Friday, July 31, 2009

Once in a Lifetime

On Friday, 31 August, I was fortunate enough to be one of the few soldiers in my company to visit the Ziggurat of Ur. It is an ancient temple that was built over 4,000 years ago. Over the last 90 years it has undergone some reconstruction. There was no tour guide on this trip, so it was a challenge to try and distinguish between the original structure and the parts that were repaired. Myself and another educated soldier from my company were as close to tours guides as we could get. By the standards of most Americans it's not much to look at. This was easily seen as many other soldiers walked around looking bored, lost, and confused about all the hype. Many soldiers had no clue that they were walking on top of one of the oldest man made structures on earth.

For me it was quite the opposite. I am amazed that I was privileged to experience this world wonder. I could have spent all afternoon out there. I sacrificed 4 hours of sleep to see it, and I would have given up 4 more. I knew it would probably be my only chance to see this ancient temple. It was surrounded by ruins of the ancient city, but they were off limits. I would give away my air conditioner for one month to have a day in those ruins with an archaeologist!

It was difficult to find a lot of background info on the ziggurat. The online sources are limited, and have inadequate citations. This site seems to cover all the main points. It isn't well written, and I am sure most of it is plagiarized, but it will give you some of the basic facts about the Ziggurat of Ur.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Just After Dawn, Right Before Bed

I walk into the rising sun on my return from the gym. This morning I am early and the sun is just above the horizon. It is an unusually cool morning. The mercury must have dropped below 85 before dawn. The wind is at my back edging me towards the place I now call home. I am reminded of my real home as the subtle shades of pink and orange play around the feather light cirrus clouds in the sky. My legs feel long today, my strides are powerful.

I must cross a barren dirt field to reach my living area. If death has a color it is the color of the earth here. As I near the other side of the clearing I see some movement. A squad of soldiers is preparing for the day's mission. It is a scene I have witnessed many times before. The sounds and movements are familiar. More than half way back.

As I close the distance between the soldiers and myself my attention is drawn to their vehicles. It looks like they have used old cans of black and green spray paint to create a camouflage pattern on the Humvees. The effect has made the trucks look like steel cows. Large, boxy, ugly cows. Close enough to see into their eyes now.

As I pass the soldiers take little notice of me. I barely glance at them. I am more interested in the bird shape on the door of the third Humvee. I wish I had looked at it closer. I must twist around and look behind me to see it now. Like finding animals in the sky. I don't want them to think I am strange, so I do not look back. Only 100 feet from the entrance to my living area.

A soldier from the group runs past me. He has forgotten something, I assume. There is always one that isn't prepared. As I am about to pass the concrete barriers of the living area I take one last look at the group of men. I am suddenly wondering how many of them will return at the end of the day. Are they thinking the same thing? Will the bovine trucks be there tomorrow? Was that supposed to be a bird? Would I notice if one of them was missing? The gravel shifts awkwardly beneath my feet.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Late Spring Cleaning

A few months before my deployment I began making a list of books I wanted to take with me. Some of those were books I've had on the shelves for months, but haven't had the time to pick up, and some I wanted to purchase for the trip. I also managed to pick up a few free books along the way (as you can see from my April 29th post), and have a couple more mailed to me. So far I have finished seven books, and hope to make it eight by the end of next week. If I were to empty my pockets or bag you would almost always find a book or magazine among the contents. I believe I have about ten books remaining in my library, and some are still out on loan.

For many of the soldiers here reading is a way to relax, escape, and fill up the "hurry up and wait" time. I have found a few soldiers who don't mind lending their books, and a few I will lend mine to. For those that didn't bring any reading material the choices are limited. The PX (Post Exchange) has the worst supply of reading materials I have ever seen. I think my local Quickie-Mart at home has a better selection. Unless you like cars, girls on cars, motor cycles, girls riding motor cycles, sports, body building, or home and garden magazines you are out of luck. I don't know why they have so many home and garden magazines?

