I arrived in Kuwait on January 28th, 2003. I lived at Al Jaber Airbase until mid-June. My initial overall feeling was excitement, at seeing my boyfriend again and to be involved in a unique and exciting experience. My boyfriend had deployed in November. I was so naive and had no idea what was really happening. Did I think this was going to be some sort of party? This complete confusion over world events and naïveté was becoming a familiar feeling, as it happened on 9/11 as well. I have learned gobs more about the world, history and myself since I left the safe confines of schools. I graduated college without a class covering the Middle East with any depth, is that still possible?
When I was settled at Al Jaber Airbase, I lived with two Air Force Security Force women in a nice trailer with indoor plumbing and a dayroom. When I met my roommates, one was proudly showing off an Arabic newspaper (souvenir) she had gotten on her last trip off of the base. The large front page picture has stayed with me ever since, although I haven’t been able to find it on the Internet. On January 21, two American contractors were shot in Kuwait, a country I had thought was safe, one was killed, the other seriously injured. The picture showed the passenger of the SUV shot with his head laying on the dashboard. Up until this point, I had never seen a dead body in the flesh, but this image put a fear in me that I couldn’t acknowledge or admit to anyone at the time. I pretended not to be bothered by this or to show much interest, but researching it eleven years later, it clearly bothered me. If you are interested in the story, you can find it here. Don’t worry this is an American version of the story and thus follows the American journalism “breakfast test.” The American public does not want to see pictures, that may be unsettling if viewed while eating breakfast. As important as this is, I do think that it allows us as a country to live in a bubble of naivety.
Soldiers are known for “topping” each other’s tall tales. During that same first week or two, other soldiers would tell stories for the shock-value. The key was to always look unaffected. I did this either by practicing my poker face, zoning out or simply not believing anything anyone told me. The problem was there was no one to talk to about the nagging fears of which stories were real. You may think just Google it, but access to Internet was very limited and was used for communication home.
A memorable story was that Saddam had hung Kuwaiti military leaders from the seven arches decorating the entrance to the very base I was stationed. This is scary because a) you are not so far south that Sadaam’s military could not reach; and b) I remember the last invasion. This is modern history. I remember that time… I was in Middle School and had a brother in the Navy. Remember Kuwait is less than 17,000 square miles – smaller than New Jersey. I had been so sheltered as a child, I had no idea what dangerous was.
Once the war started, there were new scary things like donning our MOPP gear (better know as our gas mask and protective suit). We had the news on at our work site, and I found comfort watching my childhood hero, Chirstiane Amanpour putting her mask on and taking it off with us. She was located at another Kuwaiti base. We watched as Saddam Hussein launched Seersucker missiles at Kuwait. At the time, I had a brother in the country as well. It was a lot to deal with all at once, being so far from home and being somewhere where not only should you keep track of what is happening in the world, but you were going to be part of it whether you wanted to or not.
I should have gained some comfort in seeing other people struggling with what was going on and we should have leaned on each other. That isn’t how it worked though. One soldier shot himself to go home. One soldier had such anger issues he punched other soldiers and an air conditioning unit. One soldier nearly shot himself with his antropine the first time the gas alarm sounded. One soldier was stock-piling MRE cookers to make bombs. One soldier scratched at his smallpox shot so much he became infected in multiple areas and threatened to spread it to another soldier who was unable to get the shot. One soldier lost his toothbrush and used a washcloth for a long time (out of laziness not unavailability). These were not the people I grew up around. These were not the people I wanted to depend on during a tough situation, like say…war. So I closed myself off a bit and didn’t think about any of it much. I learned to depend on myself.