Living in the Zone
by Lois C. Fiorelli
followed by Q&A
Saturday, December 31, 2005, Kuwait City, Kuwait
Sand. Expansive areas of it. The color of coffee with cream. I felt our plane circling as it descended. Tiny roads. More sand. Tents.
It’s a desert. What do you expect?
My new life didn’t include Etienne Aigner purses and shoes or weekly dinners and Scrabble at Mom’s. Instead, it consisted of camp politics, battle buddies, and daily intelligence updates.
As a Navy reservist deployed to the Mideast, I needed to familiarize myself with the region. I studied terminology, policy, and organizational charts soon after my combat boots hit the ground. Settled into my job as squadron legal officer. Ignored the camp’s stale urine smell. Decorated my hooch. Next, I wondered how to show family and friends what life’s like in a combat zone. My training as a journalist seized me. Look for stories, take notes, and report through newsletters .
To: Kuwait Group
Subject: Small price for freedom
Sent: Sunday, January 15, 2006
Greetings to all from the desert. We're actually at Kuwait Naval Base, or KNB. Within KNB is Camp Patriot, the American compound created at the beginning of the war. Look for us on a map. We're located at 28 degrees 52 minutes north latitude and 48 degrees 17 minutes east longitude. Camp Patriot is home to all U.S. military services and is run by the Army and the Air Force.
Although Kuwait is not currently at war, reminders of it are everywhere. The Iraqi’s slaughtered Kuwaitis during the first Gulf War in the decaying Naval barracks where senior officers now live.
A brick wall topped with Constantine wire surrounds much of our compound. You can see pockmarks where the brick is chipped away. We’re told Sadam Hussein’s men caused those when they executed innocent Kuwaitis during the first Gulf War.
Reminders of that bloody war even exist in the air. Navy Explosive Ordnance Disposal techs find unexpended rounds on the beach and detonate them. The sound of killer firecrackers breaking the silence when we least expect it.
Our camp carries reminders of this current war every day. Service members heading to Iraq process through Kuwait and out-process here before going home. Men like Billy, a soldier I met last week while watching the news.
“Time for me to go home,” Billy said. His eyelids sagged, causing the skin around his eyes to tighten.
I wanted to understand his dejected tone. “Sounds like you’re sad.”
“Strange as it may seem, ma’am, I’d rather stay.” Sweat began to soften the jet-black ringlets of hair around his temples, ears.
Say what? I hunched forward in my chair. “Any specific reason?”
He looked at the TV screen, magazine rack next to it, a motivational poster on the wall. “Feels more comfortable. My home life. Things aren’t the best at home.”
“Wanna talk about it?”
“Naw.” He tapped the pocket Bible I held. “Can you pray for me? To accept the fact I have to leave?” His hand reached for mine.
Billy and I prayed for a minute, then he said good night. Haven’t seen him since.
Though a portion of our camp’s population is transient, like Billy, many of us will stay in Kuwait our entire deployment.
Clearing barrels outside the dining facility, Post Exchange, Operations Center, and entry control points, or ECPs, remind us this is a war zone. Anyone carrying a weapon must clear it before entering camp or those buildings.
Reminders of conflict exist in the TCN watch. Armed sailors accompany Third Country Nationals, or TCNs, as they drive septic tanks through camp everyday.
This is a desert, and yes, dust covers everything. Our compound is paved with gravel rocks to help keep us from breathing dust when we walk. Most of the tents raised when Camp Patriot sprang into existence are gone. The remaining tents are being dismantled, but can’t get shipped stateside. They’re contaminated because of particulates adhering to the fabric.
It's easy to call home. A PODS-like structure houses six satellite phones, enabling us to dial direct, free of charge. I can also call through the Defense Switching Network to an automated number at Camp LeJeune, then dial my AT&T phone card number.
The dining facility serves Baskin Robbins’ ice cream at lunch and dinner, and my room has an Ethernet connection. Life is good, just dusty .
Monday evening, I checked my Comcast account, wondering if anyone in my Kuwait group had replied to the email.
Subject: Re: Small price for freedom
Sent: Monday, January 16, 2006
Thanks for the letter. Very interesting. I’d love to send you a care package, but am unsure of what to send. What do you need? Want? Books, magazines, toiletries?
