I Am an Author!

The Jar of Goodness

Writing is its own reward. – Henry Miller

Today is a day I have dreamed of for a long time. I published my first book! I have wanted to be a writer all my life but just never seemed to have the time or energy. Mostly I was hampered by ghosts of the past that whispered to me that I could never write anything anybody would want to read. My lack of self-worth killed any literary efforts I might have started.

I did a lot of writing in my professional career and I enjoyed it, but it was technical or informational, never the writing that would put my soul out there for everyone to see. But still the dream lingered, an ember buried deep in my subconscious.

After returning from Afghanistan I retired and while I had the time to write I was so psychologically crippled all I could do was just try to survive. Luckily, I was referred to a wonderful therapist trained in Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) a method of trauma recovery that allows traumatic memories to be processed on a rational level. By listening to bilateral binaural tones  I was able to process so much of my painful past. While I will always have vestiges of my traumas, they no longer debilitate me as they once did. An unexpected benefit has been the unlocking of my creative process. Not only can I write, I have to write. My brain is full of ideas for books and short stories. I started this blog which allows me to give voice to my opinions and to provide information I hope others will find useful.

My ebook is called the “Jar of Goodness” and it is a collection of short stories that tie together to tell a story of Tad, a seven-year old girl who is looking for acceptance from her father. My blog followers may have read two stories from the collection, “The Jar of Goodness and The Bull Snake”. While I set this book in the 1950’s and it reflects my memories of growing up during that time, it is completely fictional. It was fun to recall my childhood and add elements to give a sense of place and time into my stories.

My book can be found at http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00WBZSSUG/ref=rdr_kindle_ext_tmb for $2.99. If you buy it I hope you will let me know how you like it. I would welcome your feedback. I want to thank my friends and family who have supported me in achieving this dream. You know who you are and I love you. And a special thank you to Jessica Wilson, LCSW, who helped me come to know that I worthy of the jar of goodness.

I am working on my second book, a memoir of my experiences in Afghanistan. It is called “Small Gifts from the Heart” and I hope to have it done by June 1, 2015. You can find excerpts from it on my Wednesday blogs. I have a third book, “Evil Lies in Wait”, a psychological thriller, that is also in the works. I am finding so much joy in writing and I hope I have many more years to explore this new chapter of my life.

There and Back Again-Part I

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The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown. – H.P. Lovecraft

Going to Bagram Air Base from Morales Frazier (lovingly nicknamed MF) in MRAPs is an hour and a half of sheer hell. We leave at 11:30 p.m. in the hope that the bad guys will be asleep and won’t shoot us or blow us up. There is always the grim knowledge that one fanatic nightowl is out there waiting to do just that. One particular mission is burned into my memory in nightmarish clarity. As we prepare to leave MF, soldiers are loading our gear on a trailer and scurrying around checking out the vehicles and equipment. You definitely don’t want to break down in Taliban country, and that includes the whole route we will travel on. It is raining and I huddle in my rain gear, miserable and cold. MF is either dusty or muddy. There is no in between. It sits in a valley at 6,000 feet and in winter it is frigid. I can see my breath curling in the air and the exhaust fumes of the idling MRAPs burns my nose. The commander comes down and gives us a briefing and we load up.

MRAPs are armored vehicles designed to minimize the damage humans sustain if we hit an Improvised Explosive Device (IED), but they are not designed for comfort. The seats are hard, with no padding that could catch fire in an explosion. Six people can fit in the back, not counting the gunner, who is standing between the front and back, half inside and half out, manning a 50-caliber automatic rifle in the turret. I am sitting next to him and it is my responsibility to feed ammunition belts to him if we come under fire. If we have a rollover, we all shout, “Roll over! Roll over! Roll over!” and brace our arms on the roof of the MRAP. It is also my responsibility as the closest person to the gunner to grab him (or her) by the legs and hold on for dear life to prevent ejection as we turn over.

