Florida-The Sunshine State

Florida

I go to Florida sometimes for vacation. I actually really like Florida. It’s a weird place, it’s surreal. It’s so close, but you feel like you’re in another world or on an island. – Jemima Kirke, actress

I love Florida! I could easily see myself becoming a snowbird, leaving the cold bleakness of the long Maine winters just after Christmas and coming back in June to enjoy the beautiful Maine summer. It would be the best of both worlds. I first went to Florida when I was sixteen and I have been enthralled with it ever since.

I will never forget my first sight of the ocean at Panama City. As I stood with warm sand threading between my bare toes I looked in wonder across the vast expanse of the Gulf of Mexico and I knew I would never again see anything so magnificent. There are times when my heart longs for the sea and I can hear its siren song calling me no matter where I am. When I would return home on R&R from Afghanistan I usually flew into Portland, Maine and my family knew that the first thing I needed to do was to go to the sea. After forced confinement in high walls, razor wire and armed guards in a hostile war zone for months on end, only the expanse of the sea could bring back to me a sense of freedom.

Florida is the southernmost state in America but it is not the South. It is a place that transcends description in an ever changing population punctuated with visitors from all over the world, attracted by the lure of its tropical beauty and climate. I lived in Orlando after high school for almost two years. At that time Orlando was a medium sized town with a small town feel. Disney World was new and still small enough to visit and see everything in one day. One of my favorite memories is walking through orange groves as the hot sun released the fragrant perfume of the orange blossoms.

Florida has given us Pat Boone, Fay Dunaway, Butterfly McQueen and Sidney Poitier.  The Florida Keys bring to mind visions of Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart in “Key Largo” and to visit Key West is to imagine seeing the husky frame of Ernest Hemingway making his restless way home after a late night of drinking at Sloppy Joe’s bar.

Florida counts among its iconic wildlife the American alligator, crocodiles, black bear, manatees and the Florida panther. Bottlenose dolphins can be seen jumping and leaping out of the water as they swim alongside boats and often whales and sharks can be spotted in the clear blue waters. The air is joyous with the sounds of falcons, eagles, pelicans, kites and a myriad of songbirds. For me the memory of lying on Florida’s beaches is synonymous with the raucous calls of sea gulls as they circle overhead bickering over scraps of food.

Undoubtedly, Florida is the premier state for tourism. From Disney World, the 48 square mile kingdom of fantasy that attracts over 26 million visitors a year, to the small-scale alligator farms and rattlesnake ranches that line the rural roads, visitors are never far from a new adventure. Beautiful Silver Springs where the glass-bottom boat was invented, became famous when a series of Tarzan movies were filmed there as well as the “Creature from the Black Lagoon” and the popular television program “Sea Hunt”.

Many people are drawn to the weather in Florida with its mild winters but it can also be a cruel punisher when tornadoes and hurricanes rip through the skies. It is known as the lightning capital of the United States. One of my favorite places to visit is Naples, Florida. I stay at a small place called the Lemon Tree Inn and I always get a room that has a screened-in porch. On most evenings a brief, but furious thunderstorm will light up the sky and shake the ground as the deep rolling booms fade off into the distance. I love to sit on the porch and read, enjoying the raw power of the storm, breathing the fresh ionized air and feeling the mist of the rain as it penetrates the screen wire, dotting my bare feet with coolness in the humid night. As the last clap of thunder fades into the distance and the last of the rain drips from the eaves, small brown lizards emerge and run up the screens of the porch. They stop and look at me curiously, turning their heads to the side, smelling me with flicks of their little pointed tongues before they scurry busily away.

Florida heals me like no other place can. When I cannot find my way, spending time in Florida aligns my compass point in the right direction and I return home refreshed and filled with a sense of peace. It’s been a few years since I’ve been there and in a corner of my consciousness I can hear the breeze swishing through the palm trees and feel the sun warming my skin as I gaze into the endless sea that is whispering, “Come home. Come home.”

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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.

Grand Old Flag

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The American flag is the most recognized symbol of freedom and democracy in the world. – Virginia Foxx

Last week the Student Association of University of California at Irvine voted to ban the U.S. flag from the association’s lobby wall. The resolution passed with a 6-4 vote, with two abstentions in a misguided effort to make their school “more inclusive”.

“Designing a culturally inclusive space aims to remove barriers that create undue effort and separation by planning and designing spaces that enable everyone to participate equally and confidentially”, read the resolution authored by Matthew Guevara. The resolution included language such as “paradigms of conformity” and “homogenized standards”. It stated, “The American flag has been flown in instances of colonialism and imperialism. Flags not only serve as symbols of patriotism or weapons or nationalism, but also construct cultural mythologies and narratives that in turn charge nationalistic sentiments.” Sounds like someone has too much time on their hands and likes to look up big words in the dictionary.

