Tuesday, July 16, 2013

And the days that followed...

We went through the cycle of getting the call, him leaving, and him returning 3 more times in a week before March 19, 2003 - the day America set boots on the ground in Iraq. 

When you're stationed overseas the Morale Welfare and Recreation (MWR) people provide US programming on a limited number of channels for your television so you can understand what you're seeing and get a piece of home.  Those channels are on a system called Armed Forces Network (AFN).  When we were there, there was AFN News, AFN Europe, and AFN Pacific.  AFN News rotated (at the time) between CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC.  There were planned "times" each would be on and then after the "prime" news sections were over, it went to other programming.

I curled up in front of the tv from early in the morning on March 19, 2003 knowing there were embedded journalists and wanting to give my husband the very best idea of what he was in for if our unit ever got the authorization to leave.  I watched hours of the news taking notes on where they were, how far we'd gotten, and what was going on. 

When AFN has "commercials" they aren't like US commercials for rather obvious reasons.  Instead you see bulletins of what's going on in the various communities, reminders to bring your passport, and tips on living overseas successfully.  I had a "love/hate" relationship with these "commercials".  Sometimes they were informational and helpful.  Other times they were annoying and once you'd memorized all of them you just craved when something new would come out.

Halfway through that first day of watching the tv a new commercial arrived.  It was an announcement I would later hear from my husband.  It was a list of planned protests, their dates, and their locations as well as protests already occurring and the pertinent information.  These protests weren't for Americans by Americans.  These protests were against Americans and the invasion of Iraq.

Two days later came the news.  I can't leave our tiny housing area encompassing less than 5 city blocks without checking that list.  Ever.  And if there are protests in our community, well, tough.  You're stuck.  If there are protests in the community I wanted to travel to that day, well, tough.  You're not going. 

At first I didn't understand why and then the reports began to come back.  A tourist beaten in the streets.  A soldier at a bar beaten nearly to death for being an American. 

You become torn between living your life and fear.  Sure, you can avoid the planned protests, but what about the unplanned ones?  How do you live?  How do you survive?

When I did leave our housing complex the writing on the sidewalks got worse.  My rather "American" car (a Saturn) was easy to spot among the far more common European style vehicles on the road not to mention my license plates said right on them USA.  I'd drive down the road and children and adults alike would yell insults and spit on my car.  I couldn't bear to look at them.

This change came over about a week, but it came so fast and it was so hard to adapt to.  To go from being free to being chained, from living in peace to living in fear.  And yet again...it happened in the blink of an eye.

Monday, July 15, 2013

The Call that Came...

(for previous articles in the series you may have missed, click here)

And then the day came.  The night before he came home and held me so tight I could barely breathe and he didn't have to say a word, I knew what that hug meant.  He was leaving. 

I had the option to go with him to send him off or leave him at home.  Knowing my pregnancy and emotions we decided it would be best for both of us and my safety if we had  me stay at home.  I helped him finish packing the backpack he would take with him.  His duffel and gear was already loaded up and in with everyone else's gear which they would get when they got to a safe place down range (inside Iraq).

After he fell asleep that night I snuck a note in his bag down where I hoped he would find it when he needed it most telling him how much I loved him and all the things I just couldn't bear to say to his face.  I sat there and prayed in front of the backpack while he slept and asked God to please keep him safe if he could but to give me peace in my heart. 

The next morning I woke with him and we barely talked.  I remember constantly running to the bathroom under the guise of "pregnancy needs" but really was just giving myself a minute to let the tears out and then washing my face off so he couldn't tell.  A deep breath and back out I would go until I couldn't hold it in much longer.

One last hug and whispered "I love you"s and he left.  I watched him walk out that door and heard him get into the car.  As I heard the engine start I knew it could be the last time I heard that noise from the old VW we'd picked up to get around easier and the tears began to fall.  I called my mom and cried my eyes out and she cried with me.  I don't even remember words - just tears and sobs for over an hour and knowing she was there.

