A Flat Tire

I want to keep writing and I hope you want to keep reading.  I guess weather you read or not, I will still write.  This blog, Uncle Sam’s Vacation, got me through many long weeks over the year I vacationed with the Army.  I am so thankful to have this collection of essays to look back on what I was thinking and experiencing while in Afghanistan.  Without feeling I needed to write each week, I never would have kept another form of diary documenting my time.  But more important than documenting my time in Afghanistan, this blog was my way of releasing stress and removing myself from the day to day happenings.  Each week I was planning what my next entry would entails.  The planning and the writing distracted me and was the therapy I needed.  I truly believe my experience would have turned out different had I not written.
This is why I want to keep writing.  I want to continue to benefit from the therapy this blog brings and I know someday I will enjoy looking back on the history of my writing.  I need a reason to write and this forum gives me a place to put these words.  I enjoy it more than I ever thought I would.  I believe I still have things worth writing about and subsequently worth reading about.  My posts may come only a few times a month and they maybe shorter, but they will still come and I hope you will still read!
kids first day
The First Day Photo
This past week marked my return to work and the kids are all back in school.  Timyra in third grade, Timothy in kindergarten, and Taylyn at Goddard School.  I quickly learned I am no good at staying home.  Staying home comes with expectations that I will fold laundry, clean, and conduct other house hold chores I have little desire to do.  Just about the only Susie Homemaker task I find any satisfaction in is cooking.  I love life when we’re busy and it’s crazy.  I find myself doing more when I have more to do.  I have no problem folding laundry in the evening after a full day of work, running to swim practice, soccer, making dinner, and putting everyone to bed.  If I have to fold laundry at two in the afternoon because I’m home, I end up still waiting to fold it until late in the evening.
My first couple days back to work were great and I felt like I fell right back into the swing of how things work.  On my first day back I went for a run through the Franklin Park neighborhood I ran through for my last five years at Life Fitness.  I ran past a house I’ve run past hundreds of times and I noticed a van I have seen hundreds of times.  I reason this van stands out is the front left tire is flat and blocking an entire driveway in the neighborhood we run through.  The first time I remember noticing this van was the spring of 2016.  I then remember commenting in the spring of 2017 that the van is still sitting in the same place, unchanged, a year later.  As I ran in the fall of 2018 after having been gone for over 16 months, the van remains parked as now I’m starting to believe is its permanent resting grounds in a driveway with a flat tire.  I know this car has gone no where for over two years.
van 2
Final Resting Place!
I started to think about this van and its image stuck with me as I ran.  As my return to Life Fitness approached I was warned by many that so much has changed.  The company is not the same place I left and in many ways they are all right.  A lot has changed.  But if it’s not the same place I left, why did it feel so natural to come back?  We’ve all changed over this last year, yet so much of ourselves has stayed the same.  Even with that, I started to think that personally we believe we’ve changed so much that we are unrecognizable when in reality when met by those that know us best, our change is small and we are still very familiar to those around us.  It’s true at work there have been renovations, people have left, and new ones have come.  Yet it didn’t feel that different at all.  It just felt familiar.
van.jpg
Looks like there maybe more than one van permanently parked
It made me think that when you’re in the middle of something everything in your little world seems huge.  In the perspective of more, you’re just a little ant sitting at the toenail of am elephant.  Most at home believe what I saw and did in Afghanistan was heroic, but believe me when I was there I went day to day doing my job and for the most part I just felt normal.  I did what I could to pass the time.  It’s funny how a small thing like a flat tire, something that’s been constant in all my runs at work for two years was the thing that reminded me that in the grand picture nothings changed.  And what change has occurred is manageable.
These changes go beyond my office and work.  I missed a year!  That is an absolute statement.  There is nothing I can do to get that back.  Despite missing the year, I know everything is OK and just how it should be.  Nothing changed so much in the year that I can’t find where I fit again.  Within every portion of the life I missed there is a flat tire waiting to remind me I still fit in.  We’ve all changed, but not so much that we can’t easily find how we fit together.

Which Way?

For our second camping trip this summer with our new camper we spent a long weekend with my Mom’s family in the north wood’s of Wisconsin. This was a trip we took often when I was a kid. Now the kids, my cousin’s and I, are grown and we have kids of our own. I watched my babies play with my cousin’s babies just like we used to play. They were riding bikes, swimming in the lake, and taking many adventures out in the canoe to fish. There were camp fires every night that rotated the different camp sites. We roasted lots of marshmallows and laughed more than I have in a really long time.  We even enjoyed a scary story of a creeper camper that will be re-told for many, many years to come! The trip was an all around good time and we are all already looking forward to next year!

canoe
Canoeing and Fishing
chess
The Kids Played Chess Every Night
fire
Fires and Smores

I did make sure to keep up with my training while we were camping. It was almost easier to train there then it is when I’m home. The kids were so busy with their cousins that when I was gone no one even noticed. On my first training day there my dad drove me out about five miles to the nearest hwy so I could ride. The road made for perfect riding. I did a sixty mile ride on the country two lane hwy. There were plenty of hills to climb, which I need for my race in October, the shoulder was wide, and the road smooth so I could ride safely. With about twenty miles to go my dad refilled my water and I finished strong. 

