Best Regards from Baghdad

My One Year in Iraq

Motors in the Morning

August 14, 2006 - Today for the second time since I got here, my morning wake-up call was a huge "boom" and feeling the earth move as I lay in bed, sound asleep around 6:15 a.m.  I must be honest and say that we do get random mortar attacks here.  They never get reported in the press because (a) there's no press here in the compound that would report it; and (b) most of the mortars are duds.  The greatest danger is that the mortar might hit something and bounce around.  They are big and heavy, so the damage they can cause is related to their size and the fact that they fall out of the sky at great speed.  I haven't seen any mortars and usually when we hear them explode, they have landed far away from the compound.

Shortly after a mortar attack, the "Big Voice" (which is broadcast over loudspeakers everywhere in the compound) announces "Attention in the Compound!  Attention in the Compound!" and then will tell us whether we need to "Duck and Cover" or not.  "Duck and Cover" basically means if you're in a building, get to a safe area (no windows), sort of like where you'd go during a hurricane.  If you're in your "hootch," you stay put.  If you're walking outside, you run to a "Duck and Cover" bunker, which is like a large cement oven.  Then you remain in that safe area until the Big Voice calls the "All clear."

Sometimes when a dud mortar lands, the Big Voice will announce that a "controlled detonation" will take place in five minutes.  Then when you hear the "boom" you know that it was because the munitions experts have exploded the mortar on the ground in order to destroy it. 

There is no pattern, rhyme or reason for the mortar attacks.  They are totally random and luckily haven't caused any damage to the Mission in a long, long time.  But they are a reality of life in Baghdad.

Duck and Cover - Actual Recording!

This is a recording of what the "Duck and Cover" drill sounds like.  Thanks to Patrick Harvey for putting this together!  I don't think any of us will ever forget this voice and sound:

Security Issues

November 1, 2006 - In spite of the tone of my website/blog, I feel obligated to remind people that this is a war zone.  We do take security very seriously here.  I had to get permission to take pictures of the Embassy compound and the Palace, and I am careful not to show the faces of anyone without their permission.  I never post photos of our Iraqi colleagues or show room numbers, office names, etc.  For all my joking about shooting guns, taking the Diplomatic Security Anti-Terrorism Course, etc., security is always in our minds.  We have duck and cover exercises, where we have to go into designated areas with no windows and wait. 

Getting in and out of Baghdad is not like getting on a plane to Paris - you can figure that out from the "Getting There" and "R&R" sections.  You have to be aware and prepared for anything at all times.  However, we get all the training and equipment we need; there are a lot of Regional Security Officers taking care of our security.  As long as the "civilians" follow the rules, our chances of getting hurt are slim.

But if you're thinking of coming to Iraq, do take security seriously and follow the instructions you're given.  If you are not security aware, you are putting yourself and those around you into harm's way.  It's OK to laugh and keep things light, but always do the right thing.

Enough of the sermon!  Everyone has the same goal: To do the job, do it right and get home safely.

Health Issues

November 22, 2006 - Tonight at dinner, our Embassy doctor (Dr. G) commented that my website doesn't have anything about health issues.  So I promised him I would write something.  The most common problems seem to be dehydration (drink that water!), diarrhea (do NOT brush your teeth with the tap water - use bottled water!), and "the Iraqi crud" (upper respiratory infections).  It is dirty here - lots of sand and dirt - so it's best to wash your hands as often as possible.  There are sinks in front of the main DFAC, there are bottles of antibacterial hand sanitizers all over.  So take care and wash your hands often.

If you DO get sick, we have a large health unit that takes care of us here. In the waiting room, there is a huge, flat-screened TV, and an X-box that was donated by some of Dr. G's friends in Microsoft.  (They replaced one that had "died" and couldn't even be resuscitated by the Health Unit staff members - see photo below.)  There is candy, soft chairs, up-to-date gossip magazines, etc. so that you don't mind waiting.  The Health Unit has doctors and orderlies ready to take care of you, and a small pharmacy in case you need something.

My biggest problem is trying to eat healthy.  The DFAC (a/k/a "Defaccio's") serves hearty meals, but if I try very hard, I can find something decent to eat.  But the temptations are there (especially on Mexican night - ah, those burritos!) so I have to be careful.  It helps to choose good friends to sit with at dinner.  Dr. G eats a lot of veggies, refrains from eating meat (although he chows down on the lobster on Sunday nights and the crab legs on Tuesday nights), etc.  Of course, he also eats 2-3 desserts per dinner.  Bad influence.  But I am trying not to go back as a chunk or a drunk or in a funk when I leave here.  I may not make it as a "hunk," but I do try to get to the gym 2-3 times a week, get as much sleep as I can and limit my desserts to one per day.

