Ghosts of the Past

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The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends and where the other begins? – Edgar Allan Poe

Excerpt from “Small Gifts from the Heart”

One bright, sunny day I have the opportunity to go on a mission with the Kentucky Agricultural Development Team to the Shirizar Research Farm, a 1500-acre farm originally established in Kapisa province by the Russians during their occupation. The ADT is partnering with Al Bironi University (ABU) to establish fruit and vegetable plots, two reservoirs and a network of irrigation ditches to move water to the crops.  About forty assorted fruit and vegetable plots have been planted by local villagers and a recent ABU graduate serves as project manager.

The farm is mostly level and the soil is much better than any I have seen so far in Kapisa. As with all soil in Afghanistan, it lacks organic matter, but it is the richest soil I’ve seen here. A towering mountain creates a boundary on one side of the farm, resting like a tired giant, its gray face overlooking the farm.

We meet up with the Kapisa DAIL (Director of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock), his assistant and the farm manager. I have met the DAIL many times and have a cordial relationship with him. He always greets me with a big smile and a swinging handshake, which is the best greeting I can get as a woman. If I were a man I would be hugged and he would hold my hand as we walked to the field.  On one occasion he asks me to eat a meal at his house, anxious for me to meet his wife. I would have loved to accept this invitation, but I am not allowed to do this because of security concerns. I notice that today he and his assistant are strangely subdued.

We take a walking tour of the farm with three elders from the nearby village to get an idea of where the best location for the reservoirs should be. The three elderly men have wrinkled faces, looking more like hide than skin from years of working in the hot baking sun and the lines around their eyes are deeply etched. They have bad teeth, are bearded, and smell of stale sweat and tobacco. Each one has a different headgear; a pakul (a flat pancaked-shaped woolen hat), a turban and a kola cap (a small round hat). As they walk along, their gnarled hands clasped behind their backs, wisdom and strength resonate from them and I am filled with respect.

The farm manager shows us a large hole on one end of the field that can serve as one reservoir. The elder with the kola tells us the hole was made by a bomb the Russians dropped and he wonders if the Americans can drop another bomb at the other side of the field for the second pond. We tell him we can’t do that, but we will help provide equipment so they can dig the pond.

As we walk across the field I notice shards of pottery all over the field; you literally cannot take a step without stepping on artifacts. I pick up some of the shards and examine them. They are pieces with lips on the top so large that if you extrapolated their size to an actual pot, they would be at least one foot across the opening. Some of the pieces are charred on the bottom, indicating they were used over fires. One piece has a Greek design with an exquisitely flowing pattern. I later describe it to one of our interpreters, Dr. Najibullah, who has a doctorate in archaeology, and he tells me it is from the period of Alexander the Great. As I walk across the field I am stunned by the amount and the beauty of the shards. Some have beautiful patterns around the rims and one has a tiny flower baked onto the surface. The field is obviously an important archaeological site. I show a large shard with a design etched onto it to one of the elders.

“Oh, that is no good. It is two thousand years old,” he says dismissively. I cannot believe this significant treasure trove of artifacts hasn’t been studied.

I hold the artifact in my hand and say, “If this was in America, it would be in a museum.” He takes it from my hand and looks at it with more interest, then puts it in his pocket. Intrigued by the site, I ask if there was a village here at one time. He says a long time ago many people lived here.

When the Taliban took over the government in 1996, most of the artifacts in the Kabul Museum were destroyed, denying future generations of Afghans the opportunity to look proudly upon these reminders of their rich heritage.  The world reacted with horror when the Bamyan Buddhas were dynamited and destroyed in March 2001 by the Taliban, after the government declared they were idols. The two monumental 6th century statues of standing Buddha, the largest in the world, were carved into the side of a cliff in the beautiful Bamyan valley.  In one infamous day, 1500 years of history was lost, the serene gaze from the Buddhas faces obliterated by intolerant religious fanatics.  The larger Buddha was painted carmine red. One day Dr. Najibullah brought me a piece of stone with faded red paint on it. He had found it in the gravel used to line the roads of the FOB. With a deep sadness on his face he says, “This comes from the Buddha. “ He holds it reverently in his hand, and then offers it to me. I thank him but say he must keep it. Dr. Najibullah worked at the Kabul Museum and was responsible for the saving of a few precious artifacts, hiding them from the Taliban. He nods his head and gently places it in his pocket.

As we continue our walk across the field we are approaching a cemetery. Afghan cemeteries are dotted with stone or wooden markers, with some of the taller plinths having a green or red piece of cloth waving in the breeze. A few may have a fence around the grave, but most of them have no more than a flat stone to mark the final resting place of a loved one. Brightly colored plastic flowers adorn some of the graves. The nearer we get to the cemetery, the more I sense an invisible, but palpable presence. It is so strong I stop, unable to go any nearer. The only times I have felt this sensation is when I have been at sacred Native American sites. The only way I can describe this feeling is to say there are still people “at home.”