 

I finished the ride and my dad took my bike and I decided to run back into the camp ground. This was perfect I had a forty-five minute run planned and the run back in would be almost exactly what I needed. I started running and at about three miles in I came to a sign on a corner that read Laura Lake Camp Group 2 miles ahead. The sign was on a corner so ahead was both right and left. On the right side there was a sign that read dead-end. So after reading the dead-end sign I went left and kept on running. After about two miles the road became a lot smoother. Something just didn’t feel right. Plus I had gone two miles and no sign of a camp ground. I started to worry.

At this point I was knew I was lost and I had a feeling at least my dad was worried about my where I was. I wanted to confirm I was lost, so what better way than to walk up to a random old man drinking a beer hanging out in his garage in the north woods of Wisconsin. I mean everything about that seems super safe. I asked if Laura Lake was in the direction I was running. He said, “No, turn around. You’ll go right twice and then the turn to Laura Lake will be on your left.” I figured ok, that doesn’t sound too bad. I can just turn around curve right twice and I’ll be back. I ventured out knowing at least I was going in the right direction. Although I was acutely aware that no one else knew where I was except this random man and I’m not sure he was going to be much help.

I set out and after another mile and feeling like I had curved right twice, yet never saw a left turn I once again became concerned. I’ve now run over three miles out of my way, I don’t know where I am, and no one who knows me knows where I am. I decide I’m going to stop the next vehicle that goes by. Well it ends up being a truck driving in the opposite direction I need to run so I quickly decide not to wave it down.

A few minutes later a women, who I later learn is named Michelle, is coming down the road on a four-wheeler with her two children behind on another four-wheeler. Without much hesitation, I flag her down and ask her where Laura Lake camp ground is. She says quiet a ways down this road, but you’re going in the right direction. Then she must have seen the desperation in my face and she asks if I wanted a ride. I’m sure I said yes before she could even get the words out. I jumped on the back and wrapped my sweaty arms around her. She does say I could hold the side of the four-wheeler, but I say I feel more comfortable this way. So with a smile, even though I’m sure I smell after a sixty mile bike ride and now a seven mile run, she drives me back to the camp ground. Come to find out the camp ground was another four miles away. She dropped me off and I thanked her profusely. She introduced herself and watched to make sure I found my camp site without incident, but at this point I did know where I was and was very happy to be back.

I found my family happily swimming at the beach. My dad, however, was out looking for me and was so relieved to see me when I arrived. No one else really knew I was missing. I started chatting with everyone about what happened and I started to piece together how I could get so lost running? Never in the twenty-three years I’ve been running have I gotten lost. So here’s what happened and the mistakes I made to lead me astray….

dead end
Which way???
dead end 2
Which way??

My run was to take me from the highway I was biking on straight in down a country road and at five miles I would be back at my camp site. In my head there was only one fork in the road that required any decision on which way to go. I remembered when we were driving into the camp ground a National Forest sign indicating you should veer left to go to Gordon Lake and veer right, but mostly straight, to Laura Lake. When I was running that was the landmark I was looking for. There is mistake number one. I was looking for the wrong sign.

Here is mistake number two, but I would love to get your opinion on which way you would have gone. Remember the sign I saw stating Laura Lake Camp Ground 2 Miles Ahead on a corner where both right and left could be ahead? I choose to go left because on the right there was a sign that read dead-end. I should have gone right.   The camp ground was down the dead-end road.

The night before when I my cousin was driving into the camp ground she did the same thing I did. She went left instead of right because of the dead-end sign. Although she was in her car so to go two miles out-of-the-way is a lot less time-consuming than when you do it running. As we were commiserating over our wrong turns we decided there were a few things they (the they we all talk about  but don’t actually know) could do to make the turn clear. One, the sing could just be on the right side of the road instead of in the middle.  Two, there could be an arrow on the sign indicating which way to go. Three, the dead-end sign should be removed. Four, there could be another National Forest sign on the right side. Sometimes it’s just a super small change that makes the difference in clarity. I say often words matter. You should call things by what they are. Use the appropriate adjectives to describe what you’re saying. All of this leads to better clarity for everyone. tay and mom

Getting lost aside, the weekend was amazing. I spent time reconnecting with all my family. I needed this time with them. I also got in two long bike rides, two long runs (although I only wanted one long run and one short one), and I swam in the lake. I have to thank my cousin for kayaking with me while I swam! Even getting lost wasn’t too bad. Michelle gave me my first four-wheeler ride. I just hope my next ride on a four-wheeler is not because I’m lost.  My question still stands…which way would you have gone?

Fears!

This last week we took a family vacation testing out our new camper and enjoying some well deserved family time. We spent the first four days at Chain O’ Lakes State Park in Indiana. Our site was isolated and close to the showers, which was very convenient yet we felt like we had our own space. We love having the camper and I see us getting a lot of use out it. We spent the days at the beach, renting a row-boat, eating smores, playing cards, and just enjoying each other.kids-kissing.jpgThe purpose of this trip was two-fold. It was important for us to spent time together as a family, but it was also important for my Ironman training. The part of the triathlon I am the weakest and lack the most confidence is the bike. In every triathlon distance the bike is always the longest portion by distance and time. In the Ironman I will easily be on the bike for over six hours and probably closer to seven. I know I have the endurance to ride the 112 miles required to finish, but what is making me nervous is how slow I ride as well as the fear of something going terribly wrong. Unlike swimming and running you are reliant on not only on yourself to power the bike forward, but also your bike to not break down. The time I will spend on the bike is one thing, but the fear of a flat tire gives me even more anxiety.