I couldn't lean on my neighbors, their husbands weren't in the Cavalry so they weren't leaving yet.  Just mine.  I felt so alone as I sat there in that apartment with the dog and cat both vying to be close to mom.  They knew I needed the comfort and so they sat with me and were content to just be there.

The day went on and I muddled through lunch.  I didn't really want to eat but I somehow managed to choke something down.  I cried myself to sleep sometime in the afternoon and then I heard the door creaking.

Why was the door creaking?  No one had a key!  WHO IS BREAKING INTO MY HOUSE!??!?!?!?

I tried to come up with a game plan for a 6 month pregnant woman to take down an intruder (and in hindsight none of them were very good ideas...) and then as I sat there shaking my bedroom door opened.

Sweaty and exhausted there stood my husband. 

I didn't know a 6 month pregnant woman could get out of a waterbed that fast!

I flew into his arms.  They had been cancelled for leaving today.  I would worry about the rest tomorrow.  For now, I had him back and that was all I needed in the world.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Pre-Deployment Days

(to catch yourself up to now, please stop here first.)

To clarify for a moment, I was 22 years old, 5 months pregnant, and he's going to IRAQ????  We aren't in Iraq, we're in Afghanistan.  What the heck is going on!??!!?!

Yup.  Iraq.

I went straight to bed.  I didn't even get undressed, I just flopped there and passed out.  I was so overwhelmed in every way possible that I couldn't even think.  Deployment.  A war.  Invading forces.  If I'd had the energy I would have been wide awake, but I just couldn't make it.

The next morning I woke up and stretched.  He'd already gone to start the process of getting signed into post and I was just taking my time.  Slowly the tail end of the day before came back to memory and I didn't even want to get out of bed.  I got up anyway, walked to the commissary (military grocery store) and picked up some food to eat for a few meals.  At lunch he came home with a box of "cooking gear" we could use to cook and eat until ours arrived on the big boat.

I wanted to ask a million questions but he asked one first.  "So, do you want to stay?"

I only knew one thing.  If my husband was going to war in 1 day, 1 week, or 1 month, I was going to spend EVERY second with him I could find.  "I'll stay."

The rest of the day was meetings in the housing office and scheduling further appointments.  We were told housing was tight but it was unlikely that we would be able to get something we really liked/wanted and that being picky was not really an option.

10 days later we moved into our new apartment 24 miles from base but still on old military housing from a base that was shut down.

1 day after that my husband walked in the door carrying a HUGE duffel bag.  As he slowly took the gear out of it to take the tags off and prepare everything I sat in silence.  If I could give him strength I would be there.  I would not cry.  I would just sit there.  I took laundry downstairs, took piles of tags off gear.  I found the dog tags with a notch.  You never want to see those with someone you love's name on them.  That means they're expecting large numbers of casualties.  That means there's a good chance they aren't coming home.

By the grace of God alone I held it together.  There's no other earthly way I could have done it.

Until he was trying to put on his flak vest (bulletproof vest) and couldn't get it laced up tight enough on his own and I had to help.  My hands were shaking as I bent down and began pulling on the strings making jokes about how my former time as a Renaissance reenactor was finally coming in handy.  As I stood back up he put his hands on my shoulders and said, "I love you."

I smiled back and said, "You better."

The next day he was off for the weekend and they were expected to leave early the next week.  It would likely be our last time together for many months.  We walked off the installation and into town and as we passed the school he asked me to translate the graffiti.

I refused.  He didn't need to know the horrid things they were saying about him right there on the sidewalk, written in chalk by the children of the neighborhood.  Some things were better left unsaid.  I told him I couldn't translate it because I didn't know the words.

He knew I was lying. 

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Fast Forward

From Dachau to the next part of our story is a whirlwind that encompassed 5 years and my husband and I falling in love and getting married.  3 months after our wedding we came down on orders for "Europe".  2 days after that, we found out we were expecting our first child. 