There is not a lot of legroom in the MRAP and our legs are interlaced like a zipper. I strap myself into my harness and put on earphones, which fit underneath the flaps of my helmet. Everyone in the convoy, which is usually five or six vehicles, is connected by the communications system so we can hear all the conversations as we get ready to go. There is always an undercurrent of tension until we get the word to go – then there is nothing to do but go. The die is cast. We bump our way out the gate on the rutted dirt road in the drizzling rain.

The road to Bagram consists of a series of steep mountain switchbacks with hairpin curves. My MRAP is pulling a trailer loaded with luggage, and as I look out the back window I can see a rooster tail of mud flying over the bags as the trailer sways back and forth.  The night is pitch black and the rain is coming down harder, lashing against the windows like an angry demon. The navigator sits next to the driver and watches a monitor. The turret ratchets around with a screech as the gunner rotates it, scanning for anything that doesn’t look right. I am always tense on this trip and I try not to think about the French gunner who was shot in the forehead just underneath his helmet and killed on this same road today. There is a crack marksman out there somewhere, because this is the second French gunner to be killed this way in two weeks.

We work our way tortuously up the mountain–sharp right, grind on up, sharp left. I hear our driver shout, “I can’t see the road! I can’t see the road!” The navigator replies “Move a little over to the left!” I can see there is a ravine with a 200-foot drop to the right. Solid lines of rain are streaming down, reflected in the lights that are dimmed to keep a low profile as we move farther into enemy territory. The visual range for the driver is only a few feet.

“A little to the right. Too much! Go left! Go left!” The words echo through my earphones. My nerves are stretched taut and my muscles are hurting from being contracted in sustained fear. Finally, we reach the summit of the mountain and start down. I can hear the brakes engage as the driver balances braking and accelerating. Sharp left, go down, sharp right-back and forth on the switchbacks that surely must have been designed by a sadist. We hit a particularly big pothole and a box of 50-caliber ammunition bounces off a shelf and lands on my knees. It weighs at least 30 pounds, and I am in agony. For a few minutes all I can do is take shallow breaths and fight back tears of pain.

Over the earphones I hear that we are coming up on the place where the French soldier was killed. You can feel the tension in the silence that permeates the earphones. I am praying for our gunners, who are the most vulnerable. I hold my breath and my senses become hyperalert, expecting any minute to hear the crack of a high-powered rifle and see my gunner slump down in his harness. We round a curve and I can see the lights of Bagram in the distance. So close. So close.

The last MRAP passes by the kill zone and I breathe a sigh of relief. Although we are not out of danger, the lights of Bagram are steadily getting closer and beckoning us with their siren brightness. At last we reach the checkpoint and are cleared to go inside the fences topped with razor wire. The tension eases from my body, and I am physically and mentally shattered. I unstrap myself, hang up my earphones, climb out of the MRAP, turn around and back down, stretching to meet the ground with my boot from that last high step. The rain is coming down hard now, and I don’t know if I have ever been more tired. It has taken us two grueling hours in the rain to reach Bagram, and it is now 1:30 A.M.

I pull my mud-encrusted bag from the trailer and begin to make my way to the billeting office to arrange for a place to sleep. I dodge mud puddles and wade through water that is flowing across the roads. My bruised knees are aching, and each step is an exercise in sheer mind over matter. Rain is dripping off my helmet, running down my back and dripping off my nose. My hair is hanging in dank strands and feels like snakes crawling on my face. By the time I reach the billeting office my feet are soaked inside my boots and I am shivering with the cold.

I pull out my travel orders to show the billeting clerk. Rank definitely has its privileges in the military, and my civilian pay grade allows me to have the same accommodations as a lieutenant colonel. For me that means a bed in the VIP tent. This is a large tent with rows of bunks on each side and plywood walls and floors. Bare light bulbs strung from the ceiling cast dim light on the room. Each bunk has a single wardrobe to hang clothes in and store gear. My favorite bunk is just inside the door. It has a wall and so it is like a single room. Privacy is a luxury I don’t enjoy often, and this little space gives me a feeling of much needed isolation. It houses a big blower tube attached to a compressor that shoots heated air into the tent. It is loud, which is probably why it is in a space by itself, but the noise seems like a small price to pay for a few hours alone. Earplugs are a way of life anyway as the roaring of F-16 jets taking off day and night overrides any other extraneous noise.