One of the elders points across the field and says, “There used to be an old cemetery over there, many, many years ago. He tells me that soldiers under the British occupation looted the old cemetery, taking jewelry, pots, tools and other funereal items. I am saddened by this desecration of the final resting places of long dead Afghans. As we head back to the other side of the field I can almost see and hear the hum of activity of the vanished people who lived here so many years ago. I see the shadows of women cooking over fire pits and I hear the hiss of water as it boils over onto the hot stones surrounding the fire. The echoes of children’s voices at play and the baaing of sheep float in the air and I feel like if I turn my head quickly I can catch a glimpse of those who lived, loved, laughed and suffered here. Someone asks me a question and the ghosts of the long dead slip back to their ethereal existence and I am once again walking with my little delegation on the modern-day Afghan field.

We stop for a moment as the elders talk about the irrigation system. Two ANPs (Afghan National Police) have followed us all over the field in their ill-fitting blue-gray uniforms, armed with rifles. They have a small post at the edge of the farm, which consists of a hole dug in the dirt and covered with a dark green tarpaulin. A large shaggy guard dog has a little tent set up for him and he is lying underneath it asleep. Something is “off” about the ANP’s behavior. We have our own security, but I think maybe they are just curious about us. I notice them looking at my chest and for a moment I think they are being rude, but then I see they are trying to read my ID badge. I turn around and slip it down the neck of my tunic. They follow me so closely that when I stop suddenly they bump into my back.

I love unusual rocks and as I walk along the field I begin to pick up stones with pretty colors and textures. I pick up one grayish stone with crisscross striations on it. The turbaned elder looks at it and points to the mountain and then to the stone. I understand the stone’s origin is from the mountain. Although we can’t speak each other’s language, we are communicating. He begins to bring me other rocks that catch his eye and soon both of my jacket pockets are sagging with the weight of the rocks.

We ease on up to a small rise overlooking the field and take some group pictures, each one with an ANP photo looking over the shoulders of the others. We sit on the pebbly red dirt in a semi-circle in the shadow of the mountain. As I gaze up at the high ridges I can see curious mountain goats peeping over the edge at us. As discussions ensue, I watch a herder guide his red-brown sheep to graze on the scant grass located at the base of the mountain. Being an animal scientist by degree I am interested in learning about the livestock of Afghanistan. I ask an elder what is the breed of the sheep. He says they are just local sheep, no particular breed.

“Do you want to see a sheep? We will get him to bring you a sheep!” he says excitedly. I tell him no, that we don’t have time, but thank him for the offer. I find the vast majority of Afghans eager to please, giving generously of their time and of themselves.

As we head on back to the MRAPs, our ubiquitous ANPs are following close behind me. I have had enough. If they are trying to intimidate me, it isn’t going to work. As I put my body armor back on, I turn around and look into their stony faces. I make a motion of sagging under the weight of the armor and touch my knees, a play grimace on my face. I touch my white hair as if to say, “I am old and creaky.” I smile at them. With their rifles slung over the shoulders they glance at one another and I see a hint of a smile lift the corners of their mouths. The oldest one points to his grey hair and indicates his knees hurt as well. I give them a farewell wave and climb into the MRAP.

About a month later, in an intelligence briefing, we learn the two ANPs were forcing the DAIL and his assistant to put their commander and four of his men on the payroll for the irrigation project. Corruption in the ANP is rampant. This explains why the DAIL and his assistant looked so glum the day of our mission. The feeling of something not quite right about the day suddenly makes sense. They wanted to intimidate the DAIL and to eavesdrop on the conversations involving the project. I print copies of the pictures I have with the ANPs in every shot and give them to the intelligence officer. The young farm manager risked the real possibility of brutal retaliation by telling the ADT of this attempt at racketeering.

I still think highly of the DAIL. He is an educated, kind man who has made a genuine attempt to improve agriculture in Kapisa province. He has an extension agent in each district in the province, working to make agricultural sustainable. It is too simplistic to call him corrupt. In Afghanistan you never know what a person has been promised or what he has been threatened with. I know the DAIL has five children, the youngest a five-year old son with a congenital heart defect that will likely prevent him from being six unless it is repaired. Members of the ADT are actively trying to coordinate with their churches to raise funds to bring the boy to the United States for the lifesaving surgery. Maybe the DAIL was promised money to get his son medical care. Maybe the lives of his family were threatened. I only know that his eyes on the last day I saw him were filled with despair. I saw many ghosts on our trip that day; the shadowy presence of the long dead, lingering in the shattered pieces of pottery and the very real ghosts of lost dreams and honor reflected in the eyes of men who want to do the right thing, but cannot in an atmosphere of intimidation and fear born of violence and greed.

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Copyright © 2015 Kathy Gunderman

Nevada – The Silver State

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I thought it might be fun to set my books in Nevada, which is in the West and still pretty wild. You can still gamble, carry a loaded pistol, and go into a silver mine, and they still have saloons with swinging doors, boardwalks, and horses. – Carol Lawrence

Nevada usually brings to mind the bright lights and thrills of Las Vegas where millions go to try their hand at the casinos and see spectacular entertainment. It is guaranteed you’ll leave either overexcited from nonstop stimulation or depressed if your luck ran out at the roulette wheel – but whatever happens at Vegas, stays in Vegas.

