Wednesday, November 17, 2010

A tribute to the Gold Star moms and their children

This is a small and inadequate tribute to the brave soldiers and their brave mothers, who I now call my friends.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

A Final Post

More than ever before I believe there really is no place like home.

This was an amazing trip. The Gold Star mothers and the entourage traveling with them were treated like royalty. We met people we could have never imagined we would meet. At times it seemed so surreal we would look at each other and repeat out loud where we were or who we were with.

It was easy to fall in love with the Iraqi people. Everywhere we went they were excited to see us and went out of their way to make us feel welcome. Some of my favorite moments came as we were traveling on the bus. I’d have my camera out the window shooting images of the passing countryside, and every now and then an Iraqi we were passing would notice my camera and break into a wide grin. Moments I will never forget.

If I ever had any doubts about the United States-led invasion to help overthrow Saddam Hussein, they are gone. You only have to look into the eyes of one Iraqi woman, or hear one family’s story of the death and destruction Saddam heaped upon his own people to know we did the right thing. The human thing.

But the real purpose of this trip was for the Gold Star mothers who were seeking to understand the people and the land that their children died for. Mostly, I think they wanted to make sure their children hadn’t died in vain.

I think each found some of what she was looking for. After our return, Gold Star mom Shelia Marshall, whose son Cpl. Evan Andrew Marshall was killed in Mosul, Iraq, in 2008, posted this on her facebook page:

"Back from Iraq! At the most beautiful place I have ever seen, a river of tears rolled down my face. We then formed a circle and spoke, sang, read poetry. I quoted from Evan's Youth Sunday sermon: " With peace, there is no conflict, no anger, no envy, no doubt, no fear, and no hatred--there is only love." I have found in a few days what I have been searching for for years. I have found peace."

To the ten women who allowed a stranger with a camera to be present during some very emotional and private moments, I say thank you. I pray the peace and healing that you found on this journey will stay with you forever.

I'll close with words from the song “For Good” from the musical Wicked. Lyrics that Gold Star mom, Jan Moncur read during the tribute to her son, PFC Philip Christensen, at the memorial service on that beautiful Thursday at Lake Dukon:

"I've heard it said
That people come into our lives for a reason
Bringing something we must learn
And we are led
To those who help us most to grow
If we let them
And we help them in return
Well, I don't know if I believe that's true
But I know I'm who I am today
Because I knew you..."

Love to all,


Saturday, October 2, 2010

Let's go to a Parade

On our last full day in Iraq we are going to a Military parade. Security is tight because there have been word of threats closer to us, we travel with all the curtains drawn on the buses today.

Upon arriving at the military training base, each mother is greeted by Kurdish defense minister, Sheikh Jafar Mustafa. We are ushered into a conference room to receive an official greeting by the Sheikh and to watch another film on Halabajah. These people do not want the world to forget what happened to them. This one was harder to watch than the first and even though the room was filled with men, the sniffles started almost immediately. I was sitting in the back of the room with the Iraqi press when this guy leaned over and said "Who are you all" In a very American accent. Then I realized there were several Americans in the room.

After the film, Gold Star mom Jan Moncur spoke about her son, PFC Philip M. Christensen. She talked about how he loved serving his country and how much he wanted to help the Iraqi people gain their freedom. Once the speeches were over, we were taken by bus to a field where the Kurdish peshmerga army put on quite a show. Running an obstacle course with fire and real bullets,thankfully shot into the ground, and then an official parade. By the way peshmerga means "those who face death."

After the parade we were treated to a huge lunch, including tea, fruit and smoking of course, back in the mess hall. Several American soldiers came over and talked with the moms. When these women find a soldier, he better watch out. They truly love them and it is such a treat to get to meet one. Especially when they found out one of these guys was a Citadel grad and had lived in Charleston.

While the moms were talking to the American soldiers one of the peshmerga came over to me to tell me that they would not let anything happen to them. He said in very broken English, that he would personally take a bullet to protect his American friends. I believe he would.

