Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Guest Blogger: Taylor Reynolds

Happy New Year's Eve!

Please welcome my guest blogger, writer, and sister Rom Vet Taylor Reynolds. I think everybody will find her recent experiences in Iraq very interesting.

Please tell us what it's like to live and work in Iraq.

I spent time in Iraq as a contractor, but never as a soldier. While still in the Army, I had the "tough" duty station of southern Germany. Iraq - well, it's like nothing you've ever experienced.

How long you were there?

I spent two months in the International/Green Zone in Baghdad during the spring of 2004, seven months at Joint Base Balad (previously LSA Anaconda) from summer '04 to spring '05, and a year in Kirkuk on the Kurdistan border from March '07 till April '08.

Where were you?

Oops, answered this above. Maybe I should read ahead a little :)

What was your position?

For each of these positions, I worked as a defense contractor, mostly as a site manager for civilian linguists, but for a very short period as an Arabic interpreter myself. However, when it came time to choose an interpreter and there were three native Arabic speakers who were also pretty fluent in English, and the one native English speaker who wasn't so great at Arabic...well, let's just say it wasn't long before I was promoted to a management position.

Did you have any scary moments? Any poignant moments? Were you scared?

Actually, I wasn't really ever scared. I was never shot at, never felt truly threatened. The biggest worry was incoming mortar fire from "outside the wire" (beyond the borders of the base), but the bad guys' aim was so random and usually non-destructive that it quickly became an annoyance rather than a worry. The mortar would hit somewhere on the base, all the alarms on base would go off through the loud-speaker system, everyone would put on their protective vests and helmets and run to the closest bunker (or hide out in a building and hope you didn't get caught not going to the bunker like you were supposed to). Then for the next thirty minutes to two hours, you would sit in a bunker with a bunch of other annoyed people with much better things to do, waiting to hear the "all clear" announcement over the loud-speakers alerting everyone to the fact that they could go back about their business. The closest mortar hit I ever felt was about 100 feet outside of the office I was working in. The mortar actually hit one of our power generators, so part of the building lost power. I remember that the concussion throbbed around me and it felt like I was inside a heartbeat. Definitely a weird feeling. I did get really mad once at the mortar fire. While in Kirkuk, we had a couple fast food places on the base, namely Burger King, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell. The menus were very limited, but it was a nice taste of home when you wanted something other than mass-produced chow hall food. All day long I had been craving a chicken taco from Taco Bell. I got off work, met my (now) fiance for the two mile bus ride across base back to the living area and we headed to my trailer so he could check his email. I whined about that chicken taco for the thirty minutes he took to browse the interwebs. Finally, finally, finally he was ready to head to Taco Bell, oh, but wait, he wanted to stop at his room and drop off his stuff before heading there. Okaaayyyyy... We got to his room and I stood outside the door while he ran inside to toss his stuff on the bed. As he turned to come back out and take me to Taco Bell and buy me a hundred chicken tacos to shut me up, I heard the tell-tale whistle of incoming fire. I cursed, quite enthusiastically, and stepped into Jason's room as he was trying to walk out. "What?" he asked. Then the alarm went off. By the time the "all clear" was given, Taco Bell was closed for the night. There were no words vile enough to describe my feelings for the jerks who fired the mortar that night.

What was your every day life like?

Every day life was different depending on where I was working. In Baghdad, for the short time I was there, I was able to go into town and buy vegetables or freshly baked samoon, the local bread that is delicious. It was nowhere near "normal" as I would walk into the bakery with two friends, all of us wearing bullet-proof vests and at least one handgun and one rifle being carried per group. But it was definitely an experience to remember. In Balad I didn't have an office or even office hours; I would show up at the shift change meeting for my interpreters every day at noon and midnight. If the command sergeant major in charge of the building thought there was anything I needed to know about work schedules, personality conflicts between the interpreters, future requirements for new interpreters or different languages, etc, then we would have a quick ten minute meeting before shift change. Beyond that, my day was mine. I would usually spend a few hours at the internet cafe, going through work emails with the home office back in the States. Spend an hour at the gym, watch a badly pirated movie that only cost me $5, or browse the never-changing inventory at the PX (Wal-Mart style store for soldiers that has a little of everything, but never the specific brand you want). In Kirkuk I had a pretty regimented schedule. I had an office and my work hours were officially 8am to 8pm, but I usually snuck out around 6pm. There often wasn't enough work to keep me in the office twelve hours a day, even though I was managing over 300 interpreters across north-east Iraq. I would ride the base bus back to my trailer with Jason, and we would usually end up watching a (badly pirated) movie or two in his room before I headed to bed. I traveled a lot while assigned to Kirkuk though, so I saw quite a bit of northern Iraq. I was on a helicopter every three or four days, traveling to different bases to check on interpreters or take care of business at our regional offices. At one point, I knew I had been flying too much when the Army flight crew of the Blackhawk helicopter all welcomed me aboard by name and asked, "Where would you like to go today?"