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I lived in Nevada less than a year but I developed a real love for this barren, lush, bright, quiet, noisy land. Unfortunately I was severely allergic to something there and was sick from day one. I believe it was juniper, but whatever it was, the allergy became life-threatening and I had to leave my job as Field Manager for the Tuscarora Field Office with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). It was a wonderful job that allowed me the opportunity to manage over 3.1 million acres of public land with a base in Elko. In the short time I was there I oversaw programs in mining, ranching, wild horses, biology and so much more. I had an exemplary staff with the obligatory one or two problem employees thrown in to make life interesting. In one memorable day I flew over the Carlin Trend, a five-mile wide, 40-mile long geologic feature that is rich in mineral deposits, including gold, in a small aircraft and later that day I went 2000 ft. underground at one of the local gold mines. It was a day I will never forget and it left me with a deep respect for miners.

Sierra-Nevada Range

Sierra-Nevada Range

Nevada is largely desert and semiarid, broken up by many north-south mountain ranges and boasts world class recreation areas such as Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, Valley of Fire State Park, Great Basin National Park, Humboldt National Forest, Lake Mead National Recreation Area and Death Valley National Park. There are 68 designated wilderness areas protecting almost 7 million acres. Over 86% of the land in Nevada is managed by The U.S. Federal government, both civilian and military. The infamous Area 51 where supposedly alien remains and a crashed space vehicle are stored lies in remote southern Nevada. The base’s primary mission is unknown but it is most likely an area that supports the development and testing of experimental aircraft and weapons systems. The stealth bomber was tested there and I can imagine anyone seeing this black triangular aircraft could well imagine it to be a UFO.

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The Nevada Test site, 65 miles NW of Las Vegas, was the site for the first nuclear bomb tests. I worked with a woman who was a small child when the first test was conducted and she recalls the mushroom cloud was visible from her school and the teachers took the kids outside to watch.  Many of her classmates died prematurely with cancer and other illness over the years and she has to go every year for medical testing. The field trip from hell.

And then, there are the legal brothels in Nevada. I did a work detail in Ely and I was so tempted to go visit the local “house”, purely for curiosity purposes. I wanted to see what they wore; probably not as exotic as I imagine. I decided against it, not wanting to see the headline, “Federal Employee Caught Entering Brothel – Just to Look around – She Says”. For a Christmas party, my field office rented a locomotive train that runs from Ely to the Ruth Mine and returns. When the train passes by the brothel the ladies come out and signal the train with hand-held lanterns swinging back and forth. An advertisement in the trains read, “Nevada’s Brothels – servicing the Old West since the 1800’s.”

The Ghost Train, Nevada Northern Railway Museum (steam train), Robinson Canyon near Ely, Nevada USA

Ghost Train, Ely, NV

What I will remember the most about Nevada is the overwhelming beauty. We used to take a Sunday drive on the 12-mile Lamoille Canyon Road, a National Forest Scenic Byway, where it was common to see white mountain goats defying gravity as they leapt from one narrow ledge to another.  Hiking in Red Rock Canyon and seeing the formations etched by wind, water, and time was awe inspiring. I also remember the warm, wonderful people who I met there who made me feel so at home and supported me through my illness. I was sad to leave. I needed more time to wander the roads of this amazing land and see the mountains, rivers, deserts, forests and possibly aliens?

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I Went to Church

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The victims of PTSD often feel morally tainted by their experiences, unable to recover confidence in their own goodness, trapped in a sort of spiritual solitary confinement, looking back at the rest of the world from beyond the barrier of what happened. They find themselves unable to communicate their condition to those who remained at home, resenting civilians for their blind innocence. – David Brooks

This past Sunday I went to church. “What’s the big deal with that?” you may ask. Millions of people all over the world attend church on Sundays. For a person who has Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), going to church or any place where people congregate can be daunting, if not impossible.

I have attended church ever since I was born and it has always been a place where I found peace and guidance. Raised in a Southern Baptist church I love the old hymns like “The Old Rugged Cross” and “Softly and Tenderly”. Most of my social encounters as a child involved church. During my career in the Federal government I lived in many places all over the country. People ask me how I could ever feel at home. I tell them I always found a church to attend. When you attend church you have a family; a family that drives you crazy and you disagree with on occasion, but when the chips are down they are there for you and you for them.

When I was deployed to Afghanistan I attended church services. At my forward operating base in Kapisa Province, a chaplain would come once a month from Bagram Air Base to hold a service. Not many people attended but a few did and “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there in their midst.” When I moved to the U.S. Embassy in Kabul I would go with a group of people in an embassy van to Camp Eggers, a NATO facility, on Sunday nights for services led by the U.S. military. Several people who had musical instruments provided music and those services were so special to me, a welcome break in my 12 hour/6 day work week.