Take care of yourself. We're all thinking of you and your comrades .
Fears about getting chastised for sending the newsletter disappeared. I knew exactly what to ask for. Tuesdays With Morrie. The bestseller was high on my reading list. I asked Annette if she could send it, then read Lois T’s note.
Lois, a member of my church, wanted to know how to help meet my spiritual needs. I had a stash of Christian rock CDs, but not any soft worship music.
From: Lois T
To: Lois Fiorelli
Subject: Re: Small price for freedom
Sent: Tuesday, January 17, 2006
I will get right on the request for worship music. I have several wonderful CDs, but am not sure how to mail anything. Will it get to you?
Better sign off now. May He give His angels charge over you - to bear you up on their wings that you will not even dash your foot against a stone .
Lois T. and Annette showed me folks cared about the well-being of deployed troops. The high I got from their email wore off by midweek, though, as legal issues rose within our squadron.
The ex-girlfriend of a squadron sailor waited until he deployed to slap him with a paternity suit. She filed the suit as soon as his paycheck increased due to our tax-exempt status.
We filed paperwork for the judge. Explained that the sailor couldn’t appear in court because he was deployed to a combat zone.
“Scan the letter. Email it. Pronto,” I told the enlisted man. “Let me know as soon as you hear from the court.”
“This is crazy.” Neck muscles tightening, he split ‘crazy’ into three syllables. Kuh-ray-zee. “My ex knows I’ve always acknowledged I’m the father of her child,” he said.
“Let’s hope the judge postpones this case. Your current wife’s pregnant? She doesn’t need this stress. Nor do you.”
To me, the ex used the paternity suit as a ploy to get the sailor’s money. Did she realize her actions impacted a military unit providing force protection for the war? I got angry every time I thought about the woman.
My emotions switched gears again when another friend responded to my first newsletter. Lydia lived in St. Augustine with her husband Barry, a host of cats, and an adopted Jack Russell Terrier. We met when I found the Jack Russell. I looked for someone to adopt the dog because I couldn’t keep her. Lydia and Barry came to the rescue.
Now we’re friends, and I’m Aunt Lo to Noggin, their spoiled girly dog.
Subject: Re: Small price for freedom
Sent: Wednesday, January 18, 2006
Thanks for your update. It's sobering to hear what your day must be like. Makes me feel very lucky and thankful for you and all who work with you. God bless and keep you safe until we see you again. Noggin sends wet kisses. Love .
My hormones careened like an uncontrolled ship. Why am I in the desert? How will the experience change me? Whose life can I touch? I expressed my thoughts to my pal Sheryl, even though email still didn’t bring any news from her.
Sent: Thursday, January 19, 2006
A good friend of mine suggested while deployed I take time to be me; accept myself; learn who I am. I've come a long way since you told me you saw fear in me, yet I have a ways to go on the path of getting rid of it. This morning I thought about fear while proctoring an advancement exam. I'm still fearful of how others see me. How I look, how I dress, and what they interpret. Should I care? No.
I'm fearful of being vulnerable. Every time I hear Pastor Kim talk about being open and transparent, I cringe inside. For me, being vulnerable has meant getting stomped on. Misunderstood.
Sometimes I think I'm incapable of sharing from the depths of my heart. You've told me before I have much to give to others. Sometimes I see the much and at times I don’t.
I've thought about post deployment. You told me you were concerned about my integration into the civilian workforce and asked me to seek help when I transition. I can already see the difficulties. This is a different way of life. I don't want to get locked inside a cube again. I still need to seek the purpose, the type of field to enter. Please pray for me to entertain new avenues and allow God to guide my next career.
I started thinking of the Chris Rice song, Life Means So Much . Am I living life to the hilt? I want to be on the journey, seeing life and exploring it. Maybe somehow after Sissy Dog died a part of me did too.
There’s plenty of time to reflect on life and where I'm going. What plan God has for me. How to accept myself as I am. I know you're rooting for me and praying for me, as I pray for you. Yes, God has me here for a reason and part of it is to listen and learn about myself. Carpe Diem, my beloved friend. Thanks for all the times you've encouraged me, supported me, and listened to me .