How was it like to be so far from your family?

I love to travel and left the US the first time when I was only 16 for two weeks of school in Mexico between my junior and senior years of high school. As long as I have internet access to keep in touch with home, I don't mind being away for long periods of time.

Did you have any moments you thought you might die and if so, how did you handle it?

I never thought I was going to die. I have been very lucky in that all the time I've spent in Iraq and Afghanistan I've never been in any "real" danger. I like to think I'd be calm, cool and collected in a violent situation, but I'm also pretty glad that my assumption has never been put to the test. Did you enjoy anything about your tour of duty in Iraq? Do you miss anything? I love deploying. I like knowing that even though I'm not in the military any longer, I'm still there directly supporting the military. As austere and violent and surreal as the entire situation is, I truly do enjoy it. After a year I will start to burn out, and it's wonderful to come home and see friends and family and sit on a comfortable couch and go to the bookstore and cook my own food, but it's always a couple months later that I begin to think, "Hmm, the desert could be fun again..."

Did you like any of the local food and if yes, which one(s)?

I'm pretty picky about food, but there are definitely some Middle Eastern foods that will make me get my grub on! I love hummus and pistachio baklava. Those are probably my favorites. Hummus is basically smooshed up garbanzo beans (chickpeas) with tahini (a sesame paste) and some lemon juice and garlic. You dip pita bread in it, as well as smearing it on sandwiches. Baklava is a dessert made of very thin slices of dough piled with finely chopped pistachios and a simple sugar syrup. Done right, it will make your teeth hurt and your tummy happy. Tibsi is also pretty tasty, a casserole-style dish of eggplant, tomatoes, ground beef, onions and whatever else is in the kitchen to get thrown in.

Were you able to go out in the community for pleasure? Was it safe?

As a contractor I was pretty lucky and in some of my travels did get to go into town. I mentioned grocery shopping in Baghdad. I was also able to go to the local market in Suleimania and see The Citadel in Irbil, both large cities in the Kurdistan area and therefore (usually) much safer than the rest of Arab-dominated Iraq. In fact, in Irbil, we found a great little restaurant called Happy Times Pizza. Thin crust pizza that was as close to American-style as I ever encountered in Iraq. The beef topping was a little dodgy, but if you got a pizza with cheese or veggies, it was yummy.

Were there any miserable moments? (I hope not many)

Nothing too miserable. I did get stuck on a helicopter once for 5 hours in January with intermittent heat. That was actually probably the worst. Winter in Kirkuk would get into the 30s during the winter nights. Take that, add a helicopter with the rear and side doors open for the gunners to be able to scan the ground below, and mix in a heater that only worked when the helicopter was flying, but then keep in mind that the helicopter was loading and off-loading lots of personnel and equipment at each of the seven stops made during the five hour flight and you end up with a numb body at 2am when you finally arrive at your destination.

Did you have Internet access? If so, often?

I actually purchased a satellite system and mounted it on top of my trailer. Not only did I have internet access, I provided it to other people who lived near enough that we could run the CAT 5 cable from my satellite to their laptops. We each paid about $100/month, but it was definitely worth it.

Were you able to get any writing done?

I was able to work on quite a few projects. My work days were sometimes slow enough that I could hammer out a few pages or complete some editing while waiting for the next crisis to come tearing into the office. I've almost finished my first manuscript (about 3/4 done) and I have outlines written for the next three.

Were you able to identify yourself as a writer? Did you have easy access to buying books to read?

Since I'm not published yet and I didn't want to jinx myself, I let some close friends know that I'm writing, but I didn't advertise it. Books were easy to come by and absolutely adores me and my credit card during deployment. I usually had a box from them arriving every other week. I considered it fate when I moved into my trailer and the previous residents had actually built a four-shelf case out of scrap wood and securely mounted it to the wall. They probably didn't use it for books, but I most certainly did!