Response, not only at UCI, but all over the country was swift. Protests sprang up on campus and the threat of violence loomed. Pictures of the students on the association board were plastered across social media and labeled traitors. The following day the Executive Cabinet of the student government vetoed the ban on the display of flags saying, “We fundamentally disagree with the actions taken by the Legislative Council and their ban is counter to the ideals that allow us to operate as an autonomous student government organization with the freedoms of speech and expression associated with it.

I am not ashamed to say I am patriotic. When televisions used to sign off at midnight by playing the National Anthem I always stood up and placed my hand over my heart if I happened to be up that late. On my first day as a Federal USDA employee the first thing my supervisor did was to take me out to stand under the American flag and recite this oath:

I do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.

I continued that tradition with the employees I had the honor to swear in. I believed it was important for them to understand the sacred trust that public servants hold when they work for the government.

At the age of 57 I volunteered to go to Afghanistan to assist with reconstruction and stabilization efforts. I did it because I love my country. I wanted to give back some of the many blessings that I have enjoyed living in the land of the free and the home of the brave. At the Embassy I was a member of the Star Spangled Singers. We sang patriotic songs at events and for visiting dignitaries. Each time we sang the “Star Spangled Banner” it thrilled me to look out over the crowd and see people singing along, their hand over their heart. One of the most touching things I saw was a young Afghan National Army soldier standing at attention in his neatly pressed uniform at the changing of troops at Forward Operating Base Morales Frazier. The ceremony involves playing the Afghanistan National anthem and raising the Afghan flag. Next the French anthem is played and the French flag is raised. Then the American anthem and flag follow suit. This young soldier, with a ramrod straight back, maintained his crisp salute through all three anthems and flag raisings. Now that is respect.

Embassies throughout the world are considered to be on the soil of their home country. At the U.S. Embassy in Kabul I walked by the American flag every day. It meant I was on American soil and that comforted me through the hardest and scariest of times. It made me proud to see it flying because it represents the best of America – pride, honor, sacrifice and most importantly, freedom. The flag stands on a patch of grass that has granite plaques to honor civilians who have been killed in Afghanistan, including one from USDA. I have seen it lowered to half-mast on more than one ceremony for fallen comrades. On July 4th, 2011 hundreds of small American flags were placed around the Embassy grounds. This is the day our locally employed Afghan staff could bring their families to the Embassy for a celebration. At the end of the day, every flag had been taken as treasured memento. To them it represented hope.

I believe in free speech and the students at UCI certainly have the right to say the U.S. flag offends them, but they do not have the right to remove the flag from a publically funded school. When I look at the flag I see the blood of thousands of men and women who have died to defend the principles it stands for. I see immigrants pledging their allegiance as they gain their citizenship. I see grief in a mother’s face as she is given the flag from her child’s coffin before he or she is laid to rest having been killed in the line of duty as a police officer. The flag is a powerful reminder of the high price of freedom and I will always be proud to display and honor it. The flag that some despise are given the privilege to do so by the great country over which it flies.

Young Farmer with Old Eyes

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The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all. It is the healer and restorer and resurrector, by which disease passes into health, age into youth, death into life. – Wendell Berry

Excerpt from my memoir “Small Gifts from the Heart”

Young Farmer with Old Eyes

 Most of the farmers I deal with in Afghanistan are children. The first farmer I meet is twelve years old. We have completed a market walk in the town of Nijrab where tables of vegetables, fruits and pungent spices are for sale. In a market walk we talk to vendors and shoppers and gather information to see if people perceive they are better off than a year ago. We ask them what they feel they need to make their lives better; jobs and education are the two most frequent responses.

For this mission I have requested a stop at an agricultural field. Just outside of town the convoy stops at a wheat field alongside the road. I climb out of the MRAP as the SECFOR (Security Force) takes up strategic places around the field, their arms at ready in case of an attack. An ag person needs to feel soil like a junkie needs a fix. Soil is the drug of our choice. And don’t ever call soil “dirt” in front of a soil person. Dirt is soil out-of-place, not the stuff you grow things in. I eagerly scoop up a handful of soil. It is lacking organic material but looks pretty good. As I am mentally determining the sand-silt-clay ratio I notice a young boy coming out to the field. He comes up to my interpreter and me and holds out his hand. He looks to be about 12 and he is the farmer of this wheat field and he has come to see what we are doing. I ask him if I can ask him some questions about his field and he agrees.