What that means is "you're going somewhere in Europe".  It doesn't mean you get to pick where you go, but you're going, so go get your passport, vaccinations, and prepare to remove every ounce of dirt from everything you've ever owned so your household goods clear customs. 

4 months after that we were getting on a plane going....somewhere.  We gave our fish to the guys that moved us as a gift and a bunch of other stuff went away or into storage and across the ocean we went.

After we got off the plane we went to what could best be called a "sorting facility".  My Army husband went into the building to get his orders and tell me which bus we were taking me, the dog, and the cat on to travel to our new installation.  He came back out smiling from ear to ear.  He'd been reassigned to the exact location he'd been at the last time he was in Europe.  We were going somewhere familiar (to him) and even better, we were going to be staying in Germany.  I was ecstatic!

After one L-O-N-G bus ride we arrived at USAG Schweinfurt and were shuffled off the bus into a small room where we got our speedy class and afterwards hopped into the European version of a mini van escorted by a tall black gentleman who helped us load our luggage into that backseat.  He took one look at me and said, "you're pregnant".  Ummm...yup.  Kinda hard to hide that at 5 months...

The next words he said shocked me to my core.  He turned to my husband and said, "you need to send her back.  Now."

Say what?!??!!  I've been dreaming of living in this country my ENTIRE life!  I'm not leaving now!!!!!  My husband looked at the panic in my eyes as I tried to figure out what was going on.  They were speaking "Army" again and as a new military wife I couldn't keep up.  It was like listening to someone talking half in English and half in a foreign language.  The Sergeant dropped us off at our quarters for the next few weeks until we found housing and after climbing 4 flights of stairs I flopped on the couch in our temporary housing utterly exhausted and completely confused.

My husband came and sat down beside me and said, "it's your choice.  We can keep you here or you can go home, but I won't be here for very long.  We're scheduled to deploy into Iraq in two weeks."

Thursday, July 4, 2013

The Prelude Continues...

The next day we arrived in Munich, which as I said I had been dreading.  We had to promise one thing to go on the trip.  When we stopped in Munich for 2 days, 1 of those days had to be spent in Dachau.  That morning, we woke up and all shuffled to the lobby for a trip that would change the rest of my life.

While most people have heard of Auschwitz and the 1.3 million people murdered or starved to death there, most are not familiar with Dachau.  Auschwitz's Concentration Camp, to give you a brief understanding, was not even constructed until after September 1939 when Germany invaded Poland.  The first victims were the inhabitants of the small town of Oświęcim, the real name for the town that the Germans already called Auschwitz.  It was completely destroyed to make room for what would become the largest concentration camp in the Third Reich.  It consisted of 3 compounds.  Auschwitz I served as the base camp.  According to Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, Auschwitz II was "the final solution to the Jewish question in Europe" and the first large scale death camp designed solely for that purpose. Auschwitz III served as a labor camp. Because the surrounding town had been completely demolished, there were no "neighbors", no people to help.  Just those who worked at the compound and their families would have been "outside witnesses".

Hitler was elected Chancellor of Germany and took office on January 30, 1933.  Dachau, in comparison with Auschwitz, was much smaller and one of the first 4 camps built for political prisoners and opened on March 23, 1933.  Those initial political prisoners were murdered in 1934 and replaced by Jehovah's Witnesses, homosexuals, and emigrants.  A new, larger camp was constructed in 1937 with a capacity of 6,000 and more political prisoners arrived along with the first Jewish prisoners, 11,000 of them from Germany and Austria in November of 1938.  In 1939, the Sinti and Roma came to "reside" there as well and in 1940 13,000 Polish came to the camp. Mass shootings of 4,000 Soviet Union Prisoners of War in 1941, 2,500 "invalid transports" were killed by gas in 1942, and 10,000 Jewish prisoners were killed "though work" in 1944.  There were also medical experiments conducted on prisoners for 3 years before the camp was liberated on April 29, 1945 by the US Army.

