Best Regards from Baghdad

My One Year in Iraq

My First R&R

September 9, 2006 - Well, I am home.  At least for the time being.  The journey was a long, long one, but well worth it to be reunited with my husband and two sons.  What a saga.  For those of you who don't know, R&R means "Rest and Recreation."  Well, I hope I get some of that now that I'm home; getting here was quite a journey!!!

It all started on Tuesday, September 5.  That day after my noontime swim, I showered and packed.  I grabbed my gym bag, my briefcase, my PPE and dragged it all to my office.  Around 3:30 p.m., a colleague and I grabbed a ride over to the heliport.  We checked in, sat around and chatted and after about an hour, we were called to line up, wearing our PPE (bulletproof vest and helmet) and hopped onto a Blackhawk helicopter for a 10-minute ride to BIAP.  I took a lot of pictures from the helicopter (see next page).  What a tourist!  It wasn't my first time in a helicopter (I had been on a few Vietnam-era Hueys in Peru), but it was the first time in a helicopter with doors. . .

First tip is to make sure you take the helicopter to BIAP instead of the Rhino.  It's so much faster and then once you get to BIAP, you can spend the night at Camp Sully (if you're under Chief of Mission authority, anyhow.  Check with your agency to see if you qualify!)  You just need to contact Catfish Air (you can find out how when you get to the Embassy) and get on their manifest.  And to ensure you get on the helicopter, make sure you travel lightly - no big bags/suitcases or you won't get on.  And you must wear your PPE, long pants, long-sleeved shirt and protective eyewear (wrap-around sunglasses).  To get the best seat for photos, sit in the seat facing towards the BACK of the helicopter.  If you're facing forward next to the window, you get all the wind in your face.  If you sit in the middle, you won't get the same view.  But some people prefer that.

Once you get to BIAP on the helicopter, I recommend you go to Tent 4 and do your Civilian Check-in.  The guys at the counter will review your documents (you MUST have your orders, your passport, your country clearance for Jordan and your CAC card).  If you do this the afternoon you get there, it saves you one step in the check-in process the next day.  (By the way, take TWO copies of your orders, as they will keep one at BIAP).

Next, you haul your bags to Camp Sully.  Be sure you have made reservations beforehand.  You will share a room, but the rooms are big and they provide nice sheets and towels.  You do have to walk to the bathroom/showers, but it's not bad.  They have window air conditioners/heaters that tend to make odd noises, but the beds are queen-sized, which is nice.  They don't provide shampoo, conditioner, soap, etc., so bring some of those hotel-sized ones.  I suggest that you pick up a few bottles at the hotel en route to Baghdad, and then take them with you to Sully and use them there.  Once you get to Amman, the hotels all have the little bottles, so you're all set.  Then you can travel back to the US without dragging them with you.  Of course, if you go to Europe or elsewhere, hopefully the hotel you stay at will have all the necessary.  Or if you check your bags, you can pack whatever you'd like.

Anyhow, after we got off the helicopter, we went to Sully, checked in, got our keys to our room.  Then we were able to drop off our PPE in the storage lockers they provide (cubbies, just like in kindergarten! with our names written on masking tape and taped to the side!)  We went to our room, unpacked, relaxed and then later there is a vehicle that takes everyone over to the local DFAC for dinner.  I ended up having dinner at Subway with a colleague who works out at Sully.  (Imagine that - the first place I ate when I entered Iraq and the last place I ate when I left Iraq!)

After dinner, I settled in for the night.  The next day (Wednesday, September 6), I went with a colleague to get coffee at the Green Bean.  Which opened an hour later, but it was worth it.  Camp Sully also provides transportation to breakfast at the DFAC, but I was afraid I'd be too late for Showtime.  (Showtime is the time you have to show up for your flight - either the helicopter or the C-130.)  With coffee in hand, we headed over to Tent 4 to check in.  Since we had done the "Civilian Coordination" counter the afternoon before, we went directly to the counter for the "Embassy" flights.  After we checked in, we waited.  (Remember "Hurry Up and Wait?"  Well, it's the same leaving Iraq, too.)  Another recommendation would be to bring some of those small cereal bowls you can get in the DFAC, along with some of the milk containers with you so you can have your own breakfast, since there isn't time to get out to the DFAC for breakfast at Camp Stryker, at least you won't starve and/or have to pay the high cost of a fatty, sugary muffin at the Green Bean.