Afghanistan is a country that largely depends on snow and rain runoff to water their crops. The steep grey mountains do not show an abundance of snow clinging to their sharp peaks or nestling in deep ravines.

“Are you concerned that you won’t have enough rain or snow to water your crops this year?” I ask.

He gravely looks at the mountains for a moment. “If this year isn’t good, then we hope next year will be better.” Now, every farmer I have ever talked to has said this. Farmers are eternal optimists in spite of drought, crop failure, high expenses and low profits.

“What do you use to fertilize your crops?” I ask, poking the soil around in my hand.

“We use animal and human feces.” I look down at the soil in my hand with a different viewpoint. What is that little brown clump next to my thumb?

I ask him a few more agronomy questions. He is as knowledgeable as any farmer I have ever talked to. I notice a small crowd of children have come out to the field, some are leading babies by the hand. They lift up rocks from a pile as they work on a stone wall around an orchard of newly planted fruit trees. I ask the farmer if I can look at the orchard and he leads me over. He says the children are building the wall to keep animals out. Even the babies are working on the wall, lifting up stones that look too heavy for their diminutive size. Irrigation channels have been dug around the perimeter of the orchard. I ask him what kind of trees he has planted.

“Peaches, apricot and apples.”

“When your fruit matures will you sell it in the market?” I ask.

“No, I have a big family. I grow food to feed my family.” I look down into his dark brown eyes and my heart breaks. At twelve, children in America are attending school and playing video games. He is so young but his eyes are world-weary from shouldering the responsibilities of an adult. I thank him for talking with me and I shake his hand. I also commend him for taking care of his family. He lifts a shoulder as if to say, “It is all in a day’s work.”

This encounter will become poignant to me in the future when I hear about a rogue group of Army infantrymen under the leadership of Staff Sergeant Calvin Gibbs. For weeks the men who refer to themselves as the “Kill Team” debate if they can kill a “Haji”, a disrespectful term for an Afghan man, without getting caught. In the winter of 2010 the Kill Team crosses the line from fantasy into grim reality.

On January 15 the platoon carries out a mission to a small rural village in the Maywand district in Kandahar province. Upon reaching the village, soldiers provide a perimeter the same way my security forces do for me when I am on a mission. But this day the perimeter is to provide a clear path for members of the Kill Team to carry out their plan to execute an innocent Afghan civilian. As the soldiers walk through the alleys of the village, they see no armed fighters nor find any evidence of enemy activity. Instead, they see an all too familiar sight in rural Afghanistan, farmers living without electricity or running water, bearded men with bad teeth in tattered traditional clothes, women clad in royal blue burkas and young children eager to talk to the Americans.

While the officers of the platoon talk to a village elder inside a compound, two soldiers break away from the unit and move to the far edge of the village. There, in a poppy field, they began looking for someone to kill. The soldiers see a young farmer, Gul Mudin, a smooth-faced boy of about 15 years old. Off in the distance, a few other soldiers stand sentry. The young man is the only Afghan in sight. With no one around to witness, they pick the young man for their first execution.

Mudin is wearing a little round cap called a kola and a Western-style green jacket. He holds nothing in his hand that can be used as a weapon. The expression on his face as he approaches them is welcoming. “He was not a threat,” one of the soldiers later confessed. The two men order him in Pashto to stop. The boy did as he was told. He stood still.

The soldiers knelt down behind a mud-brick wall and one tosses a grenade toward Mudin. As the grenade explodes, the soldiers open fire, shooting the boy repeatedly at close range with an M4 carbine and a machine gun. Mudin buckles and collapses face first onto the ground, his kola toppling off next to his bleeding head. A pool of blood runs from his wounds.

The gunfire alerts the other soldiers and they rush over. When they arrive at the scene they see the body of the young boy. The two soldiers are crouching by the wall, their eyes shining with excitement. When a staff sergeant asks them what happened, one of the soldiers says the boy had been about to attack them with a grenade. “We had to shoot the guy,” he says.

The sergeant believes the boy might still be alive, and possibly a threat, so he orders a soldier to make sure the boy is dead. A soldier raises his rifle and fires twice more into Mudin’s body.

As the soldiers gather around Mudin, the atmosphere is charged with a manic excitement. A local village elder, who had been speaking to the soldiers that morning, is fetched to identify the body. The elder turns out to be the father of the slain boy. His grief and disbelief at the site of his son’s bullet riddled body was later recounted in an official Army report. “The father was very upset.”

