Sunday, December 17, 2006

~Christmas in Kosovo - by Leta

Y'all remember Leta, right? She was one of the women who were SOOOOO very instrumental in making Operation: Love From Home such a HUGE success, and comments here from time-to-time. The following words were written by Leta, and origianlly posted over on Tanker Brothers.

As I've been working the past week or so getting the last few boxes off to Iraq and Afghanistan I've been thinking more and more about my favorite Christmas EVER and I just wanted to share it with you all.

In October of last year (2005) I contacted the Civil Affairs Commander with US KFOR in Kosovo and asked if I could "sneak" in to the province and make a Christmas dinner for his Soldiers - some of whom I had worked with on a prior visit to Kosovo. He thought it was a great idea. So I began packing and shipping boxes of ingredients to him since I knew I couldn't get most of the stuff I needed in Kosovo. We agreed to keep this TOP SECRET except for one other Soldier who would know I was coming.

I went to Kosovo for the first time in July/Aug 2005 and had not planned to return until the summer of 2006. I just could NOT stay away. Between knowing the great amount of work to be done there and wanting to show the Soldiers how much I appreciate them the trip came together almost overnight. I couldn't justify flying that far just to cook one meal so the CA commander and I discussed one key project and several others that could be addressed while I was in Kosovo. Hurray!

As the date for the trip approached I kept getting anxious (in a good way) and excited. I finally boarded the first of four planes a few days before Christmas. After stops in Atlanta, Zurich and Vienna I finally landed in Prishtina! They pushed the stairs up to the Airbus for us to deplane. When I turned the corner to exit the aircraft I was hit with a blast of air so cold it almost took my breath away. I approached the steps and noticed they were covered in ice. GREAT! I'm going to break my leg before I even see the Soldiers! I slipped and slid down the stairs (literally) and across the tarmac to the terminal building (term loosely used here -NOTHING like a U.S airport for sure!). I stood in line to clear immigration. When I handed my passport to the immigration officer he looked at it and with a smile on his face thanked me for visiting his "country" (didn't want to get in to that discussion since they AREN'T a country). I told him it was good to be back and moved on to baggage claim. It seemed like I waited FOREVER for my bags (which contained a few last minute ingredients for the dinner). I doubt as much time passed as it seemed but I was antsy to get around the corner and beyond the wall that was depriving me of seeing my friends. I claimed my bags, turned and walked the few feet to customs where the official there smiled to me and said, "Welcome! We love Americans! Thanks for coming to Kosovo!" I replied back but without breaking stride moved beyond the wall, through the small lobby then out the door to see my guys.

I walked through a gauntlet of local people waiting on passengers. Several smiled and waved to me. I heard a couple of people say "America!" as I walked by. The ground was covered in a layer of ice at least 2 inches thick. Between trying to stay on my feet and dragging my luggage across the ice I must have been a real sight! I looked left - no uniforms. I looked right - no uniforms. I looked behind me - no uniforms. OK, maybe I'm missing something here. It had begun to snow and the wind was blowing at a nice clip. Perhaps my visibility was being impaired by the weather conditions and/or my fatigue. There was NO WAY these guys forgot to come and get me. Right? Finally I thought "well, maybe with the weather is so bad they are in the parking lot with the vehicles." So, I began the quarter mile "slide" towards the parking lot cursing all the way - knowing that if they weren't there I'd have to "slide" back to the terminal. Suddenly from behind I got this HUGE bear hug and I knew immediately from the voice that it was SSG P - one of my all time FAVORITES!!!! I couldn't let it "go" that they were late so I give him a string of oh so unlady like words and we both laughed and hugged again. He told me to look to my left. Approaching from about 100 yards were COL I, Danny (Albanian interpreter and whose family I stay with), Dada (Albanian interpreter and my dear friend), SGT G and SGT P. I left SSG P with my luggage and began to walk towards them. Suddenly Danny stopped in his tracks, bent down with his head up and squinting. Then he stood up and looked as if he had seen a ghost. He yelled, "LETA!" and began to run towards me. I have no idea how he kept from falling. Everyone else except COL I (who knew I was coming) began to look, too. Then they all realized it was me. It was priceless! I asked COL I not to allow Danny to use the phone to call anyone and alert his family that I was there. I knew if he did they would move furniture around in the house, spend whatever money they might have buying food for me, etc. I wanted to walk in to their house without notice. So, Danny was banned from cell phone use!