When you entered the camp there was something in the air that just froze you in place.  It was as if you could feel the horrors emanating from the ground and the very air around you.  Walking the lines of the barracks, seeing the roll call area, and looking at the displays of enlarged photographs was sobering but there was nothing to explain, there are no words for what it felt like as you walked past the rows of barracks knowing you were heading toward the crematorium. 

On the way to the back, there are buildings I was not expecting to see.  After going to the crematorium and attempting to mentally process what I was seeing and hearing I went to these small buildings. I am still humbled at seeing, right next to that crematorium and the barracks 5 religious facilities erected after the liberation.  The first, the Catholic Mortal Agony of Christ Chapel (1960), followed by a Carmelite Convent (1964), Protestant Church of Reconciliation (1967), Jewish Memorial (1967), and the newly built Russian Orthodox Chapel (1995).  I remember going into the Catholic Chapel and sitting in the pew trying to wrap my brain around what I was witnessing and the horrors that had occurred in that spot.

As I walked back up past the barracks to the main building where the memorial is now housed in the former SS Officers building I remember looking beyond the fence and it dawning on me. 

There were houses there.  Houses that would have been there prior to 1940.  Homes that people lived in, where children played.  People that were RIGHT THERE and did nothing.  An elected official took that land from those people and killed tens of thousands of human beings in someone's backyard.

You may have noticed the date of this post.  Today is July 4, 2013, Independence Day for the United States of America.  A day when we celebrate throwing off tyranny and clothing ourselves with liberty, truth, and justice.  In 1932, those same families were free to say no.  In 1933, they were powerless.  It happened in the blink of an eye.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

A Prelude...

Many of you are not aware that I actually traveled to Europe before I lived there. :)  This first posting of the "In the Blink of an Eye" series is going to be able that trip.  For the record, I visited the countries in June of 1996 while I was still in high school on an "unauthorized" school field trip.

My memories begin in the airport in Berlin, Germany.  Prior to this trip the only other country I had been in was Canada and only in the major cities.  I was excited as our beloved German teacher pulled us all aside while we were waiting for our luggage to arrive and told us with a big smile, "I want you to go out and experience Europe...just don't tell me about it!".  Herr Luke was not just our teacher, he was also someone we really admired and looked up to.  We all knew after this trip we may never see him again because he'd lost his job at our school and many of us felt it was partially because of continuing with this trip after the school said it was not allowed (but France and Spain were acceptable for their clubs).

During the 36 hours we were in Berlin I met up with my boyfriend, a soldier stationed overseas and his best friend (the man I would someday marry many years later).  I also had my first cigarette (given to me by our tour guide while hearing a lecture from her "off the books" about how everything great in the world came from Germany that reminds me now of the father in My Big Fat Greek Wedding).  It also included my first legally consumed alcohol and lots time spent just walking around the immense city.  I remember being utterly shocked at how "open" they were about...well...everything.  It seemed like everywhere I turned there was another sex store or poster promoting some club with naked people on it.  The people on the streets looked decent enough but if those streets had been vacant I honestly would have expected people to come out wearing absolutely nothing at all!  I was from Chicago and no stranger to cities, but for it to be this "in your face" was a whole new concept to me.

I cried as I said goodbye to my boyfriend on got on the bus to what would be my favorite city of the journey, Prague.  I fell in love with what was called Czechoslovakia at the time but remember being stunned again as I drove past the Berlin Wall and into what had, until rather recently, been East Germany.  The destruction from Communism was rampant.  Beautiful buildings crumbling in every city we passed, sometimes on purpose, other times by accident.  There was no outer sign of faith on most buildings or even in buildings.  When we made it into the city I went and found this gorgeous old cathedral, Katedrála svatého Víta or St. Vitus Cathedral.  I stayed in that beautiful home of the Archbishop of Prague for hours on end.  Cathedrals fascinated me and this was the first that I ever got to go into since I was not Catholic.  I was befriended by a priest while in there and he gave me an excellent tour as we struggled through broken German, broken English, 0 knowledge of Czech, but a decent grasp of Latin on my part. :)  LOL  (For GORGEOUS photos to show you how I fell in love go here for the interior and exterior of this amazing Cathedral!)