Maybe Thursday night’s intense look at myself saved me. I studied Friday’s afternoon sky, my first sky-watching experience at Camp Patriot. The clouds looked like a mountain range. I envisioned snow blowing off those mountains, wintry winds creating near whiteout conditions.
On Saturday morning, I didn’t have to imagine wintry winds. The flag jerked outside my window. The moaning, whining of the wind whipping around the corners of buildings in the compound created a creepy atmosphere.
Sandstorm? I prayed the dust didn’t cause further damage to my swollen, infected sinuses.
After breakfast, I retreated to my room. Listened to the metallic drumbeat of the flag stanchion thumping against its pole while I reviewed a legal investigation. Took a late morning break to check email.
Subject: Love From All
Sent: Friday, January 20, 2006
Came over a while ago to visit Joshua. Thought I’d send a message. Your package is ready and I will send it tomorrow. I put a long note in with it. Hope your sinuses are better. Today was a pleasantly warm day, but I wish it were more seasonal. You know me. It gets hot enough soon enough. I want to feel cold weather.
Josh sends purrs and licks and meows to say he misses you a lot even though he gets visitors twice a day. He is sprawled on his back waiting for his tummy to get rubbed. Grandmom sends her love, as does Mike. He is going to a meeting with Brad this evening. Take care, Lo. We miss you .
I didn’t see my mother’s Friday evening note before Saturday because Kuwait’s eight hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time. Reading her message made me homesick. I missed cuddling on the couch with my cat Joshua. His purring sounded like a musical masterpiece. I went to sleep Saturday night thinking of Mom, my brother Mike, and Josh the cat, yet realizing I needed to get comfortable in my new home.
Monday, January 23, 2006
My initial shell shock at the sparse living conditions lifted at the beginning of our deployment’s third week. I embraced the small town feel of my camp. Thick concrete force protection barriers no longer reminded me I served in a combat zone. Instead, the 5-by-10 foot barricades captivated me because I realized my comrades used them to tell their stories.
Military groups were allowed to decorate the barriers before they went home. Men and women drew detailed images of their home states’ landmarks, such as Seattle’s famous Space Needle, contrasted with scenes depicting duty in the Mideast. Some groups printed the names of unit members and listed their hometown. From graffiti, the American, Kuwaiti, and Iraqi flags, to my favorite hand-painted barricade, courtesy of the 54th Medical Company. The Medhawks flew helicopter ambulances from Balad, Mosul, Tal Afar, Tikrit, and Kirkuk. Their barrier included a map of Iraq. Superimposed over it they drew a red cross and a helo. Next to the map and the helo they wrote, “Fly It Like You Stole It.” The phrase became my mantra.
* * *
I dealt with our second legal crisis involving an innocent sailor early in the third week of January.
“Ex went to court and got a judge to give him custody of my two kids,” Petty Officer Moriarty said. Her hands strangled her uniform shirt’s neckline. “He went to their school, showed his paperwork, and took them.”
She sobbed into my shoulder. “The prin … principal said he couldn’t help because the judge signed the papers. Plea … please help me, Commander. Do something, please.”
The cries of a wounded mother fighting for her children while she tried to stand for America in a war zone sucker-punched me.
“Let’s make an appointment with the Navy lawyer at Arifjan,” I said. I’ll go with you.”
Later that week, while she waited for the JAG lawyer, the early thirty-something enlisted woman wound her curly hair around her fingers. Let go. Repeated the motion.
“Not sure I understand how your ex got a judge to override your current husband’s custody,” I said.
Petty Officer Moriarty let go of her hair. “I never filed paperwork to give my current husband joint custody, although my Navy family care plan stipulated he’d keep the boys if I mobilized. The Navy paperwork stated my ex would have normal visitation. Weekends, holidays, and summer vacation.”
She quit pacing. Grabbed my wrist. “We meant to file the actual custody forms, but life got in the way and we never got it done. Then I deployed.”
“Make sure you explain that. To the JAG.” My arm stiffened. Moriarty let go, walked away.
We left Camp Arifjan holding a list of military-friendly lawyers from South Florida, where Petty Officer Moriarty lived. She’d have to battle the system if she wanted her current husband to get the children while she served overseas.
Riding home, I tried not to show my true feelings. I was caught between a genuine concern for Moriarty’s family and knowledge she could have avoided the emergency.