That brings me to the point of this post. I would like to ask you to do some spring cleaning. Send me all of those old dusty volumes from your high school and college days, or your children's high school and college days. Look in your attic, basement, closet, and storage unit for books/magazines you don't need or have read and don't care to keep. Pick up a few volumes for a buck or two the next time you find yourself at a yard sale. You can also go out there and stimulate the Underground Economy (as I like to call it) by shopping at a local used book store, the Salvation Army, or Good Will. For those of you that live in the Carlisle area one of my favorite places for great deals is The Bookery. It is a used book store located behind the Bosler Free Library and run by volunteers. Most of the time you can walk in with ten dollars and walk out with just as many paper backs.

If anyone is feeling ambitious I encourage you to ask your friends, family and coworkers to donate a book or two as well. Take a cardboard box to work and write "used books/magazines for soldiers in Iraq" with a sharpie. If they want to contribute, but don't have any books to give (not everyone is a reader :) ), tell them you are accepting small cash donations to help with shipping costs. Holding a book drive could be a great activity for a church group, athletic team, or a boy/girl scout troop. I'm no girl scout but I think there would be a badge to cover that one!

Don't know what to send? Paperback books are always best because they are lighter and easier for us to shove in our cargo pockets. Soldiers will read just about anything. The only books that don't seem too popular are the romance novels with pictures of an overly passionate couple on the cover. But beggars can't be choosers. All genres are in play, even self help, religion, and motivational books. For magazines almost anything goes too. No nudie magazines!!! You might think you are doing a soldier a favor but pornography is grounds for an Article 15 in country. You could get reduced in rank, lose pay, and be put on extra duty indefinitely. Some magazines we are lacking include Time, The New Yorker, National Geographic, other news and science magazines, outdoor living, and fitness magazines that are about health not appearance. Both old and new issues will be appreciated.

What will I do with all of these books and magazines? I will give them away. My mom suggested I try to get some backing to open a library. It's a great idea, and something this base is lacking. Unfortunately I don't think it would be practical. I would have to acquire an area to run the library out of as well as volunteers to work it. There is also the issue of accountability. With the way soldiers come and go it would be hard to track down an overdue library book, and impossible to charge a late fee. I will keep my eyes open for the opportunity, but for now that idea has to be shelved.

The best I can do right now is to put the word out. I will be asking my supervisor if I can set up an area at the Grab-n-Go for the books and magazines. If I can get it established I may be able to keep the books well supplied by the soldiers. Many of us take a book and give a book. There are tables in the Laundry room where people put books and magazines when they are done, and they are free for the taking. Soldiers will also donate all of their reading material at the end of their tour. Many don't want to lug it all back home, or simple don't have the room to pack it. Books are a semi renewable resource in the desert.

Where to send them:

Stephanie McDonald
Co E 2/104 AVN BN GSAB
APO, AE 09331

If I get a good response I will be sure to keep you all updated. I will also post some photos of the donations received, and the dispersion of them.
If anyone has questions you can reach me via e-mail. My address is listed in my profile. Thanks for the support.

Friday, May 8, 2009

"Thank you, come again!"

Most people join the Army to get a leg up in life. They want to get out of their crappy home town and avoid working at the local 711. In my case, I join the Army and they make me work at the local 711. Below are photos off my new work location. We call it the Grab-N-Go. It is a small trailer stocked full of snack foods and cold drinks. It just opened shortly before we arrived, and there are many improvements that need to be made. I have spent my last few shifts staying very busy.

The Grab-N-Go is open 24hrs and I am currently scheduled to work third shift. Luckily the place was a mess when we first arrived, so I am keeping busy. I spend the night organizing, cleaning, and stocking the fridges with Gatorade, sodas, and juices. I enjoy the strange tedium of arranging the soda label with the Arabic facing in and the English labels facing out. Some might think that it is a crappy job, but it's not all bad. It's surprisingly rewarding to see the smile on a tiered soldier's face when he walks in at 2am and discovers we have his favorite kind of cereal. Another hidden benefit is that I can listen to music, read, play cards, or even watch a movie during my shift. As long as the shelves are stocked and the trash is empty no one bothers me.

The Gab-N-Go sits right on an air strip. I hear the choppers and cargo plains fly in and out all night. The sound is familiar and slightly comforting. It is as close to the sounds of home as I can get right now. The photo below is what I see almost every night from the door of the shop. The birds will occasionally take off from those locations. I never get tiered of watching them fly.