Once when the service was over and another woman and I were waiting for our ride, I heard rapid gunfire off to the left. When we got into the van we were prevented from taking the usual route back to the embassy. We were stopped at one checkpoint and it was obvious that something was up as the guards were in full tactical gear and on high alert. One opened the door and screamed at our Afghan driver, “You’re not going anywhere! We’re on bulldog! We’re on lockdown!” Not a novice to such situations I settled back to wait for whatever was going on to be resolved. The woman with me had never been exposed to this level of alert and she got out of the vehicle yelling at the guard to tell her what was going on and demanding we be allowed to go to the embassy. I grabbed her arm and told her to get back into the car. I explained that we needed to be calm and let the military do their job. She was visibly upset and close to tears. After about 10 minutes we were allowed to go to the embassy where we went through another checkpoint where a bomb sniffing dog checked our van for explosives and then a last checkpoint where the hood was lifted and we went through a much more thorough check than usual. I asked the guard what was going on. He said something was happening at the CIA Annex, which is adjacent to the Embassy. It turned out to be an Afghan employee who had worked at the annex for two years had shot a civilian contractor and a gunfight had ensued until he was shot and killed, hence the gunfire I had heard. As you can see, even going to church in Afghanistan can be fraught with danger.

When I returned home to Maine I found that integrating back into “normal” life was not so easy. Being in a crowd could bring on debilitating panic attacks and it was difficult for me to sit with my back to a door. I went with my daughter to her church and I was so nervous I was shaking inside. I sat in the last row in the seat farthest from the door, hoping that out of my peripheral vision I could see if an armed person came in and I would be able to disable him before he killed anyone. I knew people would think I was insane if they knew I was having these thoughts in this beautiful, peaceful church. Finally, feeling I could not breathe, I left the service early to go sit with my daughter who was teaching in the children’s church. That was over two years ago and I have not been able to attend church until this week.

I had not planned to go to church Sunday. I was happily enjoying my morning when I felt the need to attend. I quickly got dressed and starting looking up times for churches close to my home. Several started at 10:00AM and I was too late for those services, but one church a little farther from my home started later. My plan was just to sneak in inconspicuously, get the closest I could to the back then slip out after the service. As I pulled into the parking lot of the church I noticed it didn’t have a front door. I saw some red double doors under a carport in the back and tried those but they appeared to be locked. I walked around the church thinking there must be a door I just didn’t see in the front. As I tiptoed in my high heels across the grassy lawn I realized there really was no front door. I continued around the building and a side door opened and a man stuck his head out. “Where is the way in?” I asked. He said to go back to the double red doors. “They’re locked, “I told him. “No, they just stick.”

By the time I got in I was late and everyone turned to look at me. I slunk to the nearest pew, totally embarrassed. Then the preacher started asking me questions. “Are you in the right place? Is this where you meant to come?” On and on. I just wanted to grab my Bible and leave but I was immobilized by my discomfort. We sang several songs and they made me feel a little better but when the preacher gave his sermon several things he said just rubbed me the wrong way. This is what I had been afraid of; that I would not be able to sit quietly and I would make a scene. “Just leave,” I kept telling myself, looking uneasily over my shoulder. Instead I turned to the book of Matthew and began to read the words of Jesus. His teachings of love and acceptance calmed me enough to allow me make it through the rest of the service.

When church was dismissed I shook hands with the preacher, my insides shaking from pent up emotions. I noticed a bench along the back wall that would have been perfect to sit in had I the opportunity to scout it out in advance. Although everyone was very welcoming, I don’t think I’ll go back to this particular church, but I will try again. While it had been a stressful situation, arriving late and having the focus turned solely on me, I felt triumphant in the sense that I toughed it out. I didn’t jump up and make a scene when I disagreed with the preacher. Nothing bad happened. No one came in and shot up the church. I survived, just as I survived going to church in Afghanistan in spite of real danger.

PTSD robs you of simple pleasures like attending church, or fairs, or concerts, or movies – any place where there are a lot of people. I made a tiny baby step Sunday toward claiming my freedom to enjoy all those things again. It will be a long time in coming and I don’t think I’ll ever feel completely safe in a crowd, but I can see a future where I can sing “I’ll Fly Away” without actually flying away.

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.

Christianity Under Attack

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Who will separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? Romans 8:35

Another day and another account of Christians being persecuted and killed. This time 12 African migrants on a rubber boat trying to get from Libya to Italy were thrown overboard by fellow passengers, while other Christians on board saved themselves by forming a human chain. Fifteen Muslim passengers have been arrested in the incident.

The world was shocked when the terror group ISIS beheaded 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians on a beach in Tripoli, Libya, releasing the directive to other Muslims to “behead a Christian to gain your salvation, so kill Christians wherever you find them.” At this time the fate of upwards of 150 Christian hostages, many women and children, kidnapped in Syria remains unknown.

Since January 1, 2015, almost 400 Christians have been killed in 24 separate attacks in 9 different countries. And these are the ones that have been reported and it is feared there have been many more deaths that have gone unreported. The Vatican estimates that Christians are the most persecuted group in the contemporary world with over 100,000 Christians being violently killed annually because of some relation to their faith. According to the World Evangelical Alliance, over 200 million Christians are denied fundamental human rights solely because of their faith, most living in Muslim-dominated countries. Of the world’s three largest religions, Christians are the most proportionally persecuted with 80% of all acts of religious discrimination being directed at Christians.