The billeting clerks are civilian contractors and as I show her my orders, she writes up my bunk assignment.  I grab a plastic garbage bag filled with bedding from a closet next to the desk. She hands over my orders and says, “You’ll have to take this over to the mayor’s office and get him to stamp this.” She shows me is the location on a map, and it is quite a distance from where we are, with a lot of left turns, right turns–in the dark and in the rain. Then after I get the stamp, I will have to walk all the way back to the VIP tent–in the dark and in the rain.

“I’ll get that first thing in the morning. I am too tired to go over there tonight,” I tell her. I am drooping with exhaustion, weighted down by my 50 pounds of body armor.

“No, you have to get it tonight.” At this point it is the thin end of the wedge. Something in my rain soaked, flagging body snaps. I tap my finger on the counter emphatically and say, “I have just experienced hell on earth for two hours in an MRAP. A box of 50 cal. ammunition bounced off my knees. I am cold, wet and in pain and I’m just before lying down in this floor kicking and screaming. Now I am going to sleep somewhere tonight if it is out there on your front porch. I need a place to sleep, and I need it now!” The clerk looks into my demented, glazed eyes and backs away saying, “Let me check with someone.”

She goes behind some filing cabinets that separate the desk from office space in the back. I can hear her urgent whispers, and I expect MPs to swarm out at any second and put me in flex cuffs. At this point, I don’t care. At least I’ll get a nice cell to sleep in, and I bet I don’t have to get a stamp for that.

The clerk comes back and says, “That’s okay. You can get it in the morning.” I can tell she just wants to see the last of me. I thank her, pick up my pack and sling my bag of bedding over my back like Santa on his way across a rooftop. I plod in the rain to the VIP tent–right foot, left foot. Just keep going.

Finally I stagger up the steps, maneuver myself through the door trying to be as quiet as possible and (Joy!) my little space is vacant. I tiptoe in, put my bag and backpack down, pull out a sheet and a blanket and throw them on the bed. I roll up some of my clothes to make a pillow, pull off my sodden shoes and socks, strip down to my underwear and slip under the cold blanket. I screw in my earplugs and fall into the deep sleep that only the truly weary can appreciate.

I spend the next two days going out on missions with the Agricultural Development Team, National Guardsmen who have expertise in agriculture and engineering. At the end of the day I enjoy nesting in my little space. It is a haven to collapse into at night and for a few restless hours it is the place I call home until we start our long journey back to MF.

Sharia Law and Women

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Silence never won rights . They are not handed down from above; they are forced by pressures from below. – Roger Nash Baldwin

Imagine this scene.  A Christian woman is accused of burning her Bible. An angry mob drags her from her home shouting God is great. Instantly a crowd gathers and begins to berate her as it is whipped into a frenzy by the accusers.  Her eyes are filled with terror as she tries to shield herself from the blows of the ever increasing mob. No one tries to protect or rescue her from this hideous attack even though police officers are present.  Blood runs down her face when someone hits her in the head with a brick. As the violence escalates, she is hit with bats, stomped on and run over by a car before being dragged behind it. Then she is set on fire and her limp body thrown on the bank of a river where onlookers take pictures of her mutilated body.

In a real situation we would ask her if the accusations were true, and if they were some people would be shocked and angrily denounce what she did, but they wouldn’t kill her. A few true Christians would go to her and listen to her reasons for burning the Bible. Perhaps she is grieving or going through a personal crisis and feels God is not listening to her. Most people would just shake their head and walk away. Modern Christianity condemns the sin but not the sinner. Redemption is always within reach.