For the second part of our trip we ventured to Delaware, Ohio just outside of Columbus. We spent two nights in a hotel, which gave us a chance to regroup and do some laundry. As for me, I was preparing to race a half Ironman distance. I was SOOO nervous. I was more nervous than I was for my first marathon. I haven’t raced a triathlon, other than by myself in Afghanistan, in over two years. And I’ve never raced more than the international distance which is a one mile swim, 25 mile bike, and 10K run. The bike was giving me so much anxiety. TJ said he had never seen me like that.

On the morning of the race, we all woke at 4:30 to get me to the start. TJ then took the kids back to the hotel to go back to sleep and check us out and pack us up before the 11 o’clock check out. I arrived at the swim start at around 5 am with plenty of time to get myself situated for the 7 am start. The swim went well, or I had to problems in the water and finished the distance with no issues. Although right before the last turn to the finish someone did deliberately shove me out of his way, like picked me up and threw me. I’m not sure what his problem was and his rudeness has stuck with me. The swim is tight and you will get kicked, swam on, and grabbed, so I’m not sure what his problem was and why he took it out on me.

Then it was off to the part I fear the most. I quickly put on my bike shoes, helmet, sun screen, ate a Gu and headed out. Less than 5 miles in I was falling into a rhythm and feeling confident, as in I wasn’t getting passed as frequently as I thought I would and I was even doing a little passing my self. Although that quickly left when all the nutrition I had strapped to my bike flew off and when I took a drink of my water bottle with my nutrition mixture in it I missed tha cage putting it back and it flew off too. Within less than 10 miles I had no calories left on my bike, but at least I still had my front handle bar water. If you know me, you know I love to eat and being without food was going to start to be a problem real fast. This meant in the first aid station around mile 20 I got off my bike grabbed some Gus, a Gatorade, and ate a Cliff bar and got back on my bike to keep going. Other than that the bike was rather flat, smooth, and there was little wind. I felt good and got some really good practice riding in groups, going through aid stations and I rode about 2 miles an hour faster than I thought I would. Now I just need to repeat this twice in October with hills. No problem…RIGHT!?

finish

I was so happy to be running. I smiled the entire run. I had some cramping on my right side, but the salt tablets I was taking seemed to help and I continued those every three miles. For the run you were either running up or down almost the entire time. For the entirety of the run I passed people (if only I could bike like I run!). I made a point of saying good job or some encouraging words to every person I passed. It kept me smiling and I hope I gave some hope to those out there struggling on the run like I struggle on the bike. My smile was noticed multiple times throughout the run and at the finish the volunteer who gave me my medal said I looked like I was in excellent spirits. I told him I just didn’t have words to describe how great I felt. finishcert.pngI met up with my family shortly after I excited the finish line. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, my family didn’t see me finish because I finished 45 minutes faster than I thought I would. They were there to greet me and walk me to the car! All of this training has been a sacrifice for them and for TJ to negotiate three little kids at four in the morning and around a race site is something amazing. I can’t thank TJ enough for the support he gives me through all this. I could not ask for a better partner to do life with!
Now it’s time to push through these last eleven weeks of Ironman training. I am still scared of the bike, but I learned a lot from this race. I’m also scared that this may have been my peak. One hope I have is the day after I felt really good and not like a raced the day before. I just felt like I had a really good training day, so I hope that means my training is on track and will all pay off in October.

After the race we took the camper to another camp ground in Ohio for two more days. On our last morning I got up early to get in a run before we left. As I ran I came upon a trail so I started running down it. I quickly noticed it was called the Moses run and as you ran along the Ten Commandments were posted along the trail.  There was something kind of nice about running this trail, in the rain, after a long race that calmed me and gave me some much-needed reminders.

Right now I may only be half of an Ironman, but I’m getting closer.  It also does feel pretty good being half of one!  I’m scared about what October has to bring.  I’m scared about having the time to train like I should.  I’m scared that my children won’t ever understand how significant an effort this last year has been.  But despite all these fears I know it’s ok to be scared.  I need to take this energy and use it to reach my goals!

Homecoming Grace

On July 4th 2017 I arrived at Resolute Support Headquarters Afghanistan, my final destination on my journey to Afghanistan.  As a perfect ending to a year-long journey I arrived at O’Hare airport on July 4th 2018 at two in the morning.  My original demobilization orders had me arriving home on July 16th, and since anything can happen when traveling with the military I told everyone at home I would be home on the 16th.  In May I found out I could move my dates to the left one week.  I wanted to try to be home for Timyra’s birthday so I moved the dates and just told TJ I would most likely be home on July 9th.