Every year, the Christian non-profit organization Open Doors publishes a list of the top 50 countries where Christian persecution is the worst. The 2014 lists the top ten offenders as North Korea, Somalia, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Maldives, Pakistan, Iran and Yemen.

In spite of the horrifying reports of genocide of Christians our nation’s leaders remain chillingly silent. President Obama, a professed Christian, has not shown any rage or called upon any country to help stop this onslaught against innocents being killed and persecuted merely on the basis of their faith. In fact, on two occasions, he seemed to go to lengths to chastise Christians. In February he admonished attendees at the National Prayer breakfast that, “Unless we get on our high horse and think this (religious persecution) is unique to some place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.” Comparing current Islamist extremist atrocities to religious wars fought 500-1000 years ago seems ludicrous and patronizing. Response to his remarks was swift, with many saying this underscores the perception that Obama is out-of-touch with America.

Undeterred, at the Easter-themed prayer breakfast earlier this month he once again used his position to deliver a facile, preachy slap to Christians saying, “On Easter I do reflect on the fact that as a Christian I am supposed to love, and I have to say that sometimes when I’ve listened to less–than-loving expressions by Christians, I get concerned.” I say, “Physician, heal thyself.”

As our first black president, Barack Obama was in the perfect position to heal our nation and help narrow the divide between the races that still plagues our country. Instead, this winner of the Nobel Peace Prize has steadfastly wasted every opportunity to heal and has set back race relations decades. As a Christian I would have liked to see him use the time of Easter, the Christian’s most holy day, to show the world how a Christian acts, not with a holier-than-thou arrogance but with an attitude of forgiveness and love. I didn’t see that. Instead I was encouraged by the words of Pope Francis who has expressed hope that the international community does not look on, “silent and inactive”, in the face of the unacceptable persecution of Christians around the world.

What concerns me the most is Obama’s refusal to acknowledge and condemn the almost weekly killing of Christians , and in many cases, Jews. His focus seems to be solely on appeasing our enemies in the Middle East, which will only lead us down a dangerous path. I admit Christians have committed atrocities in the name of Christ but instead of using ancient deeds to denigrate the current genocide of Christians shows an amazing lack of responsibility. To say every religion has committed atrocities lets everyone off the hook, including Obama. Mr. President, move on up to the 21st century and man up as the leader of the greatest country in the world; a country that was created on the tenet of religious freedom, and call out the countries that harbor these Islamic extremists who are committed to wiping out Christianity in the most brutal ways imaginable. Enough is enough, unless you want to go down in history as the modern day Pontius Pilate. If you are concerned with leaving a legacy, remember not many people name their sons Pontius anymore.

The Circus is in Town

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A national political campaign is better than the best circus ever heard of, with a mass baptism and a couple of hangings thrown in . – H.L. Mencken

More and more candidates are throwing their hat into the 2016 presidential ring and the media, not to be outdone, are expanding that ring to three. The site of news reporters running after Clinton’s “Scooby” van was like watching a film of Japanese citizens fleeing Godzilla in reverse. Reporters have a difficult time trying to get the best tidbits of news, but focusing on what Hillary had to eat at Chipotle as a leading news story is ridiculous. Did we really need to know she had Masala chai and caramel lattes? What about asking her about her plan for the economy and her stance on Iran nuclear capabilities? Oh, that’s right, she won’t talk to reporters; therefore the mad rush to try to capture even a snippet of something to report to the nation on her campaign. As Clinton is choosing to run her campaign in a veil of secrecy perhaps the press should pick up their cameras and follow other candidates, leaving her to sit alone in her dark sunglasses with a few selected sycophants. Let her be the one to pursue the press.

Other candidates, while more visible, are still victims of the media who seem to find the highlighting of meaningless trivia more important than asking the hard questions we as the American public really want to know. Marco Rubio is too young vs. Clinton who is too old. Rand Paul and Chris Christie are flip-flopping. Jeb Bush is too old school. Ted Cruz is too much of a firebrand. This or that candidate is too wealthy, conservative, liberal, weak in foreign policy, hawkish and on and on.

We have a year and a half until the 2016 presidential election and by that time most of us will be so sick of mud-slinging and scandal dredging that we will just want it to be over. As the voters make the decision of who will (hopefully) lead our country for another four years, the defeated politicians will limp home, torn and bleeding, having spent millions, if not billions of dollars, to regroup and start plotting for another run in four years.

There is a lot of talk about campaign reform. It is one of Clinton’s talking points and one she wants to address if her 2 billion dollar campaign is successful. I have some suggestions to simplify the election process and reduce voter fatigue. Give each candidate one month to campaign. The first three weeks all television and radio ads are banned. Week one all the candidates will have knockout debates within their party with judges giving scores much like the Olympics. In the second week the winner of the debates will have a series of debates based on the topics that the American people have deemed most important. The third week the candidates can go wherever they want to campaign. The fourth week they can have television and radio ads but they can only talk about their plan for America and cannot mention the other candidate.