Last week in Kabul, Afghanistan  28-year old Farkhuna was accused of burning a Koran and the above scenario was her fate. Investigators have found no proof at all that she burned a Koran and have concluded she was totally innocent. It is reported she had disagreed with the local mullah for his selling charms to women at the mosque, resulting in him making the false accusation. He has since been arrested along with 12 others including nine police officers. A prominent  Kabul cleric praised her attackers and said the  crowd had a right to defend their Muslim beliefs at all costs. He stated “I am warning the government not to arrest those who did this, because it will mean an uprising.”

Obviously the billions of dollars the United States has pumped into Afghanistan to promote rule of law and insure human rights has been a shocking failure. While President Ashraf Ghani condemned the killing and a public outcry called for more arrests, I am skeptical that justice will be served.

In 2009, an Afghani woman named Gulnaz was raped by her cousin’s husband and she became pregnant. She was then charged with adultery under Sharia law and sentenced to 12 years in jail. She was offered the chance to be released if she married her attacker. She refused. The decision resulted in world-wide criticism for Afghanistan’s horrendous human rights violations. American attorney, Kimberley Motley, submitted a pardon application to then President Hamid Karzai and eventually she was released. Most of the women in prison in Afghanistan are there for “moral” crimes –rape, adultery and failure to obey a husband.

While I was in Afghanistan I came to understand the word “chattel”. I was on a mission to do a market walk and I was waiting in our armored vehicle while our security force scanned the market to make sure it was safe for us to get out. I amused myself by watching the activity in the market out of my window. A man in a white Toyota pulled up near us and I saw that he had three goats in the back seat of the car. He got each goat out and tied them up near a stall. Then he went to the trunk of the car and opened it. A woman, I assume his wife, got out of the trunk wearing a royal blue burka, a garment that completely covers the body and only has a small grill across the eyes. It was a warm day and I don’t know how long she had been shut up in that trunk but a burka is hot and smothering. I was sick in my soul and I thought, “This is what chattel is. She is not even good enough to ride in the front seat. She is not even as valuable as the goats.”

If we heard of such things happening in the U.S. we would be shocked. A woman beaten and burned, a rape or locking someone in the trunk of a car-these would be considered crimes and hopefully someone other than the victim would be held accountable. And considering there is a 97% illiteracy rate in Afghanistan, the people who beat and burned Farkhunda have probably never read a Koran. A Christian loves and reveres their Bible, but the book itself will never mean more than the words it contains, for they are something that cannot be destroyed. A Christian carries the word of God in their hearts and those words include forgiveness, tolerance, love and peace. If Muslims want the world to accept Islam as a peaceful religion then they need to stand up and condemn the atrocities that are being committed in its name. Religious fanatics exist in every religion and they certainly don’t speak for everyone, but to say nothing is a form of passive approval and that is unacceptable.

Blue Lives Matter

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A broad brush has been used to unfairly malign the reputation of the profession of policing in the United States. –  Sheriff David Clarke

Lately liberal news media, uninformed celebrities and race baiters would have you believe that every police officer has an itchy trigger finger looking for any excuse to gun down unarmed people. The reality couldn’t be further from the truth. Yes, just as in any profession, there are bad employees and I’ll admit a rogue cop with a gun is terrifying, but the overwhelming majority of law enforcement officers are dedicated public servants who put their lives on the line every day in order to serve and protect.

This week two police officers were wounded in an ambush style shooting in racially charged Ferguson, Missouri. Such types of attacks are the leading circumstance in the surging number of shooting deaths of law enforcement officers, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. They also state that over 1,500 law enforcement officers have died in the line of duty during the last ten years, an average of one death every 58 hours. There are over 58,000 assaults against law enforcement officers every year. Ambush attacks, such as the shooting of New York Police Officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos while sitting in their patrol car in Brooklyn, were the number one cause of felonious officer deaths for the fifth year in a row. Ambush killings accounted for 23.2% of police officers killed in the line of duty 2002-2011.