The other health issue is to try to keep mentally healthy.  (Read "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues" below.)  We have a full-time social worker, a Regional Psychiatrist who comes on a quarterly basis, and lots of support from your friends.  Keeping an optimistic outlook is definitely necessary, but if you need help, it's there.

So, this chapter is dedicated to my friends at the Health Unit.  Thanks to all of you for all you do for all of us!


Even Cowgirls Get the Blues

November 5, 2006 - I've been feeling a little blue for about a week now.  Just not myself.  I've been tired, depressed and not sleeping well.  Plus I have put on 10 pounds in about 3 weeks!!!  I went to see the doctor and he's testing my thyroid (my cardiologist lowered my meds when I was home in September, and since it takes about 6 weeks for the new dosis to kick in, this may be it).  He gave me sleeping pills to see if I just need a good night's sleep (or nights' sleep).  Thursday night I slept for 11 hours; Friday night I slept for 10 hours.  I do feel better today, but could still barely get out of bed at 7:20 a.m. even though I turned off the lights at 10:20 p.m. AND I took the sleeping pills.  Not sure what is going on.  Have I hit the wall?  Is that constant adrenaline rush keeping me awake, which in turn makes me anxious so I can't sleep?  Then I get up tired, get my adrenaline going to stay awake, etc., etc.?  I sure hope I can get my sleep patterns figured out and my life settles a bit.  I need to start drinking more water, continue to work out and get some decent sleep. 

One thing, though.  Even though I'm fairly certain this is just a phase and I will snap out of it eventually - whether via better living through pharmaceutials, or the phase of the moon will change or whatever - if you are not in Baghdad and your loved one is and you call them, or they call you, and they are blue, be nice to them.  No fights; no "Oh, you'll snap out of it" or "So what's the big deal?"  Believe me, everything in Baghdad is a big deal.  So be patient with us because small things tend to irritate us more than they would if we were in a "normal atmosphere."  Even cowgirls get the blues, OK?  Listen to us, help us move on, but be prepared.  You can't be working 24/7, losing sleep, missing your family and not eventually "boink" as they say in the Tour de France.

One good thing that has happened today is that Saddam Hussein was found guilty.  There has been celebratory gunfire since the announcement was made.  We're all under "caution" as the day progresses, expecting since we're expecting both celebratory gunfire and hostile gunfire.  Where's my AK-47 when I really need it?  (HA HA!)  Although in the mood I'm in, I could be seriously dangerous!!!

November 8, 2006 - Today is my birthday.  And today I feel good!  Tuesday night I got up, sat at my computer and wrote down all the things I was angry about and wrote nasty things about all the people I was angry with.  Very cathartic!  Then, yesterday I took my lunch hour and went to my hootch and cried for a half an hour.  Then in the afternoon, a good friend/colleague back in Washington called and listened to all my complaints.  And made me laugh.  They say laughter is the best medicine and it was!  I had dinner with my boss, who made me laugh some more.  And this morning I woke up, back to my normal self.  The day was full of challenges, but none of them got me down.  I went to see the doctor (no test results yet), but I've lost 6.5 lbs of the 10 pounds I put on.  Must have been water weight or stress or who knows what.

Today I invited all my friends to help me celebrate my birthday.  We took up two tables, the caterers brought me a cake and announced my birthday and a room full of total strangers sang "Happy Birthday" to me.  It was fabulous. 

November 15 - It took a while, but I'm finally feeling better.  The past two weeks have been painful.  I missed - for the first time in my Foreign Service career - the Marine Ball.  I turned down an invitation for a "Girls Night Out."  I just didn't feel like being with anyone.  And then, suddenly, I woke up and felt better.  And I've been that way for about a week.  The lesson for me here was that everyone, anyone, can become depressed.  But there is help and you just have to reach out for it.  I was able to get by without anything more than some good sleep, burrowing in and taking care of myself.  Some people need more than that.  If you come, be willing to get the help you need.  If you loved one needs help, make sure they get it.  For me, though, it's over.  Baghdad Anne is back on top.  The hump is over; the moon is no longer full.  The cowgirl is back in the saddle again. 

