Saturday, May 10, 2008

One plane-ride away from pretty: Mothers Day in Iraq
  • (Photos are of my friend Cliff at the Qatar airport and of a double-wide pre-fab Army latrine)
My third embed in Iraq is going so smoothly that it's scary -- especially after the fiasco of my first embed attempt which left me stranded in the Green Zone for weeks and my last attempt to embed, which left me stranded at the Kuwait airport Starbucks for days. But this embed appears to be different.

I arrived in Qatar for a 12-hour layover yesterday and sat in front of the airport for an hour and a half, waiting for my friends to pick me up and take me on a tour of Doha. And during the whole time that I sat there, I wasn't hassled or bothered once -- not even by porters or cabbies. That's impressive. "Men are very polite to women in Qatar," someone told me. "And not only that but there are more women attending universities here than men."

"Why is that?"

"Because the alternative is to sit home and be bored." Boy I can identify with that one. Which would I rather do? Fly to somewhere exciting or stay at home and do the laundry? I need to get a job as a stewardess so that I can afford to travel full-time -- except that I'm afraid of airplanes.

Anyway, I got to Kuwait and went straight to the American airbase there and then straight to its dining facility. Yea, pumpkin pie! Hey, pumpkin pie is healthy. Pumpkin pie is a vegetable.

Then I went back to the DFAC for dinner, went to the grand opening of the newly-remodeled USO and signed up for a flight to Anbar province for the next day so that I could go hang out with the Marines in Iraq. And then I trudged out of my tent and off to the shower.

"My little girl is in kindergarten," said one young woman next to me in the shower room. I think she was a staff sergeant in the Army but I'm not good at deciphering what those bar-code thingies on military uniforms mean. "And her teacher said that she was doing really well." My reporter's instincts perked up. Could there be a story here?

"Who takes care of your little girl while you are serving over here?" I asked.

"My mother." The young woman was transiting out of Iraq after a 15-month deployment. Boy, it must have been hard to leave her child for that long of a time. "But we talk on the phone a lot," she added.

"Are you going to re-enlist?" I asked. There's a lot of talk over here about stop-loss and the back-door draft. I overhear soldiers talk about it on their phone calls back home. Stars And Stripes just ran an article that stated, "From 2002 to 2007, 58,300 soldiers were given stop-loss orders forcing them to remain in the service past the end of their enlistment period."

Another young woman who worked with the sergeant then joined our conversation. "She's going to stay in the States and work at a training unit at Fort Gordon, but I'll be going back to Iraq." This young woman had two children, ages six and ten, a boy and a girl. She also missed her kids. But for these young mothers, the Army supplied good jobs and good benefits and, like what is true for so many other young women in their position these days, there really wasn't any other viable choice.

Then we talked about what it was like back home. "Be ready for a shocker," I warned them. "The price of gasoline has shot up to almost $4.00 a gallon and the price of vegetables and meat has almost doubled." Gas was only 80 cents a gallon in Qatar.

And then we talked about their children some more and as we chatted about the hardships of mothering from afar, it suddenly hit me. Tomorrow was freaking Mothers Day! "I have four children myself," I said, "and here we all are, over here in a tent city in the middle of a desert, on Mothers Day." Group hug. And that's how I spent the evening before Mothers Day in a women's shower room pre-fab in a transit airbase on my way to Iraq.

"Stop by my tent tomorrow," I said. "I've got Girl Scout cookies." Yes! I found this base's Girl Scout cookie stash. Every base has a pile of boxes of Girl Scout cookies somewhere. You just gotta sniff them out. Hurray for the Girl Scouts!

A fellow reporter here once told me about some graffiti he'd seen in Iraq. "You b*tches all think you're so hot? Ha! You all are just one plane-ride away from ugly." But this means that the opposite is also true. We are also just one plane-ride away from pretty. And for these young women out here in the middle of nowhere -- I saw Bedouins herding camels today just outside the base -- to me, they are pretty wherever they go, whether plane rides are involved or not.

And then I suddenly woke up at 1 am. Tragedy had struck! I had to go to the freaking bathroom. So I threw on my jacket over my nightgown and bunny slippers and street-hiked off in the hot night air, past rows and rows and rows of 50-person tents. WHY do they have to put the freaking women's latrine two city-block lengths away?

"Do you know where the women's showers are?" someone asked me.

"Sure. Walk down past three men's latrines, one laundry room, another men's latrine, a men's shower, two more men's latrines and another laundry room and you're there."

And don't let nobody make any freaking cracks about me marching around this airbase in my bunny slippers. I gots my rights. It's Mothers Day!

And once at the female latrine -- consisting of 20 toilets and 20 sinks located in a 100-foot-long pre-fab double-wide -- I read the following graffiti: "There are two defining forces in this world -- Jesus Christ and the American soldier. Jesus Christ died for your sins. The American soldier dies for your freedom."

And underneath that someone else wrote, "If you believe that we are over here fighting for freedom, then you are one clueless soldier."

And if I had a pen, I would have added, "The American soldier dies so that George W. Bush can become the world's first trillionaire." But then perhaps I'm being too cynical and shouldn't go around bursting this poor idealist's bubble.
"But Jane," you might say, "all this stuff takes place in Kuwait and this story is supposed to be about Mothers Day in Iraq." Not to worry. I spent most of Mothers Day in transit to Iraq but I actually did get there by 11:33 pm. So I DID spend the last 27 minutes of Mothers Day in Iraq. So there.