Monday, May 4, 2009

A Close on Kuwait

Written Saturday May 2 at 3:30pm

My time here in Kuwait has been brief and mostly uneventful. As you can see from my photo timeline not much has happened from the time we got on the plane until now. I spend a lot of time waiting in lines. J My short field experience turned out to be more fun than I had expected. We did some live fire training that gave me a sizable bruise on my right arm. We also conducted convoy operations. Our instructors were knowledgeable as well as fun.

One of the biggest events that have taken place here happened last night. Two camels were brought to the post for MWR camel rides. People were talking about it for days. Soldiers were lined up, circled around, and cameras were flashing. By the time I made it to the site they had cut off the line for rides. It was also getting dark, so the picture quality isn’t the best. It looks like it is snowing, but the wind started to pick up and sand was flying everywhere. That made it even more difficult to get a good photo.

In the photo where my eyes are closed the camel was getting cranky. He was grunting and shaking his head all over the place. I liked him the best. He seemed like a real a-hole. J One of our favorite photos is the two headed camel. I almost convinced a few people it was real. I am sure I will see more camels in Iraq. Hopefully I will get to ride one next time.

In the next couple of weeks I hope to bring you blog entries about Chuck Norris, Porta Potties, and the local vendors/shops that are on post. Stay tuned!!!

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Kuwait Picture Timeline

I haven't had much time to get online in Kuwait. I will be writing a summary of the events that have taken place over the last week and a half. Until then I hope you will enjoy a short story told using a few photos I have taken.

Packing is not a one person job.
Pretty big plane, eh?

I love free books and cookies!"
Tight sleeping quarters.
Tank convoy passing our tents.
Charlie's Angels? They've got nothing on us!
Live fire range.
Long hot day of training.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Four Day Pass and Rattlesnake Rodeo

I had such a fantastic time over Easter weekend. For those that didn't know, I was given a four day pass to go home from the 11th to the 14th. They were the shortest four days of my life! I did have an extra half day on Friday to travel, but my flights were so messed up that I didn't make it home until Saturday evening.
To summarize, I got into Harrisburg Saturday evening, went to say a quick hello to the family and then back to my place. I took a much needed shower, ate some great Chinese food, and relaxed on my couch watching a movie with Ian. Sunday was full of lots of food, candy, laughing, running, jumping, playing, yelling, barking, more food, and of course wine. Monday was my day to sleep in and have the morning with Ian. We went to lunch to catch up with a few friends, then back to my parents house for more visiting. Monday flew by and Tuesday was soon rearing it's ugly head. I spent the morning having a nice breakfast with Ian then began packing and getting back in uniform. My flight left around 2:30pm. In case you are wondering my return flights were all on time and went very smooth. Of course! :)
To many of you this may not sound very exciting, but I thought it was heaven. It felt like a fantastic dream that I knew I was going to wake from too quickly. To wake up in my own bed, eat real eggs, have no need for phone or e-mail, go into a bathroom made for one, and have the freedom to do or not do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted, was amazing. If a weekend can feel that good I can only imagine what it will feel like to be home for two week on R&R.
Yesterday we got a good dose of mandatory fun at the "26th Annual Apache Village Rattlesnake Rodeo!!!" The two video clips below are the best representation of the "rodeo." It was basically a carnival or fair, but with rattlesnakes as the main attraction. I had more fun than I was expecting. I was a little upset that the buses came to get us before I had a chance to go on any of the rides. We ate as much terrible food as we could stomach (funnel cakes, corn dogs, lemonade, cheese fries, root beer, milk shakes, fried oreos, and cotton candy) and got airbrushed tattoos that last for days. Mine is the "Dark Horse." That is my Company's nickname.
WARNING: At the rattlesnake rodeo they teach you all about the rattlesnake! This includes how to kill, gut, skin, and cook it. The second video should not be watched by anyone that has a sensitive gag reflex.

They sell every piece of the snake. Sorry mom, I didn't get to taste any because they do the cooking on a different day. :)

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Q: How does the Army build up your confidence? A: They beat the shit out of you!