For some reason every time I fly 21 hours to Kosovo the Soldiers figure I'm not tired at all when I arrive. So, as has become the "custom" they had something planned and I was to participate. PLEASE, can't I just go "home" to Danny's, unpack, have some hot chia and relax? NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! Off we go to some local Serbian guy's house for a big dinner in celebration of some Saint. OK, it truly was a great cultural experience but I HAD been traveling for a day and night and was worn out. It was a GREAT experience in many ways. I'll spare you the details here because I still haven't gotten to the story as to why this was the BEST Christmas.

A couple of days before Christmas, after we had been out and about on missions, we went to Camp Bondsteel to pick up all of the boxes of food I had shipped and took them back to Danny's house. I decided to make the pies that night. I had taken canned filling for cherry, apple and mincemeat as well as the ingredients for pecan pie. I set about to make the crusts and Danny's mother, 3 sisters and Dada swarmed me to help. So, we did it together. They had NEVER seen a pie before. I showed them how to make a lattice top for the mince meat pie, how to make cut outs of dough to decorate and identify the apple and cherry pies. It was so much fun. We had flour all over ourselves. Adeline (youngest sister) wanted to do it all! We laughed and talked and worked while a couple of the Soldiers relaxed and had hot chia and snacks we had picked up. Once we finished making the pies I heard, "uh oh!" and realized I had said it. The only method by which to cook the pies was the wood burning stove/oven. Hmmmm. This will be a challenge. In they go one at a time because they couldn't be too close to the fire "side" of the oven. The end result turned out to be the BEST pies I have ever baked. We didn't eat them until Christmas night but when we did the crust was the flakiest and best ever! They were a huge hit.

The day before Christmas I didn't go on any missions with the Soldiers. Dada, Danny's mom and sisters and I had planned to cook all day. We made green bean casserole, deviled eggs, sweet potato casserole, corn bread dressing, candied apples, asparagus casserole, corn casserole and home made yeast rolls. Dada arranged a gorgeous tray of pickles, olives, etc. Oh, I almost forgot - I had shipped one whole box of the most amazing "invention" they had seen, aluminum pans of every shape and size! Danny's mom still uses those to this day. I keep sending more for her because some are worn through. She loves them. I had also shipped a manual can opener (a real prize for Danny's dad), a potato masher, a grater, salt and pepper grinders, spices, etc. Because it was so cold we were able to "store" the dishes in the room where I sleep. It was near or below zero there the entire time and the house has no heat other than the wood stove which is a floor below where I sleep. On the third day I was there, SSG P was kind enough to loan me his Army sleeping bag. Anyway, the food was just fine overnight in my refrigerator room!

On Christmas morning the Soldiers came to pick me up. After we had hot chia, Turkish coffee and soup with the family we went out to boot up and load up. SGT P was driving one of the vehicles. As he attempted to turn around on the narrow street he went off in the ditch - the sewage ditch. This was NOT the first time he'd hit the ditch. It happened 7 times while I was there. We unload to push him out. Wouldn't you know it - I stepped in the wrong place, fell through the ice and had a boot FULL of sewage. GREAT!!! Sorry SSG P! He had loaned me a pair of his insulated Army boots
for the week. Well, all the neighbors appeared from nowhere and helped us get the vehicle out and back on the road. I went back inside to change socks and clean out the boot as best I could while COL I and SSG Pointer lectured SGT P. I came back out and away we went. We went to Stubbla (up in the mountains) to deliver some humanitarian packages to the priest at the Catholic Church (one where Mother Teresa "worked" as a young nun). Because
the roads were so treacherous and there are no guard rails we were late arriving and they had already begun the mass. We had to wait until it was over. We were walking around the church, gazing out over the valley below and listening to occasional gun fire commenting that it was probably just celebratory in nature, etc. Then the devil took control of my body and mind. I grabbed a big hand full of snow, packed it in to a ball and "zing" launched it at COL I. WHAT? Did I really just do that? SPLAT! Square on the left cheek of his face! Uh oh! I really intended to hit him on his torso. I may be in BIG trouble now! He bent over, picked up snow, made a ball and hurled it at me. The snowball fight was ON! Being from the south I can't remember the last time I was engaged in a snowball fight but I can tell you this was and will always be my most memorable one! After the snow ball fight several of the Soldiers and I made snow angels. Can you imagine? Grown men and me lying in the snow waving our arms and legs? I have pictures. I even have one of me being a snow "devil" because I, uh, accidentally rolled over on SGT P and pinned him to the ground (photo of that, too!).

