tango drill sergeant from Fort Leonard Wood while I was waiting to depart Kuwait, and being able to discuss real survey missions with him was incredible because he was simply the best role model a buck sergeant could ask for.  Now a Sergeant First Class with a large team, he proudly described what his surveyors had accomplished and affirmed his hopes for the Tango legacy in Iraq.  He also gave me a challenge: to be a pioneer in engineering by making improvements wherever I led my team to leave Iraq better than I had found it.  “That is what Tangos do; we are the vanguards of engineering and the ones who make projects possible.  Do something new and make me proud!”  A remnant of my old survey journal shows evidence that my team did indeed pioneer the engineer field with projects such as innovative topographic surveys of roads, the ground breaking of Camp Victory, courtesy of my National Guard unit and my survey team, and my personal pride and joy: the establishment of the first military soils testing laboratory in Iraq.

My beautiful picture

Establishing benchmarks on a survey expedition at BIAP.

13 – 19 July 2003

Tasks included:

  • Topographic survey of West BIAP Road (it will become a five lane road).
  • Survey for airfield and helicopter pad projects.
  • Quality control of asphalt and concrete work at various locations in roads and at Iraqi Airways site at the airport.
  • Escorting of civilians on and off BIAP.Kozak
  • Support tasks for HQ platoon.

Notes:  Have observed not to chastise Iraqis publically.  Compliment their work and then suggest how it can be improved.  Do not be surprised if they listen politely and then do the exact opposite of what you suggest.  Concrete on a slump test should be 4-6 inches to pass.  Smooth stones in concrete are a NO-GO!  Nothing should be mixed in with concrete (ie: concrete bags, plastic bags, debris, any foreign matter) as it will create voids and weaken the concrete.  Soil must be wetted cautiously as too much water will create a soup that must dry for several days before work can continue.  Iraqis do not understand this, and often do not heed our warning (see all above).  Spongy, soft spots in the dirt work mean that there is a pocket of wet, soupy soil underneath and this will cause problems in the future.  Iraqi engineers say “It’s good!  Cover with asphalt, it will make stronger!  Yes, the plastic bags good!  Make everything stronger!  Very good!”  They think that a strong surface will actually reinforce the weak soupy interior.  This is not true.

Silhouettes of soldiers and civilian workers on a road project.

Silhouettes of soldiers and civilian workers on a road project.

20-27 July 2003

Tasks included:

  • Continued topography of West BIAP Road.
  • Design work on camp shower pad.
  • Support tasks for HQ Platoon.

Notes:  We haven’t done any “real” surveying in a while!  Now there are plenty of projects.  Got a “new” laptop for the section, but the CD drive is out so it already needs to be serviced.

My Tripod

Leveling the tripod to start a survey project.

28 July – 05 Aug 2003

Tasks included:

  • Topographic survey of Battalion motor pool.
  • Support tasks for HQ Platoon
  • My surveyors were added to the guard duty roster with tasks to include guarding the BN TOC, roving guard, and guarding the West BIAP Wall.

Notes:  Am considering having weekly survey pow-wows to gauge my team’s ideas, opinions, desires for future missions, etc. and get an impression of how their morale is holding up.  I also want to ensure that they are getting the information that they need to complete their various missions.  Since attitude [of troops] reflects leadership, I’d like to see if there is more I can do to be a positive role model and leader here.

Kracker in Hole2

Collecting samples from layers of soil at a BIAP road site.

06-13 Aug 2003

Tasks included:

  • Finished topographic survey of intersection on West BIAP Road.
  • Found elevation points on intersection.
  • Finished drawing of intersection.
  • Started survey of Zone 5 and found previous boundary established by another engineer battalion using a GPS and Geodimeter to shoot boundary.
  • Established three corners and used previously established corner as fourth.
  • Provided the Platoon Sergeant for 2nd PLT with the elevations of Zone 5 for earth work.
  • Met with leadership of a neighboring battalion and discussed setting up a geotechnical facility on BIAP, then formed a team of four technicians with overseers from two different engineer battalions.

Notes:  Rough week, but all turned out fine.  We decided to have weekly AARs to discuss survey issues that we encounter through the week.  Daily supervised PMCS of our vehicle, known as X2, has been implemented since we use the vehicle constantly.

13-20 Aug 2003

Kracker in Lab

Running tests on soil in the laboratory.

Tasks included:

  • Setting up of the soils, asphalt, and concrete (geotechnical) testing facility at the old Military Intelligence compound.
  • Took soil samples from perimeter road and began first tests immediately.
  • Took inventory of soils set, noted shortages, and listed additional equipment needed for the lab.
  • Did a perimeter survey of Zone 4 for 2nd PLT Sergeant.

Notes:  Fun, fun, fun! I LOVE soils!!  We had a Tango meeting; all the Tangoes on BIAP got together to combine talents.  I did not know there were so many of us here at one time.

20-27 Aug 2003


Lab equipment neatly organized on homemade shelves.

Tasks included:

  • Soil testing.
  • Took more samples along perimeter road.
  • Worked on getting AC, electricity, refrigerator, etc. hooked up.
  • Surveyed along perimeter road and replaced control points that had been knocked over (cussed out heavy equipment operators that we suspected).

Notes:  Red Phase guard duties included front gate guard duty, OP2, TOC duty, RTO.

27 Aug – 2 Sept 2003

Tasks included:

  • Surveyed along perimeter road to check control points.
  • Soil testing.
  • Traverse survey to tie perimeter road into paved road.

Notes:  I hate this place!

My beautiful picture

Taking an informal width measurement of a canal: “It’s as wide as I can stretch my legs!”