Attorney General Eric Holder has stated, “These troubling statistics underscore the very real dangers that America’s brave law enforcement officers face every time they put on their uniforms. Each loss is unacceptable—a beloved father, mother, son or daughter who never came home to their loved ones.”

Holder’s words ring hollow to many who credit his recent anti-government, anti-police rhetoric with fanning the flames of violence toward police across the country. Likewise, President Obama’s initial response to the shooting in Ferguson was to tweet “Violence against police is unacceptable. Our prayers are with the officers in MO. Path to justice is one all of us must travel together.” Only a week earlier he called for “collective mobilization” against police.

I am thankful for the dedicated men and women who protect me and the society I live in. While I was in Afghanistan I saw firsthand what living in a culture where there is no law enforcement to call upon is like. In areas that do have the Afghan National Police (ANP), many of the officers are the ones you need to fear. Once when I visited the Kapisa Province Agricultural Director at a research farm, three unkempt ANP wearing ill-fitting, grey uniforms and carrying rifles, followed us around the field all day. The Director, who was usually very friendly and smiling, seemed subdued and uncomfortable. I later learned that the ANP had forced him to put them on the payroll for the irrigation project the U.S. was funding at the farm. They followed us around to intimidate the Director to comply with their demands. Non-compliance in Afghanistan can mean death to you or your family.

I have always had positive interactions with police and when I have been stopped for an occasional traffic violation I have always been treated with courtesy, mainly because I, too, am courteous. If you don’t want to be hurt or killed by a police officer, then comply with what they say. If they tell you to “Stop” then stop. If you want to be treated with respect, then be respectful. Law enforcement officers work in very stressful situations and they must make life and death decisions in a split second. Acting stupid is going to increase the probability that the outcome won’t be good for anybody.

I want to close with a remembrance for the law enforcement officers who have died in the line of duty in March 2015:

Special Agent William Sheldon, 9//11 related illness, March 2

Police Officer Terence Avery Green, ambush attack, gunfire, March 4 (His partner was shot, but survived.)

Police Officer Robert Wilson, III, gunfire, March 5

Lieutenant C. Scott Travis, heart attack, March 5

Police Officer Brennan Rabain, Auto accident, March 7

Deputy Marshall Josie Wells, gunfire, March 10

Deputy Sheriff Johnny Gatson, auto accident, March 10

Police Officer Burke Rhoads, auto accident, March 11

Patrolman George Nissen, assault, March 12

Trooper Donald Fredenburg, collapse on job, March13

Police Officer Darryl Wallace, auto accident, March 15

Lieutenant Richard Woods, heart attack, March 17

Police Officer Adrian Arellano,  motorcycle accident,March 18

Police Officer Alex Yazzie, gunfire,March 19

Police Officer Michael Johnson, gunfire, March 24

Trooper Trevor Casper, gunfire, March 24

Rest in peace, good and faithful servants.

The Woman With the Turquoise Eyes

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Let us touch the dying, the poor, the lonely and the unwanted according to the graces we have received and let us not be ashamed or slow to do the humble work. – Mother Teresa

This is another excerpt from my memoir “Small Gifts from the Heart”.

As I make my way to meet a visitor at the front gate of forward operating base Morales Frazier in Kapisa Province, I notice an Afghan woman, dressed in black, sitting on the gravel and waiting with other villagers to see the French doctors on the base. Her eyes are closed and her face is etched with lines of pain as she adjusts her headscarf to shield herself from the scorching sun. On my way back I notice she is lying face down in the large, gray gravel, her face cradled in her hands. I ask my interpreter, Ibrahim, “Does she need help?”

Several young men are sitting on a bench in the shade, and he asks them about her. They dismissively say she has a head injury and a headache, I reach down and touch her shoulder. Squinting from the bright sun, she looks up at me and I put my arms around her and help her to stand. I notice that she is very weak and feeble. I motion for the young men to move over so that she can sit on the bench and ask the guards at the gate if they have any water for the people waiting. “Is she going to be seen soon?” I inquire.