Mass ended (omitting funny story here), we found the priest, went to the rectory, had Rakia (omitting funny story here but the Soldiers didn't have any Rakia - General Order #1 you know), delivered the boxes and left. We drove back to Danny's house where we dropped off one vehicle and several of the Soldiers. COL I, SSG P, Dada and I had to make a quick "run" to Gate 5 on the Serbian border. On the way back I called SGT P to find out if they had peeled the potatoes and gotten them cooking for me to make the mashed potatoes when I got "home." I had bought 20 lbs of potatoes at the store the day before. Welllllllllllllllllllllll, not only had they peeled the potatoes and put them on to cook - they had peeled ALL 20 LBS!!! Holy Cow! Give these guys a gun to protect me but don't give them basic instructions on cooking. My fault! I didn't tell them EXACTLY how many potatoes to peel! When I walked in the house there were 3 HUGE pots of potatoes boiling away on top of the wood burning stove. I laughed so hard I found myself bent over. Several of the Soldiers assured me they WOULD be eaten since they were home made with real butter and cream.

I made the gravy and mashed the potatoes. I had left WRITTEN instructions on when to put what dish in the oven for warming and they had accomplished those tasks PERFECTLY! As we began to place all of the dishes on the table Danny's family stood back in disbelief. I'm not sure they've ever seen so much food on a table at any one time in their lives. Along with Danny's family and the Soldiers we had invited some other teenagers (friends of Danny's) to join us for the meal. The power was out and by the time we were ready to eat it was dark outside. So, with candles burning I gave COL I the "sign" that it was time to begin. He asked everyone to stand in a circle and hold hands as he said a prayer. COL I would say a few words then stop and give Danny a chance to interpret for his parents. I don't think there were many dry eyes in the room by the time the prayer was over. COL I asked Danny to have his parents go first. That took a bit of cajoling and encouraging but they finally did. COL I and SSG P waited until everyone had served themselves (we did buffet style) then they filled their plates. We sat on chairs, laps, and the floor -just anywhere one could find a spot to light. Danny's family and friends would literally float back to the table in anticipation of more food. Their eyes were the size of saucers and their faces must have ached the following day from the continuous smiles. I've never seen them eat like that before or since.

My heart was full and my head was in chaos. In one corner of the room was a tiny, pathetic looking tree with no presents under it. It was about 3 ½ feet tall with some tinsel thrown about its branches and hand made paper ornaments. I stood there thinking that all of the gifts I was receiving that Christmas day wouldn't have fit under a Christmas tree the size of a California Redwood. I looked around the room at the "wrappings" and "bows" on all of my presents - the shapes and sizes of all the people in the room - the faces of the Kosovars that reflected sadness and difficult lives of the past along with hope, freedom, love and joy in the present. I also gazed upon the men and women in uniform who put their lives on hold and on the line to give me continued freedom, safety, hope and promise - and I wondered what in the world this country girl from Arkansas had ever done to deserve this moment. I felt guilty for being with the Soldiers on Christmas Day when their loved ones were back at home in the US without them. I wanted to thank them for allowing me the privilege of spending this time with their Soldiers. And, I wanted to tell them about all I had witnesses on this trip and other trips here regarding what their Soldiers were doing each day and night to help make Kosovo a more stable place. To this day I continue to wish that each Soldier's family could see them work as I have. I know their families are proud of them but if they actually saw them in action I think they would be amazed.

At one point COL I and SSG P came over and gave me hugs and thanked me. The gate holding back my emotions burst open. Thank ME? Oh no sir - you have that ALL wrong. I didn't even know what to say. I think if I could have come up with the appropriate words I probably wouldn't have been able to force them out of my mouth at that moment so I just held him tight. How do you capture this picture and these emotions to share with those who aren't witnessing it? HOW?