Finally, we were called to board the C-130.  We were lucky that the plane left almost immediately after it arrived, so our flight was early.  We arrived to Amman around noon.  At the airport, someone from the Iraq Support Unit (at the Embassy in Amman) showed up, gave us our onward tickets and told us where to get a rented car to our hotel.  I hopped in the back, enjoyed the view/weather in Amman and headed to the Intercontinental Hotel.

Ah, a bathtub!  A king-sized bed!  A massage in the spa!  Room service!  I did absolutely nothing all afternoon but enjoy and pamper myself.  There are many things to do in Jordan (like visit Petra and other tourist sites), but I chose to be a bum.  It was glorious!

The next day (Thursday, September 7), I spent the day at the Iraq Support Unit doing work-related consultations.  Caught a ride back to my hotel, more room service, more relaxation.  I settled in early because I had to get up plenty early on Friday for my flight from Amman to DC via Paris.

Friday, September 8 I was up at 4:30 a.m. to check out and be ready for my pick-up at 5:00 a.m.  My driver took me to the airport, turned me over to an expeditor, who guided me through the check-in process at the airport and sent me on my way.  I grabbed breakfast at the airport and waited for my Air France flight to Paris.  The flight boarded and left exactly on time, which was great.  But Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport was an absolute zoo!  The flight arrived on time, but once again, I stepped off the airport onto the tarmac, caught a bus to the terminal, then had to wait 15 minutes for a bus to take me to the terminals where I was to catch my connecting flight.  With all the new security measures, I barely made it through to the gate in time to catch a bus (AGAIN!) to the airplane that was going from Paris to Dulles.

The passengers loaded onto the bus, and we drove, and drove, and drove until I thought we were going to drive to Washington!  But we arrived at the plane and were kept in the bus for another 5 minutes while the Air France guide hopped off the bus, threw her arms around one of the crew members from the plane and spent some more time kissing and hugging him.  As the passengers got increasingly grumpy, hot and sweaty on the bus.  Oh, boy...  We finally got off the bus and onto the plane.  Then we waited and waited and waited for the rest of the passengers.  Once full, we sat on the runway for at least 30 minutes and by the time we took off, we were an hour late.

I was lucky to have an exit row for the flight from Amman to Paris and a bulkhead seat from Paris to Dulles.  Suffice to say it was a long, long flight and economy class is NOT business class.  But I just watched movies (saw one from Amman to Paris and three between Paris and Dulles!), read and relaxed.  Before I knew it, we were flying into Dulles.  After the standard ride on the bus from the plane to the terminal (AGAIN??!!), I went through Immigration and Customs.  The only thing anyone asked me is if I had any food in my bags and I admitted that I had two MREs that I picked up in BIAP for my kids.  They let me through. . .

At last! At last!  I came through the doors and heard my husband whistle and before I knew it, I was hugging my youngest son and my husband, kissing and crying and oh it was everything I had dreamed of!  We kept hugging and touching and went out to the car where my oldest son was waiting for me with our dog, Buddy.  More hugs, kisses and licks (from Buddy, of course!) before we headed home.  Home!  I was home!  My husband made dinner, we watched a rented movie, and I fell into bed.  It was about 10:00 p.m. in DC, which was about 4:00 a.m. Amman time.  I had been up for 24 hours.  I had been travelling for what seemed like forever.  But I was home.  Home Sweet Home...

Returning to Post

September 29, 2006 - Back again.  I had a WONDERFUL R&R and came back truly rested and recuperated.  The wedding we went to was beautiful; I got a chance to unpack boxes at our new house; insured the kids were set up at school and with after-school activities, etc.  The time flew by, especially since I spent a day and a half at the Department of State, chatting, lobbying for my onward assignment and doing consultations.  But then it was time to return to post.

The flights back from Dulles to Amman were not bad.  In fact, the flight from Dulles to Paris was an hour early, so I had plenty of time to make my connection in Paris.  I got a great night's sleep in Amman (I can never really sleep on a plane) and left Amman for Baghdad.  Upon my arrival, I ran into some "newbies" coming to Baghdad for the first time, so I helped them through the process.  They missed their helicopter ride; mine was never confirmed, so we hung together and were able to get out late in the evening on a Chinook (a much larger, double bladed-helo).  We arrived back to the compound before 10:00 p.m., I rolled my suitcase back to my hootch, unpacked and settled in.

