Welcome to Baghdad

The Night Before

I once lived a town away from poverty. There was a hill that had to be climbed. Up the hill one climbed past simple houses and chain-linked fences. At the bottom of this hill was the closest thing we had to a spa (Boston for “corner store:” overpriced milk, white bread and mix-ins for liquor.) These were my thoughts as a youth. That poor people had small urban houses with patches of green lawns and a spa at the corner. How little I knew. [Poverty doesn’t have a patch of grass and a fence.]

I once peddled up this hill to my own rural home. I came up from city blocks and mafia-owned restaurants, peddling easily with my youthful fitness past houses seen on the opening of Archie Bunker’s TV show. Up this hill, over an interstate past a Giant Store, a brand now forgotten. Then into trees, tractors, dog kennels, and hay fields.

In my arrogance, I celebrated my departure from this small city. I recognized how special I was to leave and to leave so easily. Look at me go, I’d say to this hill of humble homes. I can leave. Watch me leave. How little I knew.

I think even then, that I knew I celebrated freedom. I think I knew that the enemy to freedom was poverty. What I hadn’t seen was poverty. That came a little later.

Later, on an ambulance crew in Cambridge I transported people who were malnourished and starving. Here on the steps of MIT and of Harvard, there were immigrants from Haiti that carried poverty with them and starved at our feet: Small bodies with big bellies. I remember simply taking a child with me when we were called to address the ills of an elder. None of us understood the other, language being a barrier to us all. So I took a child who was starving to the hospital.

Here it is the night before I fly into Iraq and into a war zone. I haven’t had a healthy day in weeks: sinus infections, bronchitis, and now after weeks of antibiotics: diarrhea. This has come a couple of times in the recent weeks. I remember the cryptosporidia, the giardia, and I think to myself this is still nothing compare to the horrors of poverty: the amoebic dysentery, filthy water, starvation. Like that hill I once peddled, I can go to a tent and get a pill. A pill, a bottle of water, a passport and the color of my skin – these are passwords from poverty.

And it is that ability to walk away from, to fly away from, poverty. Even here in this temporary army camp on a patch of desert kilometers from Iraq, I can fly home. Even in Iraq, I will return home for my graduate studies. There are no real thoughts of the risks, the poverty, the fears of others. I can leave. I can peddle up that hill. I can go to the Troop Medical Clinic and get a pill to bind my tummy. I take a slug of clean water from my camelback and move on to deal with the bytes of data that connect this to that and connect here to there.

During one meeting in Texas between this new employer and the team of twelve civilians, we addressed our fears. The employer has never sent people into a war zone. They don’t know what they are doing. We asked for clarification on the insurance programs, our benefits, and the requirements to be well-covered while overseas.

Regrettably, these people didn’t understand their own programs. We still don’t understand our resources. Our team got anxious about life insurance. Most life insurers require medical exams. We were only just now filling out the applications. By the time the underwriters saw our applications, we’d be in a desert. Then there were questions about the level of benefit. Oh, so much lower than the recruiter said. But that’s a recruiters job, isn’t it?

I spoke to address my concerns. I said: “I don’t fear death. There is nothing life insurance can do for me. Wanna know my fear? My fear is poverty.” I let the room get quiet. For they are paying us a fair amount for this work.

I continue, “Let me paint the picture of my fear. Then, let’s have the company address the issues. I go do this Thing. I get hurt when a vehicle backs into me, or I get hurt because something falls from the sky or I get a Syndrome (each war has one). And here I am back in the States. I am too injured and too ill to work. And yet I live. I now need care. I need special cars. I need hospitals. I need special diets. I need treatment. The more I need, the further I am from being able to work.

“It is ten years of treatments. What little money I have is gone. What I had invested in house and land is gone. There is no VA for civilians. And now I am poor because I got hurt on this job. I am so poor now that I can not sustain in this country. This,” I say, “is my fear.”

There is no safety net in this country for this. Vietnam era vets wandered the streets of Cambridge being shuffled to the city hospital in our ambulances or arrested as a 111B by the Cambridge Police.

I can lose my left foot or my right. I’ll suffer some hearing loss here. The bumps and bruises of a life lived. But to allow a gap for poverty, to see how close poverty is to even the great American is a fear.

I remember an early thought after getting the call to go on this tour of duty. I said to myself: “Oh no, I’ll have to deal with PTSD again.” Post Traumatic Stress Disorder came on like a brick wheelbarrow some years after my adventures on the ambulance. So I write only to give name to the fear. To admit the fear and to face the fear.

I read a story today in the Stars and Stripes – a paper that has long served the uniformed military and their accompanying band of civilians. This story was a full page and took the reader in to great detail through the lives and deaths of several in a platoon. Their comments were ours to read as their letters and email revealed their thoughts and their fears. One by one, the soldiers were killed and wounded taking a platoon down one or two at a time. The last of the platoon were re-assigned to another platoon and fought on. These soldiers, more and more often, don’t see their enemy. They have nothing to shoot. They drive into the night on a patrol and fear the road.

I will never see this. I will work in a palace and live in a comfortable trailer with a phone and an internet connection. Other civilians on my team may be closer to this life than I. I am but a peddle’s ride from the airport. I am but a flight from home. I can leave when I want to. That is my freedom.

That is the freedom that some 150,000 Soldiers, Marines and others have yielded. I don’t know if they even know that the greatest fear shouldn’t be the unseen IED but the horrible treatment that is served to so many vets: to so many injured, so many poor, so many of the mentally ill.

As we left Fort XXXX, there stood 20,000 soldiers ready to go. There stood 20,000 lives walking unknowing into a future; many will experience the death of a loved one, a birth, a loss, an accident, a first-word unheard. Which of these soldiers will slip through the social services cracks, the gaps between public aid and the VA? Which of these Soldiers lives will be lost to drugs, alcohol, and will be found on the streets of Cambridge 20 years from now waving a cane at the traffic or begging for coin at the Porter Square T Station? There, that is my picture of hell. That is my picture of fear.

Date: 18-DEC-2005

Author’s Note: My anticipated work environment and my actual work environment varied. I spent most of the year outdoors. I worked outside overseeing communications projects in the field. Fun, Travel & Adventure.