After the meal while the Soldiers and many of the friends were relaxing, chatting and napping Danny's sisters and I began to clean up. I had declared this a NO WORK day for Danny's mom. I brought out another amazing "invention". The zip lock bag! Danny's mother LOVED those too so now I always make sure she has an ample supply. Being the American that I am I would take the food out of one of the aluminum pans then toss the pan in the trash. Danny's mom would fish it out. I tried to have Danny explain to her that they were disposable until it hit me - not to them. So, we washed them all but only after I banned her from the area and told her we didn't need a supervisor anymore.

We played a few games, sang a few songs, and reflected on the wonderful gifts life had given us such as meeting each other (Kosovars and Americans). We talked about progress that has been made but avoided the negatives. No one said not to talk about the negatives but the whole group just seemed to avoid those that night. Some of the candles burned out and were replaced.

Then I began to hear calls for dessert. You've GOT to be kidding me! Who has room for dessert already? Adeline and I got up to serve the desserts. The pies were a BIG hit. The chocolate chip cookies and brownies have become tradition. I ship boxes and boxes of them when I'm not there and I make batches and batches of them when I am there. The family loves them, the friends love them, the Soldiers love (and EXPECT them) and others on Camp Bondsteel ask for them. Guess I'll forever be known for my cookies and brownies in Kosovo. I've even had one ITT security guard at Gate 1, Camp Bondsteel joke about denying me access because I didn't bring any. What's wrong with that picture? :-)

One group of Soldiers announced they were going to leave. My heart sank. I truly didn't want the magic or the night to end. THIS was a REAL Christmas. COL I got up to begin saying his good byes and telling the Soldiers to stay as long as they wanted. SSG P also got up to leave along with a couple of others. We all trailed them to the door and stood in almost silence as they put on their boots. Normally when the Soldiers are booting up to leave the chatter is raucous and rapid. Not this night. We heard gun fire in the distance but knew it was celebratory fire. A light snow was falling and the moon was peaking out from between the clouds. When the gun fire subsided there was absolute quiet - so much so I swear I could hear the snowflakes as they landed. I slipped in to a pair of shoes to walk to the street with the Soldiers. For the first time EVER I really didn't want them to leave. They always leave me at night to go back to Camp Bondsteel. It's never been an issue until tonight. But, tonight I wanted to drag them all back inside and keep them close to me. As my mind was going through this scenario I finally realized - these guys ARE with me and will ALWAYS be with me my entire life. We have formed a bond like no other. We ARE family. Not like their families back home. NOT more important than their families back home. But family in a way that is so special no one will ever be able to penetrate our circle. I smiled and gave them each one last tight hug and wished them sweet dreams knowing I would see them tomorrow and for a few more days after that before returning to the USA.

When I crawled in to SSG P's sleeping bag that might I couldn't make the tears stop. I said my prayers, thanked God for the Soldiers, their families, Danny and his family, Dada and all of the other friends I have made here. Then I asked him what I had ever done to deserve this? To this day I still don't know the answer to that question. Perhaps I never will. I certainly will never "question" him about it but I'd really like to know. What I do know is that I spent a Christmas Day without ONE physical package wrapped in brightly colored paper and tied up with ribbon yet I received more on this day than I could ever have hoped, wished or dreamed of. Physical packages seemed so empty to me that day. This year when people ask me "what do you want for Christmas", I tell them to volunteer somewhere, make a charitable donation, write a serviceman but don't "give" me anything physical because I don't need it.

This Christmas I am eternally thankful for my family and friends but more so for the amazing men and women in uniform who have allowed me to be a part of their lives on one level or another. I'm thankful for the ones I have met and have had the privilege of working with and I'm thankful for the opportunity to support so many that I have never met and probably won't. It doesn't matter. They, too, will forever be an integral part of my life. Help me find a way to thank them for who they are and what they do. Letters and goodies boxes hardly seem enough although I know they would say it's more than enough.

BIG HUGS and thanks to ALL of you for the contributions you have made and continue to make to my life.

Merry Christmas to all and to all a good LIFE!


Georgia Blogger