Click to play this Smilebox slideshow: Confidence Course
Create your own slideshow - Powered by Smilebox
Make a Smilebox slideshow

Last week our Commander took us all out for what we call mandatory fun. We took a trip to the Ft. Sill Confidence Course. I can't complain too much, I did have a good time. My upper body was in pain for two days, but I have recovered. The course had 20+ obstacles that we had to move through in teams or as individuals. Five of the obstacles were over 30 feet high. I did all of those at least once. The Slide For Freedom (which I do not have a photo of) was my favorite.

To begin the Slide you first climb a 15ft rope ladder, walk across a 20ft suspended log, and then climb a large ladder with over sized rungs to a platform. When you reach the top they hook you up to a zip line and you slide on a cable that is about 100ft long. It was my first obstacle of the day. If anyone has ever ridden with me on a roller coaster you know that when I am having a lot of fun I am very vocal about it. I let out a few very loud screams and shrieks that the whole place could hear. I could only see about twenty people while flying through the air, but they all turned my direction. It was a blast.

I also enjoyed Jacob's Ladder. It was very intimidating. It is a huge ladder that goes straight up about 50ft. The rungs of the ladder are made of huge logs. If I had to guess I would say that they are a little bigger than telephone poles. There were about six or seven rungs, and they were all spaced out at different heights. It was a challenge for shorter people to get over the logs that were far apart. At the top of the ladder you had to lay on your stomach and roll over to the opposite side before climbing back down. I thought coming down was much easier than going up.

I hope to collect a few more photos and maybe some video for you to see. I will post it as soon as I get my hands on it.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

MCP Training

About two weeks ago we had five days of MCP (Mounted Combat Patrol) Training. My Company was the only one in the Battalion to have five days of MCP. We are a class two Company, and everyone else is class one. In a nut shell, that means we are the only Company authorized to conduct a mission outside the wire. Don't worry, my chances are slim to none. Relax, I'm a cook! But we like to joke about how Echo is the "infantry" of Aviation.
The first day of MCP was a little boring, as you can see from the photo on the left. It is a tiny photo, so maybe you can't see so well. Sorry, I won't have my camera for another week. We spent the morning in classrooms learning about IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) and UXOs (Unexploded Ordinances). We also learned how to read the signs and identify them by type. Most of us have had these classes at least once already, but you can never have them too many times. Then we spent about an hour waiting around for the classes to start for the second half of the day. Those classes were outside and included Aid and Litter, Nine Line MedEvac, LACE and SALUTE Reports, Line and Box Formations, constructing a hasty helicopter landing zone (HLZ) and a couple others that I cannot remember right now.
The training progressed in three stages; Crawl, Walk, and Run. On days two through four the pace quickened. We were assigned chalks (the group of people in the convoy), each chalk had five or six vehicles, and each vehicle had people assigned to certain jobs (driver, Truck Commander(TC), gunner, and two passengers). The convoy also had a Convoy Commander (CC) and an Assistant Convoy Commander (ACC). So now you know all about the TCs, CC, and ACC, as well as the HLZ, IED, and UXO, and the rolls they played in MCP. Ha, ha! Sorry, had to do that. Try to follow me as best you can. All questions can be directed to :)
For about a day and a half I was the gunner. It was fun. I had the best view in the truck. The last two days I was the TC. That was also a lot of fun. I controlled the radio and got to call the shots. It's the one time during this deployment where I got to tell my First Sergeant what to do (he was my driver). As we drove around we encountered different scenarios and were tested on how we reacted. The courses we drove were miles long, and had many hidden obstacles. The instructors would come over the radio and say "Truck six has been hit by an IED," or "Truck two was hit, gunner has a severe head wound," and "Truck four is down, no injuries." For each of those we had to conduct different tasks as a team. We towed trucks, set up HLZs, called in MedEvac, suppressed small arms fire, etc. We also had a couple of urban missions where we had to maintain security in a village while our ACC and two other soldiers talked to the locals. We were not allowed to take any photos during that portion of the training. There are Middle Easterners that help conduct the training.
Overall, I think it is some of the best training I have received to prepare for this mission. If this kind of training would have been available at the beginning of the war it would have saved hundreds of lives. The instructors were well informed, organized, and still knew how to have fun. They also helped make the training as realistic as possible. Everyone got a magazine full of blanks to fire, and they were setting off flash-bangs and smoke canisters all around us. One time we got about 15o yards before realizing that we lost another truck, because there was so much smoke and chaos.
I found a video that can give you an idea of what the training was like. It is a little long, and the picture quality isn't very good. If you pay attention you can hear the soldiers yelling "IED," or "Contact Left!" Everyone in the truck repeats it to make sure the whole truck knows what's happening. You can also here them calling for LACE Reports (Liquid, Ammo, Casualties, Equipment) and Nine Line MedEvacs over the radio. Our training wasn't as fast paced as it looks in the video, and I think they are shooting at targets with live rounds. We had blanks and were not allowed to shoot at anyone within 10 meters. Safety first!