When I arrived in Norfolk on June 27th we started to hear we maybe able to get home by the 4th of July.  Since I love surprises I took this opportunity to surprise everyone, even TJ.  I asked my sister if she could pick me up at the airport, and at this time I thought it would be sometime on the 4th.  Well my sister loves surprises as much as I do, so she quickly got her creative mind working and came up with three ways to surprise them.  Then she gave me the options and I chose to have her give each of the kids a box filled with the remainder of their Hershey Kisses.  When I left I gave each of them a large bucket of Hershey Kisses.  Each day they would eat one and when they were gone then I would be home.  So on the 4th they thought there were still twelve days left until my return.  My sister put twelve kisses in each box then wrote Welcome in one, Home in another, and Mom in the last.  After they opened them Timyra read the message and I came downstairs to join them.  boxesAll of this was a great plan, however the mixture of the Navy and the airlines made this early adventure home a true adventure.  Two days before I was coming home, I received a ticket for the evening of the 3rd and I was scheduled to land in Chicago at 8:45 pm.  Our intention was still to move forward with the surprise on the 4th and I would spend the night at my sister’s.  Then one day before I was expecting to leave my ticket was canceled due to an issue with the Navy’s ticket billing account.  When the ticket rebooked instead of a direct flight from Norfolk to Chicago I was moved to a flight that went to Washington DC and landed in Chicago at 11:15 pm.  Just to put the icing on this traveling cake all my flights were delayed and I didn’t get to Chicago until 2:00 am on the 4th.  family home

I can’t thank my sister enough for picking me up in the wee hours of the 4th of July and helping me pull off the surprise.  TJ was so surprised.  I think he was in complete shock.  My mom just screamed, “No!”  Timyra was happy and just wanted hugs.  Timothy cried and Taylyn I think was in as much shock as TJ.  Although this time Taylyn knew who was I was unlike when I came home back in February when she thought I was a computer screen.  She also asked me after the surprise if I could come home with them. fireworksThe rest of the day was great.  My sister and her husband hosted us for dinner and their front yard in conveniently located to view a spectacular fireworks show.  I can’t remember the last time I watched a real fireworks show and not one put on by my husband and the neighbors.  This was the best way to end one of the best days of my life.

The transition home has been slow and I am asking for grace and patience from everyone.  I need you to remember I was gone a year and a lot has changed in that year without me.  I am mourning so many things and I need the time to get there.  While I was gone the reality of what I missed was lost.  Now that I’m home I see those things and I need time to mourn that loss and figure out where I fit again.  For a year all I did was take care of myself and I have to reintegrate myself into a world with other people.  There are so many things that are breaking my heart and I have to get through them and I need patience from all.  It hurts when every time I leave Taylyn asks me if I’m going to come back.  It’s painful when someone asks me who are Timothy and Timyra’s music teachers and I have to say I was gone a year and have no idea.  I don’t even know what to tell people to buy Timyra for her birthday.   There are so many other moments that hit hard each day and the tears are always close.

I’m not writing this asking for simpathy, this is just a process I know you will not understand.  I am writing to let you know that I am asking you not to be offended or hurt if it takes me time to get back to the way things were.  And honestly I’ve changed and it may not be exactly the same, but it will be close.  Everything is just raw right now and I have some healing, changing, mourning, and resting to do.

Please continue to reach out.  I sincerely appreciate it.  But I’m asking that if I don’t get back to you right away know I love the gesture and I will get to you in my time.  I have not even been home a week and the adrenaline is still pumping, but as that fades I will need to know where I fit in this crazy and amazing life at home.  I want to see all of you and give you hugs and I promise I will.  Just let me do it on my time!

 

#COUNTINGNOTCOUNTING

Don’t worry everyone, I’m out of Afghanistan and getting closer to home.  Unfortunately the longest part of this journey so far has been these last few weeks.  I’m out of the routine I had in Afghanistan and living out of a sea bag with no routine and lots of traveling.  Since June 26th I’ve been in the USA, yet I’m still TOO MANY DAYS away from home.  At least I’m only one hour ahead in Norfolk rather than ten and half hours.  Although I know these days will pass and I will be home again back into my routine with my family, it still seems like it’ll be a long time until I’m home.

touching wall
The Porto Nigra in Trier

When I left Qatar on June 21st there was an interim stop in Germany for six days.  The purpose of this stop was to give us time to decompress before we get back to the States.  We did things like have a beer (or three) and wear civilian clothes.  They took us on two day trips, one to Kaiserslautern and the other to Trier.  Germany is certainly not known for its food, but the beer more than made up for what they lacked in food.  I did have a wasabi burger  on one of our outings, which really hit the spot.  I also ran most days and even got one swim in, in a twenty-five meter pool.  It felt good to run outside in clean air and swim in a full length pool made for lap swimming.

big beer
Beer As Big As Your Head
hamburger
Lunch

There were a few things I noticed right away when I got to Germany.  The first time I took a shower I wore my shower shoes to the shower and I had every intention of taking them off and well, I forgot.  I was so used to wearing shoes to shower I simply forgot I didn’t need to anymore.  Also I had to remember to have water with me again.  I’ve carried a water bottle with me everywhere since high school.  While in Afghanistan I stopped because the water is not potable so there are water bottles everywhere.  I never needed to think about water, I always just had it!  We were also laughing saying we’ll need to remind each other that the water bottles in the gas station are not free!

a year later
Looking Good After a Year

When I got to Germany I met up with three of my friends who were with me last year for training.  After training they went off to Africa and I was off to Afghanistan.  There is something really special about finishing this journey with the same people I started it with.  We may have gone our separate ways for a year, but we’re all on our way home together a year later.

flags
Airport in Germany

We left Germany late afternoon on June 26th.  After an eight-hour flight to Baltimore and then having to wait in the Baltimore airport for four hours for our buses we arrived in Norfolk at 3:00 in the morning on the 27th.  After a few hours of rest we started our check out process at 9:45 a.m.  The process to get us out of here is slow and the best way I can describe it is elementary.  Throughout the last couple weeks of traveling my patience for others has grown low.  Now I’m going through a check out process created as a one size fits all solution.  By this I mean for every piece of paper we fill out there is a meeting and they walk us through it line by line to ensure we don’t make any mistakes.  So for something that would take me three minutes to do on my own, now takes thirty.  For the remainder of this process, which will take way too many days, I’m turning off my brain.  Someone else is doing all the thinking for me, so I’ll just surrender and let them.  By five p.m. on that first day back I was ready for bed.  I’m still waking up way too early, but eventually I will readjust to the time zone!