Mass Casualty Training

November 29, 2006 - Tonight we had training for the "First Responders" who are basically the people who would show up in the event of a Mass Casualty situation and get victims ready for transport to the hospital.  The training was very organized and we had a chance to do hands-on in four areas: airway clearance; victim transport; splints; and bleeding.  The Health Unit will also give more training and then we'll do a practice run.  We'll also get a chance to get training in CPR.  Stay tuned for more details; in the meantime, enjoy the pictures!

The Ransom of Red Chief

March 2, 2007 - Tonight three of my colleagues (Karen, Linda and Mary a/k/a/ "The Twins" because they are, in fact twin sisters) and I helped the Marines with their scenario training.  We were the "hostages" to a suicide bomber and another "terrorist."  I got to ham it up by calling in the situation via phone (first warning clearly "THIS IS A DRILL") to Post One (the main Marine post).  Then I sobbed that I had seen some armed men entering the second floor of the Palace and that I was scared and that a bunch of us were hiring in one of the offices. 

The scenario called for us being "rounded up" by the "terrorists" and then we were holed up in a corner office.  Of course, while we waited to be "rescued" we spent a lot of time laughing and making jokes and plans on what we would do once we were "rescued."  The Det Commander (the "Detachment Commander" i.e. the guy in charge of the Marine Security Guards) came and gave us some pointers.  After a long, long wait, our ever-ready Marine Security Guard burst through the door and we "hostages" hit the floor and stayed low while the Marines "took out" the "terrorists."  It was quite an experience.

The point I want to make here is, apart from the giggling and silliness we engaged in, the Marines take their job seriously and do train for all kinds of scenarios of possible "breaches of security."  It made me feel good that they do this to keep their skills sharp.  My oldest son's godfather is a Marine I met at my first post - part of the MSG Detachment in San Jose, Costa Rica.  I was the maid of honor at Charlie and his wife Ruth's wedding, they are my son's godparents and I'm their oldest son's godmother.  I have a soft place in my heart for Marines and especially for the MSGs who work at our Embassies around the world.  To them I say "Hoo-rah" and "Semper Fi."  Thanks for all you do for us cookie-pushing diplomats!!

The Fungus Among Us

March 3, 2007 - It's a beautiful spring day today and a Saturday to boot.  So for lunch many people dined at the tables around the pool.  The sky is blue, the weather is gorgeous.  But my lovely lunch was slightly spoiled when Dr. G dropped by to ask me if I had posted anything about the "Foot Fungus Outbreak" yet.  Seems that there is an outbreak of a nasty brand of athlete's foot in one section of the Embassy which will go unnamed because (1) I'm a professional; and (2) I'm afraid of retaliation by the people who work there - powerful beings all.  Anyhow, Dr. G was thrilled to tell me that they have located "Patient Zero," who is now quarantined and forbidden to shower in the gym or any "public" bathroom until his cure.  Why am I posting this?  Because Dr. G is in control of all things in the Health Unit.  Would YOU like to go in for a tetanus shot and end up getting five  vaccinations in a series of something totally unrelated?  Not me!  Besides, we all need a laugh once in a while - laughter IS the best medicine, right?

The Cycle of Strife

June 12, 2007 - Being in Baghdad is like being in a cruel science experiment in some ways.  When I found myself utterly depressed back in November, I decided it was a one-shot deal.  Wrong.  I went through another blue funk about 5-6 weeks after I got back from my second R&R.  And I pulled out of it.  But I thought to myself that perhaps there was some sort of cycle going on with me personally.  I noticed that both times that I got very bummed out was about 5-6 weeks after returning from an R&R.  So I decided to bide my time and see if it happened again after my third R&R.

And, oh my gosh, did it happen again or what?  Sure enough, about six weeks in from my last R&R, everything seemed to fall onto my head: work issues, the pressure of being here, the agony of separation from my family.  For about 10 days I could barely function, crying in my little twin bed every night, feeling very sorry for myself and angry and frustrated and all sorts of other, non-positive feelings.   But I feel like I have pulled out of it - again!

Thankfully we have the Social Worker here, who has spent quite a bit of time with me when I've gone through these funks.  Of course, he also told me that I was "high maintenance."  Hmmm.  When I was single and going through A-100, one of my male friends told me that I was "built for comfort, not for speed."  (Seriously, good thing he was a very, very good friend; otherwise I would have been deeply offended.)  So I'm wondering if I have gradually become "high maintenance" over the years; or whether it's Baghdad that has ratcheted up my neediness.

Anyhow, it was sort of interesting to step back (in my mind) and observe myself.  I'm not saying that everyone will go through this cycle, but for me, it was so obvious and marked that it was almost scary.  Kind of a "cycle of strife" - my own, private phase of the moods.