Clean and simple. Yes, I know this will never happen and maybe it shouldn’t. Maybe we need to have our candidates slug it out so we are sure they have the stamina to endure the rigors of being president of the most powerful country in the world in a time of economic instability and the growing threat of global terrorism. I also know that too much of anything is not good. Too much cake makes your stomach ache and staying too long at the circus just makes you tired and fussy.

A Day in the Life

Forward Operating Base Morales Frazier, Kapisa Province, Afghanistan

Forward Operating Base Morales Frazier, Kapisa Province, Afghanistan

War is as much a punishment to the punisher as it is to the sufferer. – Thomas Jefferson.

Excerpt from “Small Gifts from the Heart”

As I settle in to life at Morales Frazier it becomes like any other job. Get up, go to work, come home, have a little down time and repeat. Instead of commuting to work by bus or train as I did in Washington, DC, I can walk about one hundred yards to my office. Instead of a background of horns honking, the screeching of the brakes of a bus, the whirr of a train as it rushes into the station, I hear gunfire, rockets and the chatter of the French and American military as they go about their daily routine. And because you can get used to anything, it does become routine.

I start my day at 5:30 in the morning and I exercise to the sound of helicopters landing and taking off at the helipad. There is not a lot of equipment but enough to get a good aerobic workout. The smaller weights I need are missing, usually taken to use as doorstops and although I ask for more, they never come. In my younger days I competed in body building and weight lifting. I have really strong legs and I just love getting on the legs press after some guy has been straining and grunting and lift more weight than he did without effort. It’s the little things, you know. Once I saw a guy lifting weights incorrectly and offered advice on the correct way. Of course I got made fun of. Who was I, an old white haired lady telling this young, virile soldier how to lift weights? I took the higher ground when I saw him icing his shoulder in the dining hall later that morning. He at least had the decency to look sheepish.

Our dining hall or DFAC, is a small room with tables. We have Army cooks that don’t really cook much. They don’t have a real kitchen to prepare food so they heat up a lot of dinners that look like Schwann’s meals. We don’t have any fresh fruit or vegetables, although on one memorable occasion when a general visited we had a green salad. I just stood in front of it and lifted a trembling hand to my mouth as I whispered wonderingly, “A salad!” We have milk, soft drinks and water to drink. In the morning I have cereal and sometimes there are some stale pastries as an option. We do have good ice cream as dessert or for a snack.

When a RIP/TOA (Relief in Place/Transfer of Authority) is in place the departing unit tries to use up all the food allotted to them. Once when a supply truck burned up at Bagram at the same time as a RIP/TOA we had some interesting meals, like seven different kinds of chicken. Nothing else, just seven different kinds of chicken.

The French have a better DFAC, but is on the other side of the base and I am usually too wiped out after a 12-14 hour day to bother going. The few times I ate there I was not impressed with the food so it doesn’t seem worth the effort. Surprisingly there is a small pizza place on this tiny little base and it makes a nice change. We also have MREs (Meals Ready-To-Eat) that can be taken on long missions. I know they must have some heavy duty preservatives because they can last for years.

After breakfast I take my “bath” which consists of wetting a washcloth with bottled water and using camping shampoo. About every four days I trudge through the dust or mud, depending on the weather, and take a real shower. The showers and bathrooms on MF are coed so as I walk up the steps and open the door I go in with lowered eyes because they don’t always explain to newcomers the “coed” part. If I hear a shocked gasp I just keep my eyes lowered until a towel is draped over the appropriate places.

The showers are small cubicles with a tiny space on one side of a shower curtain to disrobe and hang up your clothes. As the water is trucked in and is in limited supply we only get two minutes of water use. I wet my hair and body, turn off the water, lather up, turn the water back on and rinse, all the while trying to not get water in my mouth as it is not potable. It can be done. Just. Then the trick is to try to dry off and get redressed in such a tiny space. While I am in the shower room I brush my teeth and admonish the guys for leaving hair in the sinks. I tell them “I don’t even get this close to my husband at home!” I’ve seen more men in boxer shorts since coming to MF than I have in my whole life. Like I say, you can get used to anything.

One particularly uncomfortable time in the shower was when I found myself in the stall next to our chaplain. He comes from Bagram once a month for a service. “Nice sermon, Chaplain,” I say over the wall. “Well, thank you,” he answers back. Awkward to say the least. After my shower I walk back to my tent in the dust or mud which necessitates washing my feet again when I get back to my room.

If I need to get up in the night to go to the bathroom there is a port-a-potty conveniently located in front of my tent. An Afghan business cleans all the port-a-potties every morning but by night they are disgusting. I cautiously open the door like someone checking for booby traps, which in a way is true. Toilet tissue lies in clumps around the facility and the floor is coated with urine. For goodness sakes, these men are trained marksmen. Are they trying to hit the floor? I sit gingerly on the plastic seats that are cracked trying not to pinch my butt. The Afghans use squat toilets and they don’t understand the concept of sitting on a toilet. They stand on the seats to do their business, therefore the cracks. There is a small sticker in each toilet with a person standing on the toilet with a red line through it, but apparently it doesn’t get the message across.