In spite of the father’s grief, the soldiers are jubilant. The soldiers follow the routine Army procedure required after every battlefield death. Cutting off the dead boy’s clothes, they strip him naked to check for identifying tattoos or scars. Using a portable biometric scanner they scan his iris and fingerprints.

The Geneva Convention states, each Party to the conflict shall facilitate the steps taken … to protect [the killed] against … ill-treatment. The remains of persons who have died for reasons related to occupation or in detention resulting from occupation or hostilities … shall be respected”. In a direct violation of this protocol, the soldiers begin taking photographs of themselves with the body. One of the soldiers who killed the boy poses for the camera with Mudin’s bloody corpse, grabbing the boy’s head by the hair as if it is a trophy deer. The other soldier gets a similar photo.

Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, the leader of the Kill Team is pleased. Gibbs later states he started “messing around with the kid,” moving his arms and mouth and “acting like the kid was talking.” Then, using a pair of razor-sharp medic’s shears, he slices off the dead boy’s little finger and gives it to one of the soldiers. A trophy for killing his first Afghan.

According to fellow soldiers, the man carried the finger with him in a zip-lock bag. “He wanted to keep the finger forever and wanted to dry it out,” one of his friends would later report. “He was proud of his finger.”

The soldiers, embolden by their success, go on a killing spree over the next four months that claims the lives of at least three more innocent civilians. One is a cleric and one is deaf, and possibly mentally handicapped. A part of his skull was taken as a trophy. When another soldier blows the whistle on the team in the summer of 2010, a military investigation results in the charging of five members of the platoon with the murder of three Afghan civilians in Kandahar province and collecting their body parts as trophies. In addition, seven soldiers are charged with crimes such as hashish use, impeding an investigation, and attacking the whistleblower. Eleven men are ultimately convicted, receiving sentences ranging from 60 days to life.  Anyone who creates terror is a terrorist. When the men of the Kill Team crossed the line from talking about killing to the actual executions of innocent civilians, they lost their humanity. The moment they killed Mudin, they became the bad guys.

When I read about the depraved actions of the Kill Team the face of my twelve year-old farmer superimposes itself on Mudin’s face in my mind’s eye. I can see him coming out to the field to meet me with a smile on his face, his hand outstretched. It took courage to walk into that field ringed with soldiers armed with assault rifles. I now realize, this is not a boy, this is a man. I know he will have a hard life and I pray his fields will never be stained with his blood as Gul Mudin’s was.

Lost Treasures

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The largest Buddha before it was destroyed.

A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots. – Marcus Garvey

We are used to seeing horrifying images and video propaganda from ISIS and last week we saw new disturbing images showing the wanton destruction of ancient artifacts at the Mosul Museum in Iraq. Jihadists can be seen toppling statues, smashing them to bits with sledgehammers and using power tools to grind off the faces of the Assyrian artifacts, many of which date back 3,000 years. Mercifully most of the artifacts are replicas after some 1500 objects from the museum were relocated to the Iraqi Museum in Baghdad for safekeeping. However the larger statues that were destroyed are originals.

The most devastating loss is the lamassu—large winged human-headed bulls– at the Nergal Gate. The beautiful and intricate gate was built during the expansion of Ninevah sometime between 704 and 690 BC. The images were destroyed with a jackkammer and it appears the damage is irreparable. The worst damage was done to the 2,000 year-old sculptures from Hatra and the damage is catastrophic. And this attempt to erase all culture other than Islamic didn’t stop there. In another appalling attack on Iraq’s heritage ISIS militants have bulldozed the Nimrud archaeological site in northern Iraq. “They are erasing our history,” said Iragi archaeologist Lamia al-Gailani.

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ISIS destroying 2,000 year old Hatra sculptures.

In 2001 the Taliban, on orders of Mullah Mohammed Omar, dynamited and destroyed the twin 6th century Buddhas carved into the side of a cliff in Bamyan in central Afghanistan. The larger Buddha was over 190 feet tall and the smaller was over 114 feet tall. The main bodies were hewn directly from the sandstone cliffs and details were modeled in mud mixed with straw, coated with stucco. They were painted to enhance the expressions of the faces, hands and folds of the robes; the larger one was painted carmine red and the smaller in multiple colors.

I was in my office on Forward Operating Base Morales Frazier when one of our Afghan interpreters, Dr. Najibullah came in to see me. Before the Taliban came to power he worked at the Kabul Museum and was responsible for hiding and saving many artifacts before the Taliban destroyed them just as ISIS is doing now. He held out a piece of gravel he had picked up from the road outside. It was stained with red. “This is from the Buddha,” he said with sadness in his voice. He wanted to give it to me, but I made him keep it. I simply could not take even a fragment of this ancient treasure. It would have broken my heart every time I looked at it.