Who hasn’t procrastinated, though, when forms and the government, are involved? I couldn’t stay mad at Moriarty for contributing to the events causing her plight. Her life was hell. No way I’d add to the despair by saying, “You’re partially to blame.”
I returned to Arifjan less than 48 hours later. This time, I saw a byproduct of war that’s the root of more emotional heartache than a child custody case.
To: Kuwait Group
Subject: Fallen Heroes
Sent: Sunday, January 29, 2006
It's Sunday eve. On Friday morning I went to Camp Arifjan, a large Army base twenty minutes away, to attend a memorial service for two airmen. They died last week in Iraq when their convoy hit an improvised explosive device, or IED.
Tech Sergeant Jason Norton and Staff Sergeant Brian McElroy belonged to the 70th Medium Truck Detachment at Camp Arifjan. Both knew convoy techniques. Sergeant Norton was a squad leader and convoy commander. Sergeant McElroy - a truck commander, vehicle operator, and assistant convoy commander.
Sergeant McElroy worked at Alaska’s Elmendorf Air Force Base before deploying to the Mideast. Sergeant Norton worked at the same command as a military working dog trainer. These two men knew each other. Trained together. Fought together. Sergeant Norton picked Sergeant McElroy for his driver during last Sunday's convoy. Neither returned from their mission.
The Zone One Chapel at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, like many churches today, has no pointed roof or steeple. It looks like an auditorium, not a chapel.
Our squadron’s deputy commander parked his SUV at 10:30 a.m. The memorial started at 11 a.m. We saw a line of silent airmen as we approached the chapel. They rendered salutes when the deputy and I walked by.
Inside, four desert-tan boots guarded the front center of the chapel’s stage. Each pair of boots supported an upright M-16 rifle. Atop the rifles rested combat helmets, the same type issued to my deputy and me. Each M-16 wore a set of dog tags. A single 8-by-10 photo of the sergeants completed the display.
“They were young,” my deputy, Commander Andy Campbell, said. “Survived by his wife, daughter, and son.” Andy read from the memorial bulletin. Rubbed his forehead. “They both had children.”
Andy has children. He's a family man. Coaches a kids' soccer team.
“Makes you realize how meaningless many things are,” Commander Campbell said.
Solemn songs drifted through the chapel. The words spoke of heroes, fallen comrades, children whose daddies died.
Two military working dog handlers strode to the front of the church with their German Shepherds. The regal looking dogs made no sound. Servicemen carrying rifles took seats; they didn’t even clink weapons against the floor.
Fallen heroes, fallen command members, fallen friends are honored this way.
I saw airmen passing a box of tissues. Men as well as women yanked the soft paper from its container. Bagpipes played Amazing Grace and the service began. The Air Force captain who commanded Sergeant Norton and Sergeant McElroy lauded his men as “two of the best.” He spoke of their love of life, love for their families, devotion to duty.
Airmen paid tribute to their slain friends, describing how they encouraged all those they met. Now they’re the ones being lifted.
The ceremony included a Final Roll Call , a tradition in military memorials. An airman shouted the name of a squad member. The person stood, said, “Present.”
A second squad member, then a third, yelled, “present” when they heard their names. The roll-call leader then called Sergeant Norton's name. No response.
“Sergeant Jason L. Norton,” shouted the airman.
Sniffling and crying filled the auditorium.
“Sergeant McElroy,” the roll-call leader yelled.
“Sergeant Brian McElroy,” the airman shouted.
Nothing remained of Sergeant McElroy and Norton but memories.
An enlisted man shook, sobbed when the final roll call ended. The airman continued grieving while the firing of volleys echoed through the chapel.
I've never experienced grief to such an extent. My family’s still alive. I've not yet seen a close, intimate friend die. Some of you have. I eventually will.
Many who attended Friday's memorial service lost a close friend. All lost two comrades who left one morning and never made it home. Life is like that. A child, parent, sister, brother, or friend might unexpectedly die.
What about the last words spoken to a loved one who doesn’t make it home? I ask each of us to think about what we say each day to those closest to us. Do we encourage them or destroy them?
Let's build others up so when grieving comes we can grieve the person and not the final words spoken to them.