Privacy is at a minimum as the potty outside my tent also has a bench sitting right next to it. I usually walk to another one if I feel I need a buffer zone. Once, as I was leaving a stall, my boots slipped in the mud coating the linoleum floor of the latrine and I fell to the floor. The latrines are in B-huts sitting on blocks and when I fell the whole place shook and my fall echoed loudly in the confined space. I heard a “Holy shit!” come from another stall. I got up and quietly left the latrine and burst out laughing when I got outside. I know some poor guy is sitting in there with his pants down thinking we are in a rocket attack.

My office is in a concrete block building with plywood walled offices that don’t have an interior ceiling. I share my office with one other person from the military and we get along very well. Dust is usually everywhere so I dust first thing, then check email. I am trying to figure out what was done by the USDA rep before me but there doesn’t seem to be any records or contact information for local Afghan leaders. In the civilian world there is no passing of the baton and we just keep doing the same things over and over with no documentation, no follow-up and no accountability. With the military it is a little better but I come to realize that most of the projects the Civ/Mil (Civilian/Military) Provincial Reconstruction Teams are implementing do not have lasting value. I desperately try to look for projects that I feel can make a difference but I don’t kid myself that I am going to change the world here. The whole point of putting civilians in the most kinetic areas of Afghanistan was to stabilize the economy by creating jobs and sustainable agriculture. The reality is this is incredibly difficult if not impossible to do in an active war zone. It just increases the likelihood that civilians  will be wounded or killed. We will never win this or any war with how much money we throw at people and it certainly won’t be with how many people we kill. If we have any measure of success it will be the one-on-one interactions we have with Afghans where they see we are not all infidels and we see they are not all terrorists. I try to take a small measure of comfort in that.

After a day of trying to see a way clear to use my skills and expertise to help farmers in my province I make my way back to my tent where I have about two hours to myself, or as much by myself as you can be in a tent full of women. I put my earphones on and listen to music as I turn to my sketch pad for some relaxation. Soon I am lost in another world and as my pencil scratches across the paper my mind is distracted from the omnipresent noise that permeates our base. After an hour or so, I look down and see a beautiful picture that I can barely remember drawing. It is like a meditation and I did some of my best work in Afghanistan lying propped up in my bunk in that tent on MF.

At about 9:00 PM I brush my teeth, spitting in the trash can and rinsing with bottled water, followed by an Ambien so I can sleep. I wash off my feet again and crawl under the covers on my bunk. I screw in my earplugs that muffle but don’t exclude the noise and in the dark I lay and ponder my being 12,000 miles away from my family. As I say my prayers I hope they know how much I love them. I pray God will show me a way to be useful here; a way to bring some comfort to people who are living under the tyranny of 40 years of war. I pray that soon we all can go to sleep in peacefulness.

Copyright (C) 2015 Kathleen Gunderman

Wyoming – Land of Freedom

Wyoming

The mountains knew the definition of freedom. They provided a place where he could find his mind. – Daniel J. Rice

In 2004 I accepted a position as the Assistant Field Manager for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in Pinedale, Wyoming. I had worked my whole Federal career in the USDA but I had come to realize that if I wanted to reach a higher grade I would have to leave the good old boy regime of the Natural Resources Conservation Service. I was pleased to see that about half the managers in the BLM were women and I liked the mission of protecting America’s public lands. It would be a move I never regretted and it was a turning point in my career that allowed me to reach the level of management and responsibility I felt my skills and experience warranted.

It was hard to leave North Dakota. I was content there, maybe too content. I have known people who worked their entire careers in one job and while there is nothing wrong with that, I have never wanted to be complacent. I like challenging myself to be the best that I can be and to keep learning and growing.

Devil

Devils Tower Monument

Having lived in North Dakota for three years I was used to wide open spaces but the vast sage brush plains of Wyoming are framed by the Rocky Mountains, which overlook their domain like stony guardians. Some of the most beautiful land I have ever seen is in Wyoming. Millions of people come every year to look upon the wonders of the world’s first national park, Yellowstone, Devils Tower National Monument or to ski on the slopes of the majestic Grand Tetons. It is the least populated state in the U.S. and the second least densely populated. It was the first state to allow women to vote. You can breathe in Wyoming and freedom surrounds you.

The Old West is alive and thriving in Wyoming. I will never forget seeing a local ranch moving its herd of horses, hooves pounding, through the streets of Pinedale as drovers in long yellow slickers and cowboy hats yelled and whistled to keep them running between the store fronts lining the streets. I lived in Sublette County where there are no stoplights. Wilderness was only a street away in any direction. It wasn’t unusual to have to wait at a stop sign while a big bull moose crossed the street in front of me and occasionally a mountain lion would stake out a claim on the local park until it could be relocated to a safer area. More than once I was transported to another time when a cattle drive crossed the road with cows mooing and drovers shouting. Herds of feral horses and burros roam the deserts, a living remnant from miners and ranchers.

scr-horsedriveaugust

Horse drive through Pinedale, WY.

