A Culpeper resident and longtime American Red Cross organizer is back home following a months' long deployment to Afghanistan.
Felecia Chavez returned with many memories from her time at Bagram Air Base, as recounted below. This will be the final installment of her occasional 'Dispatches from the Front' column until her next trip in service to the country.
"What another incredible adventure! I am sitting on my porch, looking at the Blue Ridge mountains, and thinking that only a few weeks ago I was looking at the Hindu Kush mountain range with the same awe. This journey started for me in October 2012 when I received a call asking if I would be able to deploy to Afghanistan on short notice, without question I said yes. I knew winter in Afghanistan can be quite trying, but felt I was up for the challenge. Boy, was I wrong - the winter of 2012 was one of the coldest in that country, and I felt it to my very core each and every day. But I am jumping ahead of myself.
Meeting the rest of my co-workers in Atlanta is always exciting, after all, these are the people one will be spending the next four to five months with on a daily basis. Needless to say it was a great fit, the energy and expectations were high and we were all looking forward to the coming holiday season together.
Upon arrival in Bagram, Afghanistan we were given a short tour and shown where we would be working and living, my room consisted of living with seven other women in a b-hut divided into sections, each about six-by-six and at least eight-feet high. There were two heaters above the front door and back door. Unfortunately because they ran continuously they oftentimes froze and then had to be defrosted which meant, yup you guessed it, no heat.
My room had a bunk bed with the bottom bunk taken out, someone had made a wooden ladder that had uneven rungs and more than once during incoming fire I misjudged and had a hard landing (a really caring and considerate soldier found a metal ladder, thank you Major Dysinger!). Back to the bunk bed, the person before me took it upon themselves to hook up webbing with bungie cords to keep one from falling off the bed, I’m pretty sure I’ll continue to have nightmares about that. Needless to say I never fell out of bed, probably because the six foot drop to the floor terrified me.
Showers and toilets were a short distance, but if you have ever had to get up in the middle of the night, put on shoes, jacket, hat, gloves, and then try not to fall because of the ice and snow then you probably have some kind of idea, otherwise try this next winter while running around the house outside, in your pajamas and boots and you’ll understand what I’m talking about.
Food can be a challenge as well, don’t get me wrong those of us in Bagram had it much better than those living on the outlying FOB’s (Forward Operating Bases). But at some time during deployment you just can’t get over smelling like the DEFAC (Dining Facility) and start writing home asking your family to send noodles or tins of tuna. Christmas Day found us wearing our “Battle Rattle” (armored vest and helmet) all day due to incoming (fire).
I was very fortunate this deployment in that I ran into a number of people that I had known years ago; the military is a very small world and sooner or later you will see those friends once again. I ran into a very good friend that had been stationed in Germany while we were there and had not seen him in over 17 years! It seems we kept missing each other over the years so what a surprise to see him and reconnect. A number of people from my deployments in Balad and Baghdad Iraq were also there, as were friends that my husband and I had been stationed with in England, Korea, and the U.S. That was absolutely a huge treat for me.
Our Team 29 did some amazing things such as air drops of food and hygiene items for those living in the FOB’s that were only able to get things by having them airdropped. We would get an email, phone call, or sometimes someone would post something on our Facebook page and our staff and volunteers would put together numerous boxes (sometimes 20 or 30), take them to the airfield and they would then put them on a pallet that would be flown out, we would then await confirmation that the boxes had made it! Again, we cannot thank those folks back home that consistently send care packages to the Red Cross so that our canteen stays stocked and we can continue to send out boxes to others! Thank you AMERICA!!!
Fresh bread (made in our bread maker) and muffins that were made in a toaster oven were always a big hit. Again, my teammates at times would not let me near the bread maker only because for whatever reason my bread always came out like a giant hockey puck, once in a while I got lucky and the bread actually came out like a loaf of real bread, but that was a rarity!