From primitive to modern man humans have always used art to express what their lives are like. Whether it is a cave painting of animal hunts or sculptures of ancient Gods these legacies tell us where we came from and that is something every society has the right to know. I recently had my DNA tested and when I got the results and saw my diverse ethnic heritage it was thrilling. It gave me a sense of place and belonging. Just as we marvel at our history when we visit Washington, DC and gaze upon all the monuments and memorials that celebrate our heritage, the people of Iraq and Afghanistan deserved the right to look upon their past and marvel at the artistry of their ancestors.

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The site of the large Buddha after being destroyed by the Taliban.

Any religion or culture that destroys the past has no future. While Japan and Switzerland have pledged money to restore the Bamyan Buddhas, it just won’t be the same. The tranquil giants that looked benignly down on the valley, as travelers from China made their way to the west on the Silk Road for almost 2,000 years, were destroyed by fanatic Islamic jihadists who are so narrow-minded they cannot tolerate music, art, books or secular education. When these historic legacies vanish a part of humanity vanishes and the treasures of ancient Assyrians in Iraq and the Buddhas in Afghanistan can now only be marveled at by looking at photographs.

It should come as no surprise that fanatic extremists who do not care for human life would have no respect or reverence for art. As an artist it is a loss that I take personally and I am thankful that dedicated individuals such as Dr. Najibullah preserved some of the heritage that belongs not only to Afghanistan, but to the world.

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.

Coming of Age

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There is a fountain of youth: it is your mind, your talents, the creativity you bring to your life and the lives of people you love. When you learn to tap this source, you will truly have defeated age. – Sophia Loren

Let’s face it, in America we pander to a cult of youthfulness. Any actress over 30 is considered past it. I was reading the other day that Halle Berry, unarguably one of the most beautiful women in the world, is constantly under pressure to have her face “done”. So far she has resisted and I hope she continues to do so. All too often we see public figures who are no longer recognizable and in their efforts to retain eternal youth they have lost the essence of what made them special and unique. Every other commercial on TV is for a new groundbreaking face cream promising to erase those ravaged lines of wear and tear on a 20-something model.

When I first got to Kabul it was two weeks before I knew where I would be stationed. Finally I was called into the office and told there was an opening in Kapisa, a small province northeast of Kabul.

“Great! When do I leave?” I ask.

The program coordinator says, “Well, there are a few concerns we have to talk about.” Okay, I reply, thinking it is about the dangerousness of the area. Later I Google Kapisa and “The Gateway to the Taliban” pops up. Yes, it is a very dangerous province, but that is not the issue the coordinator wants to discuss.

“It is a coed base,” he says. I give him a blank stare. I assumed all the bases had men and women. He clarifies, “The showers and bathrooms are coed.” Did I say this is a French base? Okay, I grew up in the 60’s. I’m opened-minded. I can live with this.

“They do a lot of foot patrols,” he says. Okay, I can walk. Not a problem.

“Sometimes the patrols are long and your body armor weighs about 50 pounds.” Okay, I learned this in training. I wasn’t expecting to go to a day spa.

Finally he says, “Do you think that will be too much for you physically?” The penny drops. At 57 years of age they think I’m too old. I assure him if the patrols aren’t 20 miles long, I’ll be fine.  When I fly by helicopter to Bagram Air Base (BAF) to rendezvous with my crew that will take me to Kapisa, the USDA representative, Jim, is there to meet me.

“Let’s take a walk and I’ll show you around the base,” Jim says. I leave my body armor and bags in his office and we start walking from one end of the base to another. BAF is a huge base with over 30,000 people living there. It is over a mile from one end to the other. As we walk along we pass masses of hardened structures, tents, containerized housing units, all slightly obscured by a pervasive red dust that fills my nose and makes me sneeze. On the sidewalk we join a flood of jostling pedestrians. It is like walking in downtown Washington, D.C. at rush hour. Jim points out dining halls, laundries, office buildings, and other points of interest as we briskly walk along. He is walking very fast and I am almost in a slow jog to keep up with him. When we get to the end, we start back, still at the same pace. Along the way we make detours on the dusty streets that crisscross the base. Back and forth, left and right, Jim marches along with me loping at his side. It suddenly hits me that this is not a random stroll. It is a forced march. I can imagine the thoughts in Jim’s head. “Can she take it? Will she fall down in a geriatric heap before we get back to the office? We’ll see how tough she is!” I think to myself, “Jim, you don’t know who you are dealing with.” If life has taught me anything it is to be tough and not to give up.