Mounted Combat Patrol Training

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

"Three meals a day, for which you didn't pay..."

My favorite holiday movie has always been Irving Berlin's White Christmas. There is a musical number at the end of the movie titled, "Gee, I Wish I Was Back In The Army." It is a cute little number (as you can see below) that talks about all the GREAT things the Army has to offer. I very often find myself singing the line, "... three meals a day for which you didn't pay ...," as I stand in line for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. People are always talking about our three square a day, and how great it is. I wish that was the case here.

When we first arrived I didn't think the meals were too bad. But after a week or two you could see a pattern developing. On the hot foods line every day they serve mac and cheese, instant mashed potatoes with gravy, corn bread, corn dogs, grilled cheese, some kind of spaghetti and broccoli mixture, corn (on the cob or off, creamed, or in succotash), and occasionally some other overcooked mushy vegetable. Some of you may be thinking that it doesn't sound so bad, but you are wrong :) . The mac and cheese is neon yellow, and tastes nothing like cheese, the grilled cheese is greasy and soggy, and there is a limit to the amount of instant potatoes a person can stomach. At least they never run out of brown lettuce or frozen tomatoes on the salad bar. As for the protein portion of the meal I cannot tell you how many times I have said, "What is That?"

The soldiers here, myself included, consider themselves lucky when they get to have chicken cordon bleu, a burger, chicken patties, and on rare occasions even lasagna. I have only seen the lasagna twice in these two months. Most of us are getting pretty good at recognizing the items on the food line, but occasionally there are a couple of items that stump us all. Each meal is like a guessing game, and always a gamble in the end (if you know what I'm saying). Some of the soldiers deserve awards for the items they eat. Most of us wouldn't even eat it if we were contestants on Fear Factor. It has become amusing to watch the confused faces of the soldiers that are before me in line. It is even better when they cannot hide their looks of disgust.

At least once, sometimes twice, a week I have peanut butter and jelly for lunch or dinner.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Kittens, Inspired by Soldiers

When we first arrived one of my room mates showed me a funny video on You Tube. It was about kittens, inspired by kittens. For a couple of weeks we walked around saying, "We are eating pepper and chips," and "I'm her mom. No she's not!" And sometimes, "Bow-wow, chick-a-bow-wow." Then I found the poster that is in the above picture. It was duct taped to the door of a room, a room full of male soldiers. Above each picture of a kitten was a soldiers name. I took the photo and sent it to my room mate in a text titled Kittens Inspired By Soldiers.

To many outsiders it is sometimes hard to understand a soldier's sense of humor. Imagine being cut off from everything in your normal day-to-day life, and then imagine trying to have a good time (without any alcohol). We find very interesting ways to keep ourselves entertained. Ideas range from strange posters, to gluing a soldiers hand to his head gear (his hat), putting bubble wrap on the floor in front of a soldier's bed at night, so when they come into the room to go to sleep in sounds like a mini explosion under their feet, and even opening a soldier's full Camelbak (hydration bladder carried on your back like a back pack) before rollover training, so that water dumps out over everyone in the Humvee. These are the small things that keep us going.