Lessons learned?  If you miss your helo flight, go to Tent 4 and find out if you can get space-available ("space-A") on a later flight.  Usually there is room.  If worse comes to worse, you can take the Rhino back to the compound.  But it doesn't hurt to ask/try for the helo ride.

The return to my family was fantastic.  I know they're all settled in and my darling husband is handling the whole situation extremely well.  We all know that this year is do-able.  No tears upon my farewell (but lots of long, long hugs) and I felt much more comfortable coming back to Baghdad.  It's almost three months until I go home for Christmas, but I'm confident that the family is able to cope, and so am I.

One interesting note: The weather has changed!  It is much cooler and quite pleasant now.  I'm looking forward to enjoying this climate and wondering what winter will bring. . .  The only problem is I won't be able to swim, as the pool is not heated.  There is the gym, and walking is free/easy, so I'm sure I'll do OK.  But it's downright gorgeous these days!

My Second R&R

January 1, 2007 - Leaving Again. My second R&R is over and, although I had heard it was harder the second time around, I had no idea how hard it would be. The last R&R was after only seven weeks in Baghdad; I was busy unpacking, going to a wedding and attending to the kidsí school needs. I was back in Baghdad before I realized what had happened. But, after six weeks back at post, I hit the wall and although I was feeling better after a couple of weeks, by the time I got home, I really, really needed this R&R.

The trip from Baghdad to Dulles was uneventful. I heloíd out on Tuesday, December 12 and took the C-130 from Baghdad to Amman on Wednesday the 13th. I spent the afternoon in the Iraq Support Unit at the Embassy in Amman, interviewing candidates for a position in Baghdad. Thursday the 14th, I traveled from Amman to Washington and it all went well, but the trip is soooo long and draining.

I was excited to be going home for Christmas and New Yearís Eve, so I didnít let the trip get to me However, by the time I got off the plane in Dulles, I was so exhausted that my husband later commented that I looked "beat up." But I was home, and thatís all that mattered to me. I spent the past couple of weeks relaxing, taking my kids to/from school, and just doing the normal things people do all the time. I didnít decorate much for Christmas - we didnít even have a tree - because it seemed like a lot of effort for only about 12 days. So I wrapped packages and arranged them around the fireplace, found and hung our stockings and pulled out the plastic Christmas plates and the green placemats and the red napkins, and put a few small decorations around.

Christmas was quiet and uneventful. The boys enjoyed the gifts I brought them from Baghdad, and my husband joked that I brought half of the Embassy gift shop with me. The time passed quickly while the boys were on vacation; we stayed up late and slept as long as we wanted. The boys were out of school; my husband took annual leave. We went out for lunch, for dinner, to shop and to the movies. We watched DVDs at home, snuggled together on the couch in the basement. It was glorious!

I also went to the DSAC course during the presentation on what to expect in Baghdad, and gave my two centsí worth. Another day, I went into the Department to do consultations with the Human Resources people about staffing Baghdad and the rest of Iraq. And I had a chance to say hello to some friends from my old office. It was nice to see them again.

But today - the day I leave - was the hardest. Since my flight is at night, I spent my day feeling uneasy, pacing the house, doing laundry, packing. I felt like crying, was unsure what to do and while part of me was thinking "Why do I have to leave again so soon?" part of me wanted to just get the show on the road. Settling back into the house (no unpacking to do this trip and the house feels more like my home now) made it all that harder to leave.

When it was time to go to the airport, I put on a brave face for my kids, hugged them as hard as they would let me and left. I arrived grumpy and sad and was appalled to find out that I didnít have a confirmed seat on Air France! I finally got the middle seat in an exit row, but the trip will be long and the plane is full. I even had to check my small carry-on and have only my briefcase (and laptop) with me.

I am praying that when I get back to Baghdad, I will be so busy that I wonít focus on how much I miss my family. For me, itís a visceral need to be with them. I was so glad to sleep with my husbandís warm, sturdy body next to me and to smell the nape of my youngest sonís neck (he still smells like a little boy), and to put my arms around the young man who is my oldest son, and marvel at how big heís getting. And these past 18 days and 18 nights will just have to carry me for the next 12 weeks until Spring break, when I can come home again.

January 4, 2007 - Well, I'm back at post.  So much has happened and yet everything's the same.  I had nearly 800 e-mails to look at, which took me from 7:30 a.m. until 7:30 p.m.  Tomorrow is theoretically the weekend, but I will be in the office responding and following up.  It's back to the ant hill for me!