This has been a fun day and I think the moms really enjoyed being with the military.

Because of the extra security and having to keep the curtains drawn I missed one of the best shots of the trip. (the back window of the vans don't have a curtain so we could see what we were passing) There were two little Iraqi boys standing on a hill as we passed, they were jumping up and down like crazy, completely naked and holding tight to there little boy parts. Everyone was laughing... except me. :)

Friday, October 1, 2010

A Day of Healing

Part of the plan on this trip was to give each mother an opportunity to have a memorial service for her son or daughter.

We did this on Thursday at a beautiful place called Lake Dukon. We had a nice lunch that included ice cubes! After lunch each mother had some quiet time or sharing time with a friend or Iraqi mom. One mother showed her son's memorial service, another sat quietly reflecting, one mom buried a little red heart in the sand to represent the part of her heart that will always be in Iraq. Several moms sat together reading books or Bibles or writing in journals. There are several of us on this trip who participate in the Lord's Super so one of the mom's got bread and juice from the restaurant and a group of us, sitting outside overlooking beautiful Lake Dukon had communion. We read the scripture and each person took communion the way they do in their own church. It was very moving. I wonder what our Iraqi sisters thought of this. I can assure you they were all watching. After the communion we gathered in a circle where each Gold Star mom said a few words about their child. One mom sang a song she had written. Each mother had an opportunity to speak then several of the Iraqi women spoke about how grateful they were for each mothers sacrifice. We ended by singing Amazing Grace, with a circle full of Muslims.

God works in mysterious ways.

Thursday, September 30, 2010


I have no idea where yesterday's blog went. Let's try again. :)

We have been so busy it's been hard to keep up with everything. On Wednesday we visited Halabajah. Halabajah lost 5,000 people in 5 minutes to the chemicals of Sadames regime. We visited a monument housing hundreds of photos of the aftermath and a three dimensional exhibit depicting the scene on a street just after the attacks. There were several Kurdish men and women walking with us explaining what we were seeing. One man pointed out a large photo on the wall and encouraged us to have a closer look. It was a truck with a bed full of dead Kurds, men, women, boys and girls. Beside the back of the truck stood a little boy looking completely lost. Through an interpeter and more hand signals he explained that the truck was filled with members of his family and he was the little boy.

For the majority of people I know, it's hard to imagine this kind of loss. You can read about it in the history books, but being here and seeing it first hand was sobering. I just kept thinking that 1988 was a good year. It was the year Myron and I got married. I felt guilty for having had such a happy year when I was oblivious to the horrors these people were suffering.

For the Gold Star moms, I think it was difficult to see, but it gave them comfort knowing their children died trying to prevent anything like this from ever happening again. For all of us, it made the horror of Saddam Hussein real. After visiting the monument we went to one of the cemetery's and laid flowers on a monument there.

Standing on the hill in the cemetery it was quiet and still. As you turned in a 360 degree circle you could see all the little houses or huts these people live in but before your eyes get to the houses, you see hundreds and thousands of headstones.

This is the saddest place I have ever visited.


Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Work Day

Monday was a workday for everyone. All of the women met at a conference center to work on the humanitarian aid packs. There were women packing bags with hygiene items, and women making packets for the children. Some women were scattered about the room chatting and sewing on quilts or making beaded jewelry. What you hear is what makes this scene unusual: three different languages all being spoken at the same time. The room is filled with the Gold Star moms, the Kurdish women and the women from Baghdad, making the room a musical mixture of Arabic, Kurdish and English. It’s amazing how much communication can happen between the eyes and the hands. Everyone was helping each other, some of the Iraqi women speak both Kurdish and Arabic and are always there to help interpret, but they usually are not needed. When the words fail, the body language takes over, and it always works. Besides the sewing and packing there is lots of picture taking. The ANFAL Widows especially like to have their photos made with the Gold Star moms.