On my first night in Norfolk the Commanding Officer from my first ship the USS Essex, Captain Brian Donegan (retired), picked me up and took me to his home for a home cooked dinner.  His wife Jennifer made an amazing meal with lots of vegetables, grilled steak, and blueberry cobbler with ice cream for dessert.  I’m sure I wasn’t the most engaging guest because I was so tired, but their company and food was top-notch and I am so thankful for their hospitality.

Their hospitality continues while I’m here working on getting home.  Yesterday Jennifer picked me up so I could do laundry.  There was no where for us to stay on the base so they put us in a really nice hotel downtown Norfolk.  This is nice except there is no laundry and I am not authorized a rental car.  I spent Friday afternoon at their house doing laundry like a college student who came home for the weekend.  Then they took me out for pizza.  Next to the pizza restaurant was a grocery store.  I had not been in a grocery store in a year.  They noticed a huge smile when I walked in.  I bought myself blueberries, blackberries, cherries, raspberries, full fat Siggi yogurt, and Smartfood cheddar popcorn.  My breakfast the next day was one of the best I’ve had in a year!

breakfast1.jpg
Sooooo Yummy

As I was leaving Afghanistan my rug guy gave me a rug as a going away gift.  It was all wrapped for shipping so I didn’t get to see what it looked like.  I just put it in the mail and sent it home.  The rug arrived the other day and my mom sent me a picture.  He gave me a gypsy rug and it is really nice.  I will not forget the kind Afghans I left behind!

rug
My Rug Gift

So the time is going slow, but VERY soon I will be home and I can’t wait!  #COUNTINGNOTCOUNTING

Fast & Slow

It’s funny how fast and slow I year goes by.  Just a year ago I was sitting in Qatar waiting to go forward to Afghanistan.  Now I’m sitting here waiting to go home.  It is still the hottest place I’ve ever been and it is still the same as I remember it being last year.  Although it does seem to be a lot windier, and wind in a desert means you get a good exfoliation everywhere you go.

flight to qatar
Flight from Bagram to Qatar

For dinner one of my evenings in Qatar, I met up with a Sailor who I deployed here with a year ago.  Throughout the year we were stationed at different locations in Afghanistan, so this was the first time we saw each other since Qatar, which seems like a quick year ago.  He was one of the Sailors who walked around the airport with me in Germany to get our steps in before we re-boarded the flight that eventually took us to Qatar the first time.

dinner with nate
Dinner a year later!

Well I was walking through a sand storm to the gym I started to really think about the year I just spent with the Army.  My entire time there I continually stated how much I disliked the Army.  Now, I am still very happy I picked the correct service and joined the Navy, but I really believe my distaste for the Army comes from one Army Officer and one Army Officer only.  The first Army Officer I worked for certainly made the time go slow.  We had a really tough time seeing things the same way. I struggled a lot to make our working relationship work.  He was one of those officers who walks around demanding respect for the rank he wears rather than earning his respect through being a leader and setting the example for his troops.  This style of leadership is VERY contrary to mine and it made for a difficult first half of the deployment.  After a few critical conversations with him that lead to no change I knew I needed to do something else. At the six month mark I had a long and fact filled conversation with his boss and we decided it was best I move somewhere else.  This move turned into a blessing and my remaining six months flew by much faster than the first six.

So to set the record straight, the Army really isn’t that bad.  My Sunday runs were full of great Army guys.  I ate breakfast with the Army and enjoyed it.  For movie nights and waffle nights I went with my Army brethren.  I don’t know if it’s because I’m on my way home, but my heart has most certainly softened to the Army and I will remember the majority of my time with them with fondness and I may even get a little nostalgic.

I want to give a thank you to my Life Fitness friends.  Back in October a group of them sent me a tent for my bed and it was seriously the best.  It gave me my own little sanctuary and I had a little space to call my own.  It almost made it seem like I was on a ship again.  On the ship we each have our own rack (bed) that has curtains you close and it gives you your own little space.  I enjoyed the tent so much that is was the last thing I packed to send home.  On my very last morning in Kabul I packed it up (after watching a YouTube video on how to do it) and sent it home.  I loved it so much I didn’t want to spend even one night there without it!  It certainly helped the time go by more quickly. Now I’m sure my kids will love it just as much as I did!

last time in bed
Last Night in My Tent

I’m not sure I shared, but I had a really hard time digesting the food the entire time I was in Afghanistan.  At the beginning I had terrible headaches and I just felt awful.  I started using Nuun water tablets multiple times a day and that helped a lot.  My salt and electrolyte levels were so off and I wasn’t getting the nutrients I needed on a daily basis just to feel normal.  I never got used to the food there, but at least my stomach was hurting all the time.  I stayed away from many of the fresh vegetables, which helped, but I LOVE vegetables and I missed them so much.