I guess I passed the test because three days later I climb aboard the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) armored vehicle that will take me to my base. Once there I find out I am the oldest person, but I am so busy it doesn’t really bother me. I am exercising every morning and I feel good. I just want to figure out what to do to start assisting Afghan farmers in my area. Ageism doesn’t rear its ugly head again until a mission takes us back to Bagram. Anne, another Federal agency rep, and I are going out with the Kentucky ADT; National Guardsmen with an expertise in agriculture and engineering. They tell us to meet them at an area where the convoy MRAPs are staged at 8:45 AM. Anne wants to be there early so we show up at 8:15. Of course, no one is there. I know we are in the right place because the MRAPS have ADT lettered on them. Anne is in the generation that cannot communicate without a cell phone or other electronic device. We sit in the same office and instead of just telling me something she sends me an email. Having been a supervisor to many young people I am used to this and accept it the way my mother accepted me getting a Texas Instrument calculator. Anne is not comforted by the site of the MRAPs and she starts fretting that we are in the wrong place.

“We are early. They’ll be here soon.” I am not concerned. Anne starts calling numbers and asks me, “Do you have the number for the lieutenant commander? The project coordinator, etc.?” I have these numbers, but I say shake my head no. I am not going to bother the unit when I know they are busy getting ready for the mission. Anne keeps frantically punching in numbers on her phone.

My phone is in my backpack and it beeps, telling me I have a message. As I dig it out, Anne looks a little funny and she hastily says, “No, it’s my phone.” I look at my cell and see I do have an incoming message.

I read, “My USDA rep is so space cadet. I don’t want to be mean, but maybe its old age and she’s just not with it.” I am stunned and I look at Anne and say, “Ann, did you send this?” She shakes her head no and I say, “Well, I‘ll just see who sent it.”

Clearly miserable, Anne says, “I did it. I sent it.” She was texting a message to her boyfriend about me but accidentally sent it to me instead. It has to be a person’s worst nightmare.

“Anne, is that what you think of me?” I ask her incredulously,

“Well, I just thought you should have those numbers.”

“You know, I do have those numbers but I know we are in the right place and I am prepared to wait. It’s called patience. And you know what? I may not can text a hundred words a minute, but I have pretty much known what is going on for the last 30 or 40 years. Most of the USDA advisors here are my age or older and I don’t think that’s a coincidence. I think they selected us because we have experience, can build relationships and won’t start an international incident.”

Anne says, “I just hope you can forgive me.” I can tell she is near to tears.

I put my hand on her arm and say, “Anne, I am a big girl. I’ll get over it. I just want you to promise me one thing. On your 57th birthday I want you to think back to this day and I want you to think about how young and vital you feel and how much you still feel you have to offer. Will you promise me that?” A big tear rolled down her cheek and she hung her head.

I hope Anne learned a life lesson that day on how to treat people, or at least to make sure she knows who she is sending a text message to before she hits that “Send” button. I do know she will remember that day for the next thirty years or so.

I have to admit that my feelings and pride are hurt. It’s like getting hit in the face with cold water to suddenly see yourself as old in other people’s eyes– being judged by years instead of ability. I tamp my feelings down as our convoy bounces off because I need to be stay focused on the mission. It isn’t a time to nurse grudges or a bruised ego.

Later in the day we conduct a market walk in a local village. A knot of 10 or 15 young men gather around me and we move as one through the market. My interpreter says, “All the talk in the market is about you. They want to know if you are married.” Really? Me, with my hair that has been snow-white since I was in my 30’s? Me, who is old enough to be these young men’s grandmother? With just a little smugness and a lot of amazement, I notice they are ignoring Anne, who is a beautiful young woman.

You see in Afghanistan, age is looked at differently than in the western world. It is the norm for several generations to live together and parents and grandparents are revered and cared for. Age is respected. The men in Afghanistan didn’t see me as old. With my white hair and light skin I was regarded as exotic and desirable. (I am so pale I once was awakened on a flight by an attendant shaking me saying, “Ma’am? Ma’am? Can you hear me?” I looked over at my seatmate who is cringing as far away from me as possible, convinced she is sitting next to a corpse.) It is a remarkable feeling. In the States I might hear, “Oh, she’s so old.” In Afghanistan I heard, “Oh, madam. You so beautiful, you so nice.” I tell you, it beats a kick in the Zimmer frame any day!