They inform me that there are a lot of serious injuries today, including some children that the Taliban pulled from their homes, breaking their arms and legs as a warning to the parents, threatening to return and kill them if there is any cooperation with the Americans. I look down at a little boy who looks to be about 5, standing there with his broken arm in a red bandana sling, staring at me with his big brown eyes full of fear – because I am an American. I still have nightmares about those eyes.

“Let me see what I can find out,” I tell Ibrahim. I race to find our American medic to see if there is anything he can do. He tells me, “I can’t treat her, but let me see if I can free someone up at the clinic.” The French doctor tells us she knows the woman.

“She has a terminal brain tumor that has spread to her lungs. She is dying.” Anguished, I tell her the woman is very sick and weak and needs immediate attention. She tells me she will send a medic down to get her. On my way out I notice a young girl with a broken leg that is held together by a rod and screws inserted into her leg.. I look around at the people waiting to be seen and I am overwhelmed at the misery and sickness before me.

I hurry back to the gate and sit down next to the woman. “They are coming for her,” I tell Ibrahim, and he translates that message to her. She has the most startling blue eyes I have ever seen – the color of palest turquoise – and when she hears they are coming for her they fill with tears.

“I have been coming every day for a week, but no one cares,” she whispers. She leans weakly against my arm, and I ask her if she wants to lay her head down in my lap while she waits. As I hold her in my arms, I stroke her back and feel the thinness of her body; her bones are knobs and sticks bumping under my hand. I hear the raspiness of each labored breath as she struggles to breathe with lungs ravaged by cancer’s insidious fingers. She raises her withered hand to lift the scarf off her head, revealing a tumor so large that it has burst through her scalp. An open wound reaches from the crown of her head down to her neck where the tumor has split the skin. I can smell the stench of infection, and although the site and smell of the festering red wound edged with yellow flesh makes my stomach clinch, I am moved with pity. I cannot imagine her pain.

She says something to Ibrahim that so overcomes him, he is unable to speak. As he fights back tears, stomping his foot on the ground, he is visibly shaken. He finally looks at me with stricken eyes and says she has told him, “Now, if I just had someone who could feed me.” My eyes fill with tears and I angrily say, “This isn’t right.” A man in the crowd silently hands me a box of cookies, and I open them for her. Crumbs spill from the sides of her mouth as she shoves them in with a hunger that cannot be assuaged by such a meager ration. I have seen hungry people but never anyone starving, and the sight wounds me like a hot knife plunged into my core.

When the medics come, Ibrahim gently lifts the sick woman into the vehicle. We walk to the clinic to help her out and get her inside. As I start to walk away she stops me with a touch on my arm and holds me with her amazing eyes. A look passes between us that transcends spoken language. Though we will never meet again a bond has formed, and neither will forget the other. She touches her hand to her mouth in a gesture of farewell, and I turn and walk away.

The next day I go back to the clinic and ask the doctor if there is any place like a hospice for the woman to go, offering to pay for her care. She tells me that there is no such place, adding that because she is a widow with no family, there is no one to care for her. The reality is that the needs of families in the poor village are so great that compassion for others is a luxury that cannot be afforded. The doctor tells me that the woman does not have long to live, as if this will make me feel better. At that point I begin to pray that death will soon bring her freedom from her pain.

There are thousands more like this woman suffering through hunger and pain in Afghanistan. While the idea of the terminally ill dying alone is abhorrent to most of us, this is a modern aberration. For most of mankind’s existence this has been the norm. Much of Afghanistan is living in another century where poverty and sickness make obtaining day-to-day subsistence a grueling task at best. This is their life and they accept it. It is all they know.

Many times in my two years in Afghanistan I wonder if any of us, military or civilian, are doing anything that matters. Then I think of this nameless woman and I know that any time or money we spend in Afghanistan that makes food, health care and education available is well spent. While America has struggled with our longest war in terms of loss of life and treasure, for me it is ultimately about humanity. I will never forget the woman with the turquoise eyes. I only knew her for an hour, but she changed my life forever.