I close with a short poem written for Sergeant Jason Norton and Sergeant Brian McElroy, two fallen heroes memorialized by their comrades in arms:
“Caught in the fire of freedom's fist, two stars rose in the midst. God needed two soldiers and took the best he saw, two brave men, never will they fall. He lifted them up in peaceful embrace; as time stood still God's glory embraced—two hearts sown as one ... leading on ... and never gone.” (AC1 Valerie Roy )
After sending the memorial newsletter I wrestled with the reality that I needed to heed the advice given to my friends. Too often I spoke reckless, careless words, hurting my family.
The worst—April 2002. It didn’t matter that my brother, Mike, angered me or that the medication I was taking caused major hormonal swings. I used my tongue as a sword, wanting to make my brother bleed. And I succeeded.
I regretted the poor decision, wept, and cried out to God. My apology to Mike came too late. He refused to listen.
The nightmare continued for seven months, the time it took him to forgive and speak to me. My brother said I crushed his already low self-esteem. I hurt him because he saw me as a hero.
Mike and I walked through the event, cried together 42 months after it happened, sixty days before I left for the combat zone.
Shame flooded me as I cried again, this time in a hooch thousands of miles from home. I didn’t want to ever cause another person the deep pain Mike felt because of my recklessness.
Positive self-talk helped lift the dirtiness of the memories covering me. I closed my laptop and flipped open a book, The Faith of the American Soldier.
The next day, one of the friends I made while coordinating my squadron’s mobilization responded to Sunday’s weekly update.
From: Commander Valerie Eichenlaub
Subject: Re: Fallen Heroes
Sent: Monday, January 30, 2006
Thank you for sharing this very moving and emotional tribute. I am saddened to think about how many of these stories you will observe during the next year. I enjoy sharing your experiences and observations. You certainly give me a perspective of what people are dealing with there that I never would have had. Stay safe, my friend. Best regards.
Val’s words cemented my reasons for watching the war zone world revolve and reporting about it for those not chosen to spend time in the volatile Mideast.
The local region didn’t carry the only instability of our deployment. Servicemen confined to camps, without the liberty to drink a beer, shop at the mall, or go to movies and restaurants, might show stress in unpredictable ways.
As January ended, I worked our first case of erratic behavior. We needed to demobilize a sailor for slapping his body and arguing aloud with himself while sleepwalking. He didn’t remember doing any of this. I asked if he wanted to see a psychiatrist. His response spared me from giving him paperwork ordering a mental health evaluation.
I researched options for sending the man home without hurting his career. At the same time, I continued searching my faith for answers—to understand the stress of war, and why I seemed more alive in a combat zone than at home living as a civilian.
Lois Fiorelli grew up in the Florida panhandle. She graduated from the University of Florida in 1981 with a BS degree in Broadcast Journalism. Lois has almost 17 years experience in the U.S. Navy and has twice deployed during the Global War on Terrorism, in 2003 and 2006. She is currently a Commander in the Navy Reserves, and augments the Officer Training Command, Newport, R.I., staff when they teach a two-week course to newly commissioned reserve officers. Lois lives in Jacksonville, Fla.
Q: What did you discover about yourself while writing this piece?
A: Writing the piece helped me see the confidence I gained in myself as a person and leader as a result of the eight months I spent in the Middle East. It also underscored how important it is for me to continue to strive to show love and encouragement to those closest to me.
Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever been given? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?
A: In writing memoir, people don’t care about the events. Readers want to know how you interpreted the events and what the events meant to you.
Yes, I followed it, though it was often hard for me to dig through my emotions as I wrote my memoir. I wanted readers to care, so I worked on finding my voice
Q: Please share with our readers a little about your own writing process.
A: I’ve learned I write better in the afternoons than in the morning. While writing my memoir, I set a goal to write two new pages a day. During revisions, I set goals for how many pages I would revise per day, based on how much revision each section needed. After each new draft, I put the work aside for at least a week before printing it. I read each new draft aloud, making notes on the printed copy.
Q: How do you organize your home library? Tall to small? Alphabetically? Or, have you converted totally to e-reader?
A: I haven’t bought an e-reader yet. Some bookcases are organized first by category, then book size. One bookcase is arranged from small to tall because the books are stacked on top of one another.