Afghan men made me feel beautiful and made me reevaluate how I want to see myself as I headed into my 60’s. At 59 you can say you are middle-aged, but at 60, if not elderly, it is the slippery slope we slide giddily down towards the grave. And while I admit I have spent my share on those miracle wrinkle creams, I don’t want to be young again with all of its angst and uncertainties. I want to keep growing, learning, teaching, and loving. I want to continue to help others and to find beauty in the world every day. If I can do that, I think I will also be beautiful.

So instead of dreading old age, I plan to run to it as fast as my arthritic knees can carry me, embracing the last chapter of my life, which will be the sweetest because it is the last.

And The Rockets Red Glare

Kathy

The truth is no one ever believes for a minute–no matter what danger you’re in–that you yourself are going to be killed. The bomb is always going to hit the other person. – Agatha Christie

Every Wednesday I am going to include an excerpt from my memoir “Small Gifts From the Heart”. Hope you enjoy.

The first time I am in a rocket attack, it was about 8:00 PM. I am in my bunk at Forward Operating Base Morales Frazier absorbed in a murder mystery. The women soldiers in the tent are chatting, reading and getting ready for bed. The sound of outgoing mortar rounds has a deep, bass boom. After a while, I don’t even notice them any more. It is like an ambient sound machine that lulls me to sleep at night. This night I hear a high, whistling sound racing through the night sky above our tent. Although I have never heard it, I know instantly it is incoming. We all freeze, some with their mouths open, silenced in mid-sentence by the screaming of the rocket, waiting to see where it will land.

BOOM! It doesn’t hit our tent. Then, as one, chatter breaks out. A soldier asks me, “What’ll we do? What’ll we do?”

“Well, you’re the military. What do we do?” I reply.

The Captain gets on her phone and talks to the Tactical Operations Center (TOC). They tell us to get in our body armor and go to the French bunker. Now the bunker is over on the other side of the base. I have already put on my old flannel pajamas and gone to bed. In our pre-deployment training they told us the biggest danger in a rocket attack, other than a direct hit, is getting hit by flying shrapnel. I elect to stay in my bunk. My only concession is to put aside the murder mystery and read the Bible. I think about putting on my armor, but I have already washed my feet, the last thing I do before getting in my bunk because the floor is dusty, and my armor is across the room. I decide to take my chances. The others head out to the bunker.

After a few minutes another rocket comes squealing over. BOOM!! This one lands outside the fence.I read the 23rd Psalm with renewed vigor. That little frisson of fear that comes with being in the line of fire is skipping across my nerves. I am alone in the tent and I feel very far from home. What I wouldn’t give to be in my cozy Maine home with my family right now.

The one good thing about the Taliban rockets is that they are mostly surplus that the Russians left behind when they withdrew from Afghanistan. They are old and often duds. Forty-five minutes after the initial rocket screamed over our tent the French return outgoing mortars and it is very likely the insurgents are already gone. They send off volley after volley of rockets which seem to say, “Our rockets are bigger than your rockets.” It is an emotional balm to help sooth our jangled nerves. Many of the soldiers are outside watching the rockets streak their yellow light towards the mountain towering over the base, cheering as each round blasts a hole in the bare, gray shale mountainside. It is like a Fourth of July celebration and makes everyone feel better.

As the deep bass “Whoof!” of the last outgoing rocket reverberates off into the distance, my tentmates troop excitedly back inside. We are all so glad that those two rockets didn’t have anyone’s name stamped on them. One Air Force nurse shares that when the first rocket came over; she was on the phone with her Dad, a Vietnam veteran. He could hear the whine of the rockets over the phone and had told her it was incoming. She now calls him back to let him know she is okay. Pent-up nervousness and adrenaline causes many of the women to laugh nervously. The Captain asks me if I am okay and I tell her I am fine. I have switched back to my murder mystery in an effort to release my fear. Murder mysteries always relax me.

“She’s not in the military and she is calmer than any of us!” she says to the others.

I just smile serenely, reinforcing this perception. What they don’t know is that I was probably more scared than any of them, but I am determined not to be seen as someone who panics at the first little rocket attack. I do have my pride.

When I transferred to the Embassy, I was in several rocket attacks. One time another civilian and I are having coffee outside the dining hall with two newly arrived civilians waiting to go to the field. We hear some booms in the distance. “Outgoing,” we knowingly say and go back to chatting, unconcerned. The newbies look nervously at each other. They’ll learn all too soon that you can get used to anything in Afghanistan. If awakened in the night by a rocket explosion, I turn my head to the side so I can hear better. If I don’t hear people screaming or a duck and cover siren, I go peacefully back to sleep. After all this is what I signed up for. I can’t afford to give in to fear and still be able to do my job.