Wyoming is rich in natural gas, oil, coal and methane deposits and it never ceases to amaze me to think these petroleum products come from the decayed bodies of dinosaurs that roamed millions of years ago. It was common to have crocodilian and fish fossils along with giants ferns unearthed during the drilling process and it gives me pause, when people talk of climate change, to think that the semi-arid sage brush deserts were once tropical rain forests and swamps. The Wind River Mountains have rose and fell at least twice. The earth is a dynamic, living entity that belches and flexes, throwing landscapes and climate into an ever changing flux.

Wyoming gave us the artist Jackson Pollock; news commentator and author Dana Perino; Vice-President Dick Cheney; Olympic gold medalist Rulon Gardner and legendary sportscaster Curt Gowdy. Native Americans still maintain a large presence on the Wind River Reservation which is shared by the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes. Wyoming is rated number one for states to retire in as it does not levy an individual or corporate income tax and does not assess any tax on retirement income. Food for human consumption is not subject to sales tax and property held for personal use is tax-exempt.

Yellowstone

Old Faithful Geyser in Yellowstone National Park

Whatever you long for can be found in Wyoming. Want to fly fish? Try the Green or Snake Rivers for world-class angling. Do you like hiking? The bare granite peaks of the higher elevations of the mountain ranges attract climbers, hikers and scientists who study the icy glacier lakes. The doomed Challenger astronauts trained in the rugged mountains above Pinedale. Wyoming has hot springs, geysers, deserts, forests, grasslands, antelope, mule deer, grizzlies, elk, bison, prairie dogs, pygmy rabbits, sage grouse, skiing and snowboarding. It has everything.  I lived there for four years and it was some of the happiest years of my life because I grew, not only as a manager in a challenging field office, but as a person. It is a state steeped with history and the romance of the Old West and it is easy to reinvent or just refine oneself in this magnificent place called Wyoming.

Wild horse

Democracy vs. Dynasty

campaign_2016-2

In the scheme of our national government, the presidency is preeminently the people’s office. – Grover Cleveland

Hillary Clinton has officially announced her candidacy for president and while I would love to see a woman in the White House, I don’t want just any woman. And I don’t want a Clinton or a Bush for that matter. Out of the last twenty-six years, twenty of those have been under a Clinton or Bush presidency. While I think both families have served our country to the best of their abilities- succeeding in some respects, failing in others-the truth is our country is not prospering.

We don’t have the respect in the world we once commanded.  From working in Afghanistan I know that we are regarded as weak because we hand over billions of dollars without bargaining or asking for anything in return. America as a country is seen as an aggressor trying to buy loyalty in a way that only creates disdain from the Middle East and our biggest mistake in our dealings with them is failing to understand their culture.

The 2016 presidential race has so many talented candidates in both Democratic and Republican camps. It could be the most exciting campaign we have seen in decades or it could be the same old business as usual affair. The 2014 election showed an overwhelming repudiation of the Democratic Party and the Draconian cronyism in Washington but I don’t see Republicans taking advantage of their victories by making meaningful changes. The American public has political fatigue.

I believe the reason President Obama won in 2008 was his powerful rhetoric that was infused with hope and the promise of change. The American public is longing for prosperity, national pride and a sense of personal security. But candidates can promise much with their words but words alone do not deliver outcomes. President Obama is a man of words and only if he has a teleprompter. He is not a man of action and his inaction and hesitancy have caused frustration in the American public. Although the economic statistics are positive, the majority of Americans still feel they are worse off than ever before.

I am praying that we won’t have a ticket of Bush vs. Clinton in 2016. The Presidency should not be an inheritance. It should be a bastion of democracy and not an enclave of dynasties. Let’s elect someone who isn’t the traditional liberal or conservative. That just doesn’t seem to be working. Most of all, let’s elect someone with integrity, honesty and courage. And we haven’t had someone in the White House since Harry Truman that wasn’t a millionaire; maybe we could elect someone who really can relate to the needs of the common families of America.

If we don’t get the next election right we will become even more vulnerable to the vultures who are circling our nation just waiting for us to get too weak to fight back. Our country needs new blood in the White House. We need and deserve a leader who not only inspires, but actually leads us back to the proud nation we once were.

Watch What Happens When a Man Asks People to Translate a Hate Message He’s Received

Words matter.

Kindness Blog

During a social experiment, a man requests help to translate a Facebook message he has received.

The man, who is in Lithuania, speaks English only. He receives a message in Lithuanian and can’t read it, so he asks some locals to translate it for him.

www.svetimageda.lt experiment video

As he asks one person after another to translate the message for him, two things become obvious.

1. He’s received a message full of hate speech.

2. Translating it for him is breaking people’s hearts.

It’s nearly more than these people can bear.

There’s a sudden, powerful connection between the translators and the man they’re translating for. They want to protect him, telling him not to bother with the message.

www.svetimageda.lt experiment video

They apologize for the message.

They look like they want to cry.

www.svetimageda.lt experiment video

Words hurt.

Most of us would never think of saying such horrible things. This video shows people realizing in their gut what it…

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