I hope that this letter finds you happy and well fed. Those who know me for any length of time learn fast how big a part food plays in my life. I am happiest at the family dinner table, laughing and stuffing my face. Among the many things that are difficult for me over here, missing that daily communion with my family, sharing a meal and discussing the days events, ranks way up there.
Our band tries to keep some society centered around dinnertime. There is a certain rhythm to our lives. We surgeons all report to the hospital in the morning. There are usually some maintenance operations to do on our existing patients. These are short trips back to the operating room for the injured men, women, and children that remain in our care. In this war, many of the wounds are caused by fragments scattered at high velocity from improvised bombs. These fragments create multiple dirty wounds with dead tissue along their edges. The first time we meet a patient, we try to stop the bleeding and save their lives. If we are successful, these patients often need more operations to gradually clean out all the foreign material contaminating their wounds and eventually get their skin back to gether.
This morning I reported to work and took care of two individuals who needed exactly this type of operation. One with clean healthy gunshot wound was ready to have his skin closed and should be able to return to his home shortly. The other, a middle-aged woman, still had some dead and contaminated muscle in her wound. I cleaned what I could and got her back to the intensive care unit safely. She will be back in the operating room in a few days for more work, but she is a far cry better than the day she came to us, her life threatened by bleeding in her chest.
We take turns as the surgeon on duty, and this surgeon must remain in the hospital for 24 hours, ready to handle emergencies. The rest of us, even though we are available if a surge of wounded arrives, must find some way to occupy ourselves. After I completed my duties, I went to work out and then stopped by the Post Exchange for a shelf check. They had the same stuff I had seen two days ago. I moved on to the pool without buying anything.
The rhythm of the day brings us together again at 18:30. We convene at the surgeons' desk in the hospital, pick up our weapons, and head to dinner together. This evening ritual is one of the most comforting and enjoyable parts of my day. I'm sad to be far from my family, but to share a meal with my surrogate family briefly dulls the pain of the great distance from M. and the boys.
We load into the "Czar Car", a pick-up designated for use by the trauma czar. Since we are finishing the crossover training period with two teams present, we fill that pick-up soundly. It brings many a stare to cross the byways of LSA Anaconda with a pick-up bed full of majors and colonels!
Tonight we went to our usual eatery, DFAC (dining facility) 3, also known as the Camelot. In the cafeteria, dining is, of course, family style, on long tables. We stake out a sizable chunk of real estate, with our many surgeons, but we always neighbor other airmen and soldiers. It is always a pleasure to meet troops, learn from what state they hail, and to hear about the many varied jobs in the military.
We don't always go to DFAC3. A few days ago, we made the evening special by visiting Balad's very own Turkish Cafe. The restaurant is in the Army recreation complex, bordered by the Army gymnasium, outdoor pool, and Sustainer Theater. You have to pass a checkpoint manned by Ugandan Army guards who check both sides of your ID and verify that you don't have a clip in your weapon. A short walk down a gravel path lined by 12-foot blast barriers brings you to a nondescript sand-colored building. It is marked only by a small vinyl sign with red block letters reading "Balad Sami's Turkish Restaurant".
Once you pass the doors, you are transported to an exotic world of simmering spices. The walls are adorned with tooled brass platters and Turkish-themed murals. Actually, there is a cement floor and plywood walls, but just the feel of walking into a neighborhood restaurant makes the locale special. At the counter, you order from the swarthy smiling proprieter. The Turkish pizza with spicy ground meat, thick with cheese is tasty. I opted for the Chicken Tava, a dish served in an earthen casserole where diced chicken simmered in a salty tomato broth and was cloaked in a tasty raclette.
(e.g.: http://www.cdkitchen.com/recipes/recs/284/Chicken_Tava42952.shtml , but definitely add the cheese on top!) This was well accompanied by a minty green smoothy with mystery fruit ingredients. I think the touch that made the meal special was that after ordering, we sat to whet our appetites with conversation until the counterman's younger assistant came to us, one by one, calling out our numbers and delivered our food. This simple act of bringing food to the table briefly took me away from the suffering that continued in the hospital. The dinner was a special occasion because it was a slow goodbye for some of the surgeons who had completed their tour and were fixing to fly.
Thus fed, we returned to the hospital. Some surgeons went to the roof to continue the dinnertime discussion under stars that winked to let helicopters pass by. Others joined the surgeon on duty, delivering him his doggy bag of Turkish pizza and pitching in to help care for the arriving helicopter's payload of injured men.
It isn't home, it isn't my family, but I have broken bread with these dear friends and I will carry that with me always. I guess we are a family of sorts.
Eat well, eat with the ones you love.