I have learned that the best tool of communication I have is my camera. Everyone loves the camera. They see it and strike a pose or wave or grin from ear to ear, but there is always a reaction. They are not a shy people.

Monday night we were treated to a quite a feast at a private palace. This trip is very important to the Iraqi people. They are welcoming these women with open arms and going out of their way to make sure they are treated with the utmost respect.

When you go to an important dinner in Iraq, you start out in a sitting room with a bottle of water, you chat and mingle with each other then move to the dinner table. You take an appropriate amount of time to eat then you move to either a smoking room or you go to a room for hot tea and fresh fruit. Couches and chairs line the walls of the rooms so the center is left open for mingling and a spread of fruit and cheese. So dinners take a long time. After dinner we were taken to watch an Islamic Religious Ceremony. As a Christian, I found it very disturbing, and I don’t remember ever being so thankful for being born in the United States.

We did manage to go shopping in The People’s Suk in the afternoon. Let’s just say it’s like the Anderson Jockey lot on steroids. But it was the first chance we’ve had to be among the Kurdish people and see how they live and work.

It was a good day.


Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Anfal Widows

Without getting into too much history, The Anfal Widows group was formed after Saddam Hussein's regime launched chemical warfare against the Iraqi Kurds, targeting mostly men. This left many widows and at the time it was against the law for a woman to remarry. It is no longer against the law but the majority of these women have never remarried.

First we all watched a documentary of the chemical attacks and some of the widows were openly upset. Some cried, some covered their eyes and couldn't watch. One sweet lady just looked down through the entire documentary, wringing her hands. They estimate that over 182,000 people were killed during the campaign.

The Widows came to show their appreciation and thanks to the Gold Star Moms. Even after 22 years, the pain registers on the faces of these women like it happened yesterday. I have never witnessed "thanks" expressed like this.



After the emotion of arriving in Iraq, the rest of the day was spent in meetings with local and regional government officials.

Several police escorts arrived to take us to the political offices of the PUK. The PUK is the political party currently ruling the Kurdistan region. Party Speaker Mala Baxtiar greeted each Gold Star mom individually, and then we were ushered into a very official looking conference room.

Through a translator, Speaker Baxtiar welcomed the Gold Star Moms and thanked them for the sacrifices of their children. There were also many Iraqi women in attendance, all who had suffered significant losses under Saddam’s rule. Several of the Gold Star Moms and the Iraqi women were given an opportunity to speak. The Iraqi people, especially here in Kurdistan, are so grateful for U.S. troops and the help they have provided.

After the meeting, we were taken to an elaborate lunch in the political building. The food was actually very good. Speaker Baxtier dined with us and talked with all the moms through an interpreter. After lunch we moved to another room with couches lined against the walls. Ottomans covered with plates of fresh fruits lined the center of the room. We drank very strong hot tea in small glasses, almost like shot glasses. The tea was delicious.

At one point, I happened to be at the front of the line as we were escorted through the building. A young Iraqi woman was walking with me. She spoke just enough English for me to understand that her mother, father and brother had been killed by Saddam's people. Someone explained later that’s how Saddam worked; he would leave one person alive to be a witness to his cruelty.

After lunch we finally got to rest, then had dinner with the Mayor, Police Chief and other local officials. More thank you’s and good food. Then finally more rest.


Saturday, September 25, 2010

Finally in Iraq

We are finally in Iraq. So much has happened since I had access to my computer, I hope I can get it all in.

Not much sleep last night, up early enduring pretty serious security checks in Amman before boarding the plane to Iraq. They don't play. You could feel the collective sigh of relief once we were all actually on the plane.

A while into the flight, the pilot made the announcement that we would be entering Iraqi air space in four minutes. Several of the mothers were suddenly very emotional. Across the aisle from me, Ann pulled out a picture of her daughter and held it tight as we came into Iraq. Then she was holding hands with other mothers, some kissing pictures of their children, some just quietly crying. Toughest moment yet for the moms. And for the photographer.


Friday, September 24, 2010


We are now in the