Beautiful America

I couldn’t look away. I just couldn’t.

All the other media people were dozing on the helicopter ride back from Camp Ripley Tuesday evening, but seated in the very back seat next to the open ramp, all I could do was stare down at the countryside. Magnificent view, let me tell you.

I have been away for a bit, as some of you may know. I spent a week in Washington D.C. with the Murray County Central choir, which was an incredible experience. As I stood in the National Archives Museum and stared down at the original Declaration of Independence, the lump in my throat was huge. There are fingerprints on the declaration. I don’t know whose prints, but just seeing the creases and crunches from it being rolled up, the worn out words that are barely legible — it all gave me this enormous sense of the magnitude of our country’s history.

Touring the memorials, watching the changing of the guard at Arlington National Cemetery and even visiting the Holocaust Mu-seum, I was awed by the sacrifices people have made so that everyone else in this country can be free.

This was really brought home to me just two days after my Washington D.C. trip. Monday I boarded a Chinook helicopter in Sioux City, Iowa and was flown to Camp Ripley, where the Iowa National Guard is currently attending annual training. Media was invited because Brigadier General Timothy Orr wants to get the word out. His troops are going to Afghanistan this fall, and he wants them to have the support of the people.

I was sent to a Forward Operations Base (FOB) and assigned to a soldier, 1st Lt. Stacey Lampe. I referred to her as my babysitter, but she was an incredible woman who was a very gracious hostess. Between herding me out to artillery ranges, to chow halls, into Humvees and a variety of other places, she and I talked quite a bit about the camaraderie between soldiers, the anticipation and dread of going to Afghanistan, the challenges of being a woman in the Army and more.

As the only female officer on an FOB with 11 women and 300 men, she has to work around communication barriers caused by being in a different tent.

“It is not intentional,” she explained. “They don’t mean to leave me out of the picture.”

The bottom line is that people relaxing on their bunk or chatting about the day also tend to chat about what will happen tomorrow. Being in a separate tent inadvertently stops the flow of information to Lampe.

She introduced me to so many people who all have wonderful stories to tell. Everyone was so nice, so forthcoming.

As someone who spent 10 years sending a spouse out to sea when my husband was active duty Navy, I have been on the other side. Hearing the soldiers talk of their preparations for deployment, their concerns for their families — it was a different perspective.

The physical aspects of the trip were a bit of a challenge, also. I’m not as young as I once was, to put it politely, nor as thin and in shape as I used to be. Right after I got to the camp, I was issued a Kevlar vest and helmet. There I was, fat, sweaty, hot and carrying extra weight in body armor because of the likely chance someone would want to shoot a reporter.

Lampe is probably quite lucky I didn’t pass out on her. After spending a week tromping all over Washington D.C., I spent a day and a half tromping around Camp Ripley. I was one tired puppy when I got home.

I loved every minute of it, even when I was swatting mosquitoes and flicking off ticks (two of which I brought home with me unintentionally). I was totally wowed by the wonderful things I saw in Washington D.C. and the wonderful people I met at Camp Ripley.

The helicopter ride was way cool. On the way to the camp, I ended up sitting in the middle of the chopper and couldn’t see outside very well, but on the way home I grabbed the very last seat and spent the two hour flight staring at the beauty of the Earth and sky. The wind rushed around, and I now understand why dogs get that goofy smile on their face when they stick their heads out a car window. I was probably wearing that same smile on the flight.

If you ever get a chance to grab a ride in a Chinook, I highly recommend the experience. Oh, and speaking of dogs, a shout out happy birthday to my dog Jeffrey, who is six years old today. They grow up so fast! Also to our friend Bob, who is just a bit older than Jeffrey.