July 1, 2006: When I tell people who know me that I'm going to Baghdad for a year, the general reaction is the following: the jaw drops open; the eyes bug out and the person says "Are you NUTS?"
Um, sort of. But I have my reasons - many of them perfectly good reasons! First of all, Baghdad is the key word in the Department of State right now. It's priority #1. And I'd like to be a part of all that - on my timetable. Second, it's career-enhancing. The job is a "stretch," which means I'll be doing a job graded one grade higher than my personal grade. And the financial incentives are nothing to sneeze at, either.
But mostly, I want to do something outside of my "comfort zone." I'm a middle-aged woman (a fairly well preserved middle-aged woman, but still. . .) who is a crew/lacrosse mom. I've never been outside of this hemisphere (except for a brief summer in Europe when I was 16). I wanted to do something different. And my husband, and my sons (ages 15 and 11) are behind me 100%. So why not? If not me, then who?
July 2, 2006: So, once I did all my research on Iraq and got the family on board with my plans to volunteer, I called and said "I'm in." I was assigned and had my orders before I could sneeze. Man, that was easy! Then, I started letting the realization sink in. I started to become doubtful, scared, sad, worried.
Then what I like to call the "Iraq Factor" kicked in. People - mostly strangers - started treating me differently. At the Post Office, when I mailed myself a couple of boxes, the clerk asked my 11-year old son if he was sending stuff to his "daddy." My son said no, we were sending stuff to me. The clerk looked at me with the dropped jaw/bug eyes look and said "Thank you for serving." Wow.
Hmmm. This could be pretty cool. I began to realize that people immediately respect you just because you're going to Iraq. They look at you differently. And they want to DO things for you!!! Just a modest "Well, I'm going to Iraq for a year" has elicited all sorts of help from all sorts of people!!! For example, my credit card company cut my interest rate in half. Then, when I called to cancel our frequent flier tickets for a vacation we had planned for August, Delta not only didn't penalize me for cancelling, they refunded the taxes I paid to get the free tickets in the first place!!!
Those of you who know me well know that I'm not one to take advantage of the "Iraq Factor," but I can see where some people would. It's almost like the soldier going off to WWII who tried to score by saying it could be his last chance to (fill in the blank). Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't!
July 3, 2006: So, everyone who goes to Baghdad under Chief of Mission authority (meaning, everyone who's connected to the Embassy) has to take the Iraq courses. The first part is held at the National Foreign Affairs Training Center (NFATC, a/k/a "New Fat City."); the second part is held at the Department of State's Diplomatic Security Training Center.
First, we spent 2 days learning the culture, history and customs of Iraq. Can you imagine trying to learn all about one of the most ancient civilizations in the world in two days? Neither could I. . . We also spent 2-1/2 hours "learning" Arabic. Basically we repeated whatever the instructor said. I forgot absolutely everything except "inshallah," which means "God willing." The other phrases were ones I doubt I will use ("Sister, please step to the side so we can search your person.") Hopefully I will pick up the essential phrases ("Good morning," "please," "thank you," "How are you?" etc.) while I'm in Baghdad. Then we had a half a day of information on the Embassy, what living conditions will be like, what to pack and other logistics. It was a LOT to absorb!!!
The next week is the Diplomatic Security Anti-Terrorism Course (DSAC), a/k/a "Crash and Bang." I did the same sort of course years ago before I went to Bogota in 1988. It hasn't changed much, except when you're going to Iraq, you don't get to crash (drive cars). We did get to bang, however.
We spent one day in training to recognize IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) and got to blow up some stuff so we could recognize detonators. Then we were allowed some "fam firing" (familiarization) on four weapons: the Sig Sauer 9 mm (revolver), a 12-gauge shotgun, an M-6 (like a small M-16; it's semi-automatic); and the AK-47. (Check out the photos in the album which follows this page).
In addition, we had training on recognizing and dealing with stress, on safehaven first aid (what to do in the case of evisceration, dismemberment, etc.), how to work with a security detail, what the Regional Security Office does, etc. The week was definitely "cool" in the eyes of my sons. I kinda liked it too.
July 7, 2006: Here I am, trying to be brave. And a couple of nights ago, my younger son seemed sad at bedtime. I lay down next to him, and he turned to me and cried, saying "I hate to think about you going to Iraq." I had to really, really control myself not to cry as well. Then last night my teenaged son said "So, when are you leaving?" and when I told him next Monday, he said, "That sucks." No kidding.
I have so many doubts. Am I doing the right thing? How can I give up a year of my children's lives for this? Will they hate me for leaving them for a year? How will my husband handle the stress of raising two children, doing the cooking, the cleaning, the laundry, taking care of the travel to crew and lacrosse, attending "Back to School Night," etc.? Is it worth it? Is there a price for leaving my family for a year?
On top of the stress of leaving, the owners of our current home have asked us to move out. In spite of knowing I am going to Iraq, in spite of an agreement we had about renting for an additional year; in spite of the short fuse-time to find a place, pack, unpack, get settled, etc. It was a real blow to my family and me. Anyhow, we are doing it. My husband is doing amazing things at the new place. We have had to invest in rugs, furniture, TV, etc. in order to make the new house habitable- another investment we hadn't counted on. The only positive note is that we will have a place of our own (even though it will cut into our income seriously) and we're so busy moving that we don't concentrate on my departure.
But every time I wonder whether I've made the right decision, my husband tells me that in the long run, it will be worth it. And my husband and children are proud of me. I hope he's right. I have fears and have denied my tears, but I am not looking forward to getting on that plane next week. I keep telling myself it's the right thing to do. I hope I am right. It all seems to unreal for me now. But how about when I board the plane? All I can say is "Stay tuned."