Now I am working my way home.  In Qatar I saw cauliflower for the first time in a long time.  I don’t remember seeing it in Afghanistan at all.  I ate plenty of it.  I ate so many vegetables in Qatar, I don’t think my stomach was ready.  Although I was so excited to eat them again and they tasted so good.

last dinner
Last Meal in Qatar…and the Middle East

As I work my way home I have to start getting used to the way things were.  I’m sure the adjustment will be fast.  While in Qatar I swam in a pool that was a full 25 yards, verse the 17 meter pool I swam in, in Kabul.  The first few laps felt very strange and went by slow, but by my second swim there I was used to the length again and it felt like nothing changed.  As with everything the food, the people, my family, and work…I will get used to it again and it will all feel normal once more.

I’m onto the next step of this journey home…I’m waiting for a very early morning flight to Germany!

I Was Surprised…..

packed
PACKED

I was so sad. I flew from Resolute Support Headquarters in Kabul to Bagram Airbase yesterday. I was genuinely sad to leave. The emotions were real and strong. Please know that I am over the moon excited to go home, but something about being here has changed me and leaving Afghanistan after being here for a year was really hard.

boys and luggage
My Sherpas 

As I reflect on the sadness I think it’s because of two things. The first one is the friends I’ve made and the way we come and go from this deployment. In the past when I deployed with the ship, we all left together and came back together. We pulled in from the deployment and shared the moment of coming home together. Then we would go our separate ways, but it didn’t seem so much like an end but a happy start to the next chapter. With this deployment to Afghanistan we are all coming and going on our own schedules. As I leave I’m leaving behind good friends and there were friends who left before me. I am coming home from this deployment by myself. It all just seems so much more permanent and sticking. This deployment has a finiteness to it that hurts a little more than the end of others. There is something sad and unsettling knowing that many of these friends I made over this year I will probably never see again. And it hurts having to leave some in the fight while I go home!

navy
A small sample of the great Navy friends I’m leaving behind….DF JH for life!
crazy navy
Stole my phone…maybe I should rethink missing these fine Naval Officers!

The second part of my sadness is leaving the Afghans I got to know over this last year. I am sadden that there are such good people living in such an unsafe place. During my last week one of the Afghans, Amir, who owns a coffee shop on base invited me to Iftar. Iftar is the special dinner they eat to break the fast each day of Ramadan. The wife of one of his employees made the dinner and it was so delicious. I was honored to be included in this celebration and will miss these people.

This leads me to a long over due update on the Afghan Girls from Free to Run. First of all I want to thank everyone who to contributed to the GoFundMe campaign I created to raise money to buy the gear they need to participate in their races. All of you helped me raise $2300 and I was able to purchase everything needed plus a few extras. They were delighted and I am glad we were able to do something so simple yet so impactful for these women of Afghanistan.  I handed the runs over to two very capable and lovely women who will continue to bring the girls to the base to run every other Friday.  This program has been so important for both the women of Afghanistan and the military personnel.  For the women they are given a safe place to run while being supported by another group of runners that includes men who are bringing them up rather than bringing them down.  For the military members on the base we are able to see the goodness in Afghanistan rather than the negative we see otherwise.

last sunday run
Last Sunday Run

Without a doubt it’s time for me to go home and I know I am ready, but it can still be sad to leave something knowing it will be forever.  I rode my last ride on the Watt bikes and after that last ride I threw my shoes away.  I’ve had those shoes since I was 17 and over my time here they rotted away and there was basically nothing left of the back of the right shoe.  I’m sure if someone did a lab culture on the shoes they would come back with more bacteria than a truck stop bathroom.  I do have a new pair waiting for me at home along with my new bike I have yet to ride.

For the first half of my time here I would eat breakfast with group of watchstanders from the Joint Operations center.  Many of those personnel moved to a different base and my breakfast crew changed.  When I got back from my mid-deployment leave I flew back from Kuwait with an Army Lieutenant Colonel.  In general I am not a huge fan of the Army and especially Lieutenant Colonel’s (I might tell that story in an upcoming post), but this one didn’t seem so bad.  We started eating breakfast together back in March and it just became the daily routine.  He would eat his two hard-boiled eggs with fruit and I had my peanut butter english muffin with fruit.  We were also often joined by a few other Naval Officers and he always joked that the only friends he had on base were Navy.  He has six kids and one day he was going through their names and he couldn’t remember his youngest son’s middle name.  He said, “oh he’s the cute one, but I just can’t remember.”  Of course I had to say you probably have too many kids when you can’t remember all of their names.  He was a great friend and made the mornings better.

breakfast
The Last Breakfast

On my last Wednesday a Navy Commander I traveled to western Afghanistan with back in August was back at Resolute Support Headquarters filling a gap for a week.  Andy (the Commander) and Chris, a good friend of mine (hopefully new life friend), and I went out for lunch together.  I thought it was really nice to see someone I started this journey with the same week it was coming to an end.  It really made me appreciate how far I’ve come this year.

lunch with chris and
Lunch…A Year Later

To all my family and friends please know this journey home is going to be long.  I won’t be home for another month or so.  I have a lot of little stops a long the way before I finish.  Be patient with me as I transition back and let me do it on my own time.  It took me time to get used to being gone.  I’ll need time to get used to being home again!

