Sunday, January 18, 2004

News From Baghdad

Okay people, let’s talk.

It’s been a crazy week for me, but one of the best I’ve ever had. I have had the opportunity to see and talk to people who have taught me more about the human spirit than I thought possible. I’ll tell you about them, but first let me tell you about where I am living and my new job.

I am at Saddam’s Palace once again and I have about 75 roommates. I am living in the ‘chapel’ of the CPA (Coalition Provisional Authority), a room with such opulence and grandeur I can’t imagine what purpose it served. In any case, it’s overwhelmingly crowded with ‘newbies’ who are awaiting assignments to trailers in the back of the palace. We were told our stay would last a week at the most, but found out today it is being extended for another glorious three weeks. Granted, this place isn’t all that bad. The dust is no more, the porta potties are no more, the air quality is great, it’s very clean, and the chow hall is right outside the door. It’s all gravy…until night falls and it’s suddenly Jurassic Park. I have never been around so many snoring men in my life. It’s all around me – there is no escape – and I want to flip out. Honestly, I cannot imagine being married to a man who snores like that. Don’t yell at me for saying that – I only said I couldn’t imagine, I didn’t say I won’t. But I probably won’t. Anyway, back to the Chapel. There really isn’t anywhere to change so the men feel free to drop their drawers’ right in front of us. No kidding – SGT Campsey and I went to one side of her bunk yesterday and sure enough, the moon was out. A middle-aged white butt in our faces before 7 am. How is it possible to have a bad day when it starts out so wonderfully entertaining? The Brits are interesting people. Great accents – absolutely no discretion. Furthermore, why didn’t I get the memo that tighty whities are back?

Now on to the J-O-B. I am working for the press office of the CPA. I am assigned to cover stories about the good things that are happening for the Iraqis as a result of Saddam’s demise and our occupation in April. I am covering the growth of each Iraqi Ministry. Ministries are to Iraqis what Departments are to Americans (Health, Education, etc). The stories I cover will air in markets all over the US – the hometowns of the people I interview. They are sent from here directly to the Pentagon. From there, they are sent to each station. Apparently, there is a Presidential election coming up and the White House is eager to get the great stories out to the American public. Politics aside, this is a great mission. Collins is a Democrat. I didn’t vote for ‘W’ but he is my boss, and there are amazing things happening. You don’t hear about them very often because “if it bleeds, it leads” but there are so many undiscovered stories and I get to tell them. It’s no wonder everyone is so worried about me. The only news you hear is bad. But there is so much more happening. Since you will probably not see the work I am doing, let me tell you about it.

On Thursday I went to the Ministry of Health. For the first time in 35 years, healthcare for Iraqis is a priority. In 2002, Saddam Hussein budgeted just 16 million dollars for 26 million Iraqis. You do the math. Now the US, under the guidance of Ambassador Bremer and Jim Haveman, is helping them establish an adequate healthcare system. It’s not only a lack of funding; it’s also a lack of skill and technology. Saddam Hussein cut Iraq off from the rest of the world. He didn’t allow internet connections or technological advancement and trade. That’s progressive thinking – and that was a no-go. I met a young lady named Meso, who grew up under the iron fist of Saddam. She went to school and graduated from college, but life for her was “like being buried alive.” She said all she could do was eat, sleep, and go to school. Their libraries have about 100 books in them, most of them were photocopied and the most recent publishing date found was 1996. Meso opened up her own Pharmaceutical practice….and made $1.50 a month. Think about that. I spend $4.00 on a latte from Starbucks. She graduated from college, started her own business, and made $1.50 a month. After the occupation, she waited outside the Ministry of Health because she knew there would be jobs. She is now working closely with the Senior American Advisor to the Ministry and will be getting her PHD in the States. She has never been to America, yet she taught herself English. And now she says, “I can breathe again.”

I met a 72 year old man who has worked for the Ministry for over 50 years. It’s the only job he has ever had. He serves tea to guests and makes sure the ministers are accommodated. This is the first time he has profited from the work he is doing. For 50 years, he worked and got nothing in return. His words to me (translated by Meso), “I am not bitter, because when I serve people, I serve my God.” There are five pillars to the Muslim religion. One of them is an annual pilgrimage to the Mecca. This year, for the first time in 72 years, he is making that pilgrimage. He says this experience makes up for whatever he has been through in his life. But most of all, he still smiles as he continues to accommodate his American guests – his way of thanking us for accommodating him.

When this thing with Iraq started, I couldn’t understand what it had to do with Osama Bin Laden and 9/11. I hated what I saw when the fighting began. I had no idea if it was right or wrong and what it meant. Just because I wear a uniform doesn’t mean I know what’s right. I wanted to believe in it – but couldn’t – because all I could see was the carnage that resulted. My fellow soldiers were dying and I was in California drinking $4.00 lattes. Even after I got here, I still wasn’t sure. I knew we were helping, but I didn’t see it. I knew Saddam was bad, but I didn’t know how bad. All I saw were the long faces, the dirty uniforms, and the distant stares. I questioned the cost of saving another country. Then suddenly, after this week, it started to make sense. There was tangible evidence for me to hold on to. My uniform suddenly symbolized one woman’s chance to get a PHD, the flag on my shoulder symbolized one old man’s pilgrimage to his Mecca and my M16 symbolized the 400 plus who died to make those dreams come true. So when you begin to doubt what ‘W’ is doing, just remember there is more to this than what you see on TV. There are real stories about human suffering and one man, Saddam Hussein, being responsible for it all. We found that man hiding cowardly in a hole and the very people he suppressed are finally able to “breathe again.”

With Love,


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