I am beginning to collect some pictures of the different ways we make each other laugh. When I feel that the collection is more complete I will post the photos for you to see.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Calm After the Storm

One afternoon it began to rain right when I was about to walk from our building over to the chow hall, which is about 300 feet away. It was pouring and didn't look like it would let up any time soon. So after a minute or two I decided I would make a run for it. As I opened the door and stepped out I noticed the dime sized hail that was now coming down. But it was too late, I had already committed myself to the run. So I took off. By the time I made it to the chow hall I was drenched from head to toe and my hands stung from the hail coming down. It was a sight to see. By the time I was done with dinner the rain and hail stopped and the sun was out again.

Upon exiting the building we saw a huge bright rainbow. Soon one rainbow turned into two. You could see the entire color spectrum. It was beautiful. And since Oklahoma is mostly flat you could see the beginning and end of both rainbows. We stayed outside for about fifteen minutes just staring at it. Soon our small crowd became larger. People were paralyzed by the sight of it. The word spread, and people started coming out of the barracks. To see a bunch of tough soldiers suddenly soften at the sight of a rainbow was unique. Almost all were taking pictures to text to friends and family. It was the nicest thing I have seen since arriving here. The picture above is one that I took with my phone, so it does not do it justice. To see the huge double arc in the sky was humbling.

Before I left home my grandmother told me that each day I should try to find something beautiful. On that day, unlike most, it was not a challenge.

My Doppelganger

Some of you may be wondering why my blog is called The Alaskan Experience and why my URL is This is the story:

It all began in high school. I was never like the other girls, and it didn't go unnoticed. It started when my high school boyfriend said I was cold, and he decided to nickname me Alaska. I thought it was clever and I didn't mind. Soon it was a joke tossed about by us and a few friends. After high school was over, and the boyfriend gone, I did not hear the name for a long time.

Recently some of the soldiers in my company began joking about my cold disposition, so I told them the story. Big mistake! Before I knew it they were rattling off new names for me and laughing until they couldn't speak. The one that has stuck is The Ice Queen. It is very amusing. Now when I get irritated and short with someone they like to make sound effects simulating a cold blizzard whipping through the room. They wrap their arms around their bodies, shiver, and rub their hands together to try and warm them up. At least once a day I hear the phase, "Do you feel that? It just got really cold in here." Or, "I think the temperature in this room just dropped fifty degrees."

The picture I have posted is of the name plate that sits on my desk in the Supply Office. It took a considerable amount of time to make, and went through many revisions. First it said, "You don't know what cold IS, bitch!" Then it said, " aka: The Ice Queen aka: Alaska." And finally they have decided they like, "Kneel before the frozen throne," the best. I wouldn't be surprised if it went through another change, there are always new catch phrases flying. Today we woke to find that we got a dusting of snow overnight. I am sure there are a few people that hold me responsible for that. Ha, ha!

That's the story. The End.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Reenlistment Ceremony

Here are photos and video of my reenlistment ceremony. We went out to Geronimo's grave. It was a little strange. The person issuing the oath of enlistment is my company commander. I also performed the ceremony with the battalion commander. If I can get hold of those pictures I will post them as well. Enjoy!

Thursday, March 5, 2009

A Little Piece of Quiet

Yesterday afternoon I went for a short hike, joined by another soldier from my company. Just to the north of our barracks are the Medicine Bluffs, and on the northern side of the bluffs is a small river. These bluffs (or hills) appear to be man made when you are to the south. But as you travel around the eastern edge of the small range you soon realise they rose from the earth hundreds of years ago.

The shear cliffs covered
in bright mosses, with trees clinging to exposed rock, are a strange sight to see in Oklahoma. The semi-stagnant, dwarfed river creeps along the base of the cliffs creating a very serene environment. With the exception of an occasional Air Force jet flying overhead, it is the quietest place I have found on post to date. It was refreshing to get away from everyone else and pretend, for one fleeting moment, to be free. If I hadn't been obligated to make it back by sundown I would have stayed for at least another hour. I am looking forward to a day when I can pack a lunch, a blanket, and a good book, and waste away a few hours.
I miss the mountains, hills, winding roads, and diverse vegetation of PA. Go outside today, and open your eyes.