365+ Elephant Pieces

one-bite-at-a-time-001

June 4th marked the 365 day mark of Uncle Sam’s Vacation! When I started this journey, June 4th of 2018 felt like an eternity coming.

As I approach my last week in Afghanistan I’m finishing up last minute work and tying up all my loose ends. The part that is surprising me the most is I am having a hard time giving up my responsibilities. I find myself still caring too much about my work and not turning it over, which is not good for anyone. Each day I try to spend less and less time in the office just to ensure I don’t do more than I should and allow my replacement the time he needs to learn while I’m still here to answer questions. My replacement and I have had a strange turnover. He came here to replace someone else, but my actual replacement didn’t seem to have what it takes to do this job, so they sent him somewhere else. This means the person taking my job has been here for a month and we’ve had a turnover much longer than necessary. Now I am just waiting for our NATO Civilian to come back from leave, and then I. CAN. LEAVE! I was asked to stay until his return to make sure there was some continuity in the office.

I’ve taken this deployment in stages and broken it up in small pieces. I did the best I could to always count up and never down. #countingnotcounting Before I did my first marathon my dad told me never count down. When you’re approaching mile marker 26 the following point two miles can feel over whelming. Instead he told me to think about the 26 miles I just ran not the less than a quarter mile remaining. This is good advice for this deployment as well.  As of today I’ve made it well over 365 days, yet the month I have left until I get home seems so long even though it’s such a small portion of this entire journey. Before my I left my dad said don’t forget about the elephant. You can’t eat such a large animal in one giant bite; it takes many small bites and lots of little elephant pieces.

me and food
YUMMY

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The best part of this deployment has been spending time with the Navy again and wearing a uniform proudly.  Most days I was in an Army uniform, but having my Navy friends here made even wearing an Army uniform bearable.  Most Saturdays we, the Navy,  would get together for dinner and enjoy our fellow sailor’s company.  For my last Saturday we did my favorite, Afghan food and Cards Against Humanity.

Our “rug guy” Arian “smuggled” food in for us.  Since it is Ramadan there are a lot of religious rules around when food can be prepared and eaten.  I’m not sure how he managed it, but he brought in some super delicious food.  We were even honored to have him stay and break his fast with us.  It was really special and meant a lot!navy night

 

 

We had a few extras for this Navy night since it was my last Saturday here.  I may have had to apologize to them since they were all new to Card Against Humanity.  Although they were all good sports and had fun with the these dirt Sailors!

 

So just a few more small bites and this deployment elephant will be gone. Then onto the next one! #ironman2018  I was honored to be presented with a patch from my Navy friends saying Death Before DNF.  I decided I’m bringing this patch with me and will have it on my person during the entire Ironman!  Afghanistan is where I did the majority of my training.  Afghanistan certainly represents a Death Before DNF time in my life.  If I was able to get through this year, there is no reason I can’t finish my Ironman….There is no DNF in my future!dnf.jpg

555-6792

 If anyone other my sister can tell me where 555-6792 comes from I will be fully impressed. Any takers?? This is a phone number that was sung on an episode of Cheers. For years afterwards my sister would repeat it. Last year I watched all of Cheers and I heard it again. Neither of us knew the context of which the phone number was sung, but she always remembered it. When I finally got to that episode I remembered instantly Charlsie singing the phone number. I called her that same day and gave her in the context of the phone number.  In season 10 episode 16 Frasier and Lilith take Frederick to see Nanny G, a children’s performer, for his second birthday. Nanny G ends up being Frasier’s ex-wife and an ex-wife Lilith knows nothing about. At the end of the episode Nanny G sends a jack in the box clown to Cheers and when Frasier winds it, it sings 555-6792 which is Nanny G’s phone number.

So why this long story about a random phone number on some TV show from the 80’s? Well this little jingle of seven numbers jumped into my head on Friday. As I was setting up for a four hour and fifteen minutes ride on the bike my phone fell off the bike and turned off for its last time. I want to give you a little history on this phone. My phone is four years old and the screen has been severely cracked for eight months. Every time I turned it on I was thankful it actually turned on. When I call home it often switches on and off. Although what I found was this phone has become my security blanket….as I’m sure this is probably true for at least 80% of the people reading this right now.

I started my four and fifteen minute ride with no phone. It was just a steady state endurance ride. I didn’t need my app to tell me how hard to ride, I knew, but I just kept thinking how will this ride count if it doesn’t register on the app? Reality is the ride counts and it still happened weather my phone told me it did or not. I struggled through the entire ride. The first ninety minutes there was a spin class in the room so they kind of distracted me. Then I asked a fellow Naval Officer if she could stop by my room and grab my surface pro so I could as least have music. She brought it back, but I could not get it to connect to the WiFi, so no music, but I did have some TV shows downloaded so I watched Big Bang Theory for the last two hours. Although TV is not nearly as motivating as music.

I learned a lot on that ride. I was shocked with myself at how easily I fell apart. Without my workout app and music you would think someone cut my legs off and I was not capable of riding at all. I even just gave up with less than a minute left of the ride. I got off at four hours, fourteen minutes and two seconds. I never do that. Usually I ride longer than I need to, NEVER shorter. I know at some point while I’m racing I will remember how hard it was to finish (well almost finish) that ride. I won’t have my phone or music while I’m racing so I really needed this.