Our Christmas Party with Santa and the 1st ID Band, Super Bowl Party, S’mores for Heroes, and our 5K Run were a HUGE success, but none of these could have been done without the help of our volunteers. You are probably asking yourself what kind of people volunteer at the Red Cross in a war zone? It is our service members that felt that the need to give back and what better way than to give their time; they did everything to helping restock the store room, building shelves, bringing up water, taking out the trash, sweeping and mopping the floors, organizing the hundreds if not thousands of DVD’s and books, and most important making each of the Red Cross staffs’ life a little easier so that we could continue to do our job which was relaying emergency communication messages.
While deployed our mission is always and foremost for our service members and those we serve, but when visiting our wounded warriors in the local hospital it can be heart wrenching when you see Afghan children that have been wounded. The little boy that stole my heart is one that will be with me for a very long time, he had such a sweet soul, and again I can only imagine what his future will be. There was also a little girl in the bed next to his she also had the same wounds that he suffered which were severe. You could tell how much pain they were both in but each time I went to visit they smiled and offered me a chair to sit in and just grabbed my hand and held it. Nothing was said, it was just a grandmother sitting with what could have been her grandchildren. What a gift that these children gave me, it was a humbling moment. My heart goes out to the little girl because unfortunately I know what her future will bring – I only hope by the time she grows up, if she grows up, that things change for the women of Afghanistan.
It is never easy leaving your loved ones especially during the holiday season but Team 29 did it without complaint. While planning for our big event which was the 5K the Red Cross was sponsoring for the Army Reserve’s 105th Birthday Celebration our team decided to continue with the planning, knowing that our flight might derail our plans and that we would have to depart sooner than expected. As it was our flight was for the day of the 5K race, what we didn’t know was that the plane was waiting for us and that if we were to make that flight (otherwise we would have had to wait another week) we had to leave immediately after the race. So four Red Cross workers ran back to the office, picked up our backpacks, and ran to the passenger terminal where the night before we had taken our duffel bags and sent them through customs. We then took off running through the passenger terminal to find that the bus that was to take us to the plane was no longer there. So, we took off running again with our escort who ran us out to the airfield where our plane was waiting. We didn’t have a chance to say a proper farewell to anyone – sometimes that can be a good thing. Long farewells with people that we have gotten to know really well can be sad.
Once I was buckled into my seat, a flood of emotions hit, I was leaving old friends, new friends, the mountains that took my breath away; our service members that continued to inspire me on a daily basis; the Afghan children that broke my heart. But most of all to my teammates: Brittany Reynolds, Gaby Skovira, and Tanya Morgan for helping me laugh a little harder, work a little longer, and never question the great work we accomplished. To our Buddhist Chaplain, CPT Dyer for teaching me how to be a better person and teaching me the way of the peaceful warrior, you made my life so much more enriched through meditation. One of the Afghan shopkeepers that I always bought things from never smiled but as I continued to buy things from him over the months he actually smiled and engaged in conversation and when I was getting ready to leave I told him I would not be visiting anymore, he asked if I would be back and I told him no, that I was going home.
He looked at me for a long time and said 'I am sorry to see you leave, as we are sorry to see so many Americans leave, they have made a difference for our people and our country, I thank you, I wish you peace and hopefully you will return when our country is free, Inshallah.' I hope for that as well.I know that this was where I was supposed to be, thank each of you for allowing me to share my story and taking you along on this most auspicious journey!
One final note, even though we are drawing down we still have service members that will be there for a while, dining facilities will be closing and any type of PX (Post Exchange) will no longer be available. That means that our men and women will not have access to many things that we take for granted. Please find it in your heart to continue to help by sending items that they can use, for more information on such items and how they can be gathered and sent contact the American Red Cross at (434) 979-7143, 1105 Rose Hill Dr., Charlottesville, VA 22903. To all the men and women of the Armed Forces know that we honor and salute you!
Be safe, and come home soon!"