It is only after I return to the peace and safety of home that the sound of fireworks and loud noises reduces me to a quivering mass of fear. The coping mechanisms I developed in Afghanistan don’t seem to work at home. Loud noises shouldn’t scare me anymore but the fear they bring is so much worse than anything I felt in Afghanistan. The horror of post traumatic stress is that normalcy has become the monster that lies in wait for me and it is a monster no amount of body armor can protect me from.

And A Little Child Shall Lead Them

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The suicide bomber’s imagination leads him to believe in a brilliant act of heroism, when in fact he is simply blowing himself up pointlessly and taking other people’s lives. – Salman Rushdie

ISIS has released a propaganda video claiming to show a terror training camp for children called “Cubs for the Caliphate” with rows of boys as young as five shouting Allah Akbar. This is shocking and offends even the most jaded of us. It brings to the mind the shining cherubic faces of the Hitler Youth, their stiff arms raised in a salute as they shouted Sieg Heil. Childhood should be a time of joy and discovery of the good things in life. No child should be forced to learn how to kill in the name of a twisted ideology. These children will be trained to associate valor with torture, degradation and death. Unless they are rescued from this training soon it will be too late. They will never be able to function in normal society. The proof of this is in the hideous videos that have been released over the last several months of beheadings and burnings. These heartless savages are the result of being raised as these children are being raised, away from love and anything that is honorable by most of the world’s standards. When you look at the sweet, innocent faces of these children you are looking at the butchers of tomorrow who will need to be shot like rabid dogs in the street.

While I was in Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai pardoned two dozen boys who had been arrested for planning or attempting to carry out suicide attacks –the youngest only eight years old. One 11-year old said his instructions were “just to get close to a group of foreign soldiers and touch these two wires together.” His Taliban trainers told him he would be able to detonate his vest and kill the foreign occupiers without dying himself. Many of the children were drugged before sending them on their missions.

The Taliban brainwashes these young children and they are very effective at convincing them that their religion sanctions what they are doing and they will be rewarded in heaven. After such intense brainwashing it is near impossible to deprogram them. One 15-year old said, “I am a Muslim, and there are still infidels in this land. With God’s help, I will continue to fight against them.”

The release of these children angered my dear Afghan friend and colleague, Javed. I remember saying, “But they are just children.” He said,” Kathy, these are not children like you know them. They have been taken out of their homes by the Taliban at very young ages with the promise of getting an education and a better life. They are taken to religions madrassas (schools) in Pakistan where they are drilled with hate and raised with no love. These children should be locked up for years and studied by psychiatrists and deprogrammed. And even then, they might not be safe to release.” He continued, “It is the parents who release their children to these maniacs who should be punished.” I have never forgotten that conversation and it was brought to the front of my thoughts with the release of the ISIS video.

While in Kabul I got the opportunity to visit the Kabul Zoo. Much to my surprise it was a beautiful and clean facility and as I strolled through the beautifully paved paths I reflected on how peaceful it seemed in a city littered by the skeletons of bombed out buildings. Then I remembered that only a few weeks prior to my visit the Taliban handed a package to an 8-year old girl and told her to carry it into a police station that was only a few blocks away from the zoo. The package contained explosives and was remotely detonated, killing only the innocent little girl.

ISIS using children to carry out heinous acts of terror unwittingly and training them to do them willing is nothing new. The terror group Boco Haram used a girl suicide bomber no more than ten years old to blow herself up at a busy market in Nigeria killing four others and seriously wounding 46 people. This is what the Western world must realize. Islamist terrorists respect no one—not women, children and not themselves. And nothing will ever convince me they love other Muslims and the Islam faith. These heartless savages are dedicated and prepared to have an endless supply of recruits to take their place. Like the Hydra, when one head is cut off, two more will grow back. This is why we must be vigilant. While many of the children’s psyches in these “Cubs of the Caliphate” camps are already too twisted to save, maybe, just maybe, we might be able to save a few and show them that the true rewards in this life come from living a peaceful, loving life. As each new Hydra’s head is cut off the stump must be cauterized so another cannot grow back. ISIS, Boca Haram, Al Shabab, Al Qaeda, Taliban, etc. must be destroyed and we must be vigilant to ensure no new heads can grow. That is the only way the world can be assured that children can hear the sounds of laughter instead of gunfire and explosions.