In the days that followed the loss of my phone I had to get comfortable without it. I had all kinds of issues syncing my Garmin to my surface pro. I don’t think I actually ever did and it messed up the time terribly. For a while it was a week off, but when I turned on the GPS to run it fixed its self. Without going on and on about the loss of my phone this gave me a moment to really evaluate my training and I really needed to. How in this last year did I get so addicted to workout technology? I sat down and looked at my Ironman training plan and figured out how to make it work, and convinced myself my workouts all still count! I found some peace in it all while 555-6792 kept going through my head.

ready for parade
Pre-Parade Enthusiasm

 

To put things in perspective this last week we celebrated Memorial Day. This makes my phone “drama” seem very silly. We all celebrated, but we in Afghanistan celebrated by doing what we do every day here. Go to work. We are working for what you are celebrating. My parents took the kids to a Memorial Day parade. We never missed the Memorial Day parade growing up. If only I had a picture from high school in my marching band uniform! This year I’m wearing a uniform, just an Army one! Happy Memorial Day! I hope everyone took the time to enjoy a long weekend, but also took a few minutes to remember those who wore a uniform and worked so you could rest in freedom!

Cultural Syncretism

This week I was introduced to a social concept that hit home for me and I am committing to fully utilizing this phenomenon for my last few weeks here in Afghanistan. The idea is called cultural syncretism. One of my Italian friends mentioned it and it stuck. This is the definition of which I’m embracing: Syncretism is a combination of separate concepts into one new, unique idea. Cultural syncretism is when an aspect of two or more distinct cultures blend together to create a new custom, idea, practice, or philosophy.

For the past couple weeks I’ve been escorting a few Italians over to the pool twice a week to swim. The pool is at the U.S. Embassy and the only way our international partners can enjoy it is if one of the U.S citizens escorts them. I was honored to be asked by a Two Star Italian General if he could join me twice a week while I swam.  So now Tuesdays and Thursdays we go over to the pool. I swim for an hour, they swim for 40 minutes and then catch some sun while I finish my workout. The Italians are enjoying the American culture with the ability to swim here in Afghanistan, but then they blend it with their cultural norm by also resting and enjoying the sun.

general swimming
Proof of a Two Star Swim!

This last week while they were sun bathing the General asked the Major, Francesco, how old he thought I was. So when I got out of the pool the General asked me how old I am and I answered thirty five. Well the General took this as an opportunity to say Francesco thinks I’m old, he thought I was forty. I was instantly slightly offended. Francesco did his best back pedal and said he calculated my age by taking into account how many children I have and my rank in the Navy. Based on those two facts, and those two facts alone, he says he figured I had to be forty. I probably will give Francesco a hard time about this until I leave!

chesco and I swimming
Right After Being Called OLD

As we about to leave the pool the General made a comment about speedos.  So all the Italians swim in speedos and then put shorts on afterwards to sun bath.  His comment was he doesn’t understand the American’s aversion to them, they still wear swimsuits which show just as much anatomy.  He was referring to a speedo style swimsuit, but long, like bike shorts.  I believe this maybe a topic in which Americans will not synchronize with the Europeans.  Although the Americans do blend a speedo with a more traditional swimsuit, so that is still Cultural Syncretism.

Since I started swimming with the Italians, I’ve certainly started to embrace cultural syncretism. Francesco is actually the person who introduced me to the concept. When I was done swimming I used to go back to the office and eat lunch there. Now I do my afternoons Italian style. I go to lunch with Francesco, the first time I went I ate quickly and left early to get back, but I quickly realized what was I getting back for? Nothing was the right answer. So now I enjoy my lunch with them and I’ve even started accompanying them to the Italian NSE (national support element), the building they lounge in, and having an afternoon Italian coffee before I head back to the office. So far I have missed nothing at work and I’m enjoying my time that much more. I like Italian syncretism!

This last weekend I received my NATO medal at the monthly NATO medal parade. Each month everyone, and I mean everyone, who has been here more than a month receives the non-article five NATO medal. This medal doesn’t really speak to any true accomplishment other than breathing, but it has become a rite of passage.   I am close enough to leaving that I was given a medal. I now have a medal proving I survived the NATO environment of Kabul, Afghanistan. I was fortunate enough to get a picture with my Italian Two Star General and swimming partner, Major General Bettelli.

general and award
My Italian General after I received my award!
russ and award
A Running Friend, Russ, we’re out of here soon!

 

 

While I was home my dad mentioned something that stuck with me.  He said you know you are the one that is changing.  The people at home will be relatively the same when you come home.  I believe, for the most part, he is right.  When I get home I will have to sensitive to the fact that I will need to reintroduce myself to my family.  I will have to learn where I fit and culturally synchronize myself with them.  This experience certainly has changed me and opened my eyes to a world I can’t truly explain.  Afghanistan, like many things in life, unless you’ve been there you can’t describe it, it’s an experience.  However much I’m ready to go home and be with my family I will have to be aware that I’ve changed and they managed without me for over a year.  Although I have no doubt, that with a little time we’ll be back culturally synced blending ourselves back together creating a family that is wiser and stronger and ready to take on anything!