The next country we went to was Hungary and we lived in Budapest.  Hungary was quite the blur but I fondly remember Apricot Schnapps (which apparently you can't buy in this country!  Peach, but not apricot - it's not the same!!).  Hungary, however was being occupied by another country.  Men dressed in black carried large rifles that I now know were AK-47s.  They scared me half to death.  We were told to avoid them and not speak to them for our own safety.  I accidentally took a wrong turn getting off the Subway and ended up lost.  The only people I could find were those men.  I was a terrified 16 year old girl with no knowledge of the country's language and completely alone.  I knew enough to know that made me an easy target.  One of the men in black motioned for me to come over.  I was shaking in my boots but you don't say no to someone with a fully automatic rifle.  Fortunately he meant me well.  In broken English he asked where I was supposed to be and then personally escorted me to the Subway stationed and helped me find the stop I needed to get off at and got me back to safety.  I am forever grateful for that man, whoever he was and was immensely relieved to make it back to the safety of my circle of friends and fellow travelers and regaled them with the tale over even more Apricot Schnapps. 

Next on the tour was Vienna, Austria.  Yet again I peeled off from the group in search of my own solitude, this time to a large park I found in the heart of the city.  I walked the formal gardens, ate a lovely chocolate sundae and then found out that there was rum in the chocolate sauce and ended up being rather tipsy for the first time in my life.  For the rest of Vienna I think I slept, I don't really remember why.  The next day we were in Salzburg, home to The Sound of Music and I loved learning all kinds of trivia and such but we had a brief few hours before we were back on the bus to drive to Munich, the place I was most excited to visit, and also dreaded most of all. 

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

A Glimpse of the Past

10 years ago my family lived in Germany where we were stationed for 3 years while my husband was serving in the US Army.  I have often heard people lately talking about how we "are headed down the path of Europe" and surmise what may become of the USA.  They talk about how fast it can happen, how quickly it all can change.  How we are "on the brink". 

I've lived in that brink.  10 years ago I was right in the center of what would eventually become the chaos we now see in that region of the world.  10 years ago the chaos in the Middle East looked similar to what we see today in Europe, just to give you a timeline "perspective".  I don't have all the answers, I don't know all the right things to say, but I feel like I'm being led to share with you some true glimpses into what my daily life looked like during that time.

I moved to Germany pregnant with our firstborn son.  I had been to the country once before in my life and my husband had been stationed at the same base previously so he had a good lay of the land.  I had taken German in high school and college so I had a basic grasp of the language, but certainly nothing highly impressive.  I could "muddle through" at best, but I refused to let that stop me from embracing this lifetime of an opportunity.

When we reached our military base we were to be stationed on we were immediately put into a classroom despite it being rather late in the evening.  We received instructions on how to stay safe, what areas to avoid, and what areas we were explicitly not allowed to go into.  We were told when classes would be available to help us learn how to live in that country.  We were even advised on the best choices of how to dress, act, and behave in public - all in under 60 minutes.  It was "Germany in 60 Minutes or Less" and it didn't do much to prepare one for the realities we were about to face. 

At that time, the US was just a few weeks from invading Iraq and that choice would take the brief class I'd taken and the knowledge I had gained through friends and push it to the brink.  Over the next few weeks, I will share more of these stories of what it was really like to live in that time in a foreign country and how it felt to attempt to have a normal life while also keeping my family safe.  Bear with me as I'm also vacationing, but it's been laid on my heart to share this with you, and I feel it is necessary for you to understand precisely what can happen in the blink of an eye.