Were there any freedoms you missed that you normally enjoyed in the States?

There weren't necessarily freedoms that I missed, but it's the little stuff that you take for granted until you don't have it any longer. Comfortable, scooshy, cuddle-down-into-it furniture is one. My twin mattress was so thin and uncomfortable that I ended buying layers of egg crate just to be able to sleep at night - and I can sleep on a rock. Jason had what I dubbed a "tactical couch" in his room. He had left one twin mattress on its frame, and set the other twin behind it perpendicular (perpendicularly?) to make a very square, very L-shaped, very uncomfortable couch. Two body pillows placed at the sharp corner of the 'L' helped tremendously. I missed being able to jump in the car and run to the store and grab the deoderant I liked when I ran out of it, rather than going to the PX and buying whatever they had while I waited for my package from to come in. I missed cooking for myself, or just driving aimlessly on a pretty afternoon. I missed not having a day when I could just stay in my jammies since I worked seven days a week. The military broadcasts TV and radio, but with international regulations and the special deals they receive from networks, is unable to broadcast commercials. Strangely enough, you start to miss commercials. Especially when you get military-generated public service announcements during commercial breaks of "American Idol" that are the epitome of low budget cheese.

Please tell us about one or two memorable moments while you worked in Iraq.

Christmas Day 2007 was pretty great. I had the day off, which was actually a surprise to me when it was announced a couple days prior. I slept in, took a leisurely shower, then headed over to Jason's room to watch movies. We picked horrible movies that are completely inappropriate for Christmas: "The Running Man" with Arnold Schwarzenegger as an erroneously imprisoned police officer who has to fight his way out through a gauntlet of people trying to kill him, "La Bamba" starring Lou Diamond Phillips as Richie Valens who ends up dying, and "The Karate Kid," which is simply an iconic '80s flick. A completely lazy, surreal Christmas Day. One part of my job was to pay our local Iraqi interpreters...all 300 of them. In cash. The first time it was my responsibility, I picked up the money from our finance office (enough cash to buy a house with) and stuffed it in a backpack, then flew back to Kirkuk on a C-130 airplane. The next night I had a helicopter flight to an outlying base and I had to take the money for the interpreters that worked out there. Again, I stuffed the appropriate amount into my little backpack and clambered onto the bird. It was summer, so the side doors were left open to keep wind rushing through and maintain what little cool air we could find when it wouldn't drop below 100 degrees at night. I sat happily on the helicopter, my backpack of $70,000 in my lap and watched out the open door as we took off. Then gripped my backpack a little more securely as we banked hard to the right and quickly picked up speed. From that night on, I buckled my backpack into the seatbelt with me because I certainly didn't want thousands of dollars that I was signed for accidentally falling out of a helicopter when the bird had to make a tight turn.

What was it like coming home?

Coming home is nice and always a relief. By the time I come home, I'm usually so sick of my job that I never want to deal with any of "those people" (meaning anyone and everyone I worked with over the past year who annoyed me or made my job more difficult than it should have been [and there were a lot them]) ever again. I want to sleep in my bed and eat pancakes at IHOP and watch TV commercials and take my dog for a walk.

How would you feel about returning if you had to?

I would love to return. But I promised Jason that I wouldn't go without him, so now we're just waiting for the Army to send him to Afghanistan next year (it's already on the training schedule) and I'll convice my company to let me go back. Again.

Has your experience changed your life?

It certainly has. The first time I deployed to the Middle East was in 1998 as an Arabic interpreter in the Army. I spent four months in the Kuwaiti desert and I learned quickly not to take the convenience and ease of home for granted. I've met wonderful friends on deployment. I found Jason, the love of my life, while in Iraq over a year ago. I've had amazing experiences that I will never forget and met some crazy people that I hope I never meet again. But every second has definitely been worth it.

Has your experience inspired any of your books?

Not any current projects, but I do have lots and lots of ideas :)

Do you have any books featuring military characters?

My current projects don't feature military characters, but they are definitely in the works. I can't wait to introduce readers to the military lifestyle I know and love.

Where can we find out more about you and your writing?

Though I'm not published yet and can't hawk any books, I would love for readers to check out my blog at There are lots of Iraq stories on there. I've also posted some photos from my deployments (and soon my international travels) at

Thank you for joining us, Taylor! I expect to hear good news on the writing front soon.

Happy New Year!

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