Colors and noise replace blandness, quiet of Iraq

  • Published
  • By Sandra Pishner
  • 446th Airlift Wing
The grass is greener on the other side of the fence. That is, if the fence is one that divides Washington state from Balad, Iraq. Colors, particularly the color green, are the most striking elements overwhelming Airmen returning from Iraq.
After serving in Iraq since January, 71 Reservists from the 446th Aeromedical Transportation Staging Squadron are returning home between now and the end of May.
Re-entering their normal lives, these Reserve caregivers find themselves adjusting not only to the typical comforts of sleeping in their own bed and eating better tasting food, but also adjusting to the vibrant colors this state offers versus the bland canvas of Iraq. They’re also finding the level of quiet almost unsettling.
“The first things you notice when you get back are the colors,” said Master Sgt. Douglas Hedger. “Everything is so green here, whereas over there it was all black and tan. It’s also so quiet here; it’s a shock to the system.”
Sergeant Hedger served in Balad at the Contingency Aeromedical Staging Facility as a duty controller. His mission was to coordinate the aeromedical evacuation of patients to medical facilities out of country, such as Germany.
Normal sounds found at home can invoke anxiety until the sources are identified. Subjected to multiple rocket attacks daily in Balad, Master Sgt. Joy Herbert finds she is hypersensitive to everyday noises.
“I was sitting in my living room the other day when I heard this ‘unusual’ noise upstairs. I was freaking out trying to identify the noise,” she said. “After a minute I realized it was my cats running around upstairs, like they usually do.”
According to Sergeants Hedger and Herbert, their compound was hit by rocket attacks at least nine times a day. There was no relief from the constant need for vigilance.
“The attacks never seemed to stop,” said Sergeant Herbert, a medic. “On our last day, we were on the flightline waiting to come home and the incoming alarm went off. We all hit the deck. Then we saw the (defensive system) go off and knock out the incoming. I still hear the incoming alarm in my head.”
Being serenaded by an incoming alarm repeatedly throughout the day creates a sense of purpose for those serving in Balad.
“Over there our senses were always in a heightened state. When you walked, you walked with purpose. Did you hear that? Where’s the nearest bunker? We were always scanning the environment for threats,” said Sergeant Hedger.
“I won’t ever forget lying under my bed, hands over my head, mouth open so my ears won’t blow out from the noise of an explosion,” he added.
Any sense of security is tenuous at best.
“One time we saw one of the housing pods get blown up. That’s where you think you’re safe, so it was really unsettling to see that,” said Sergeant Herbert.
The insidious rhythm of day-to-day attacks and threat of injury was were truly realized when the medics treated wounded Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen from forward operating areas. That was the most jarring aspect of the tour of duty in Iraq for these Reservists.
“The most difficult part of the tour over there was the results of attacks. It was hard to see some of these patients, many of them so young. It was especially difficult with the critical patients,” said Sergeant Herbert.
“The most difficult patient for me was a lady who had her leg blown off at mid-thigh,” said Sergeant Hedger, a man far from his job as vice president of commercial lending at a local bank. “Her husband was with her. They were both deployed with the Army. When the wife was injured, the husband was pulled off the frontline. It was the most difficult case because we don’t normally have interaction with family members of our patients.”
Situations like that make the Reservists even more grateful to be home with their own families.
Sergeant Hedger’s family managed to get access to the gate area of the Seattle Tacoma airport and was there as he stepped off the plane.
“My 8-year-old son was overjoyed, excited when he saw me,” said Sergeant Hedger. “We had kept in touch with letters, e-mail and phone calls, but I hadn’t seen him in four months. We had a small celebration at home with some champagne.”
Sergeant Herbert’s family was waiting outside the security zone when she arrived. “When (my 5-year-old daughter) saw me come around the corner, she didn’t know what to do. She was like a deer in the headlights,” said Sergeant Herbert said, smiling at the memory. “They had a big welcome home banner for me. Now, she won’t let me out of her sight. If I have to leave to come in to work, she’ll ask me if I’m coming home.”
Yes, she’s coming home. All 71 of the deployed 446th ASTS Reservists are coming home. So let’s make some noise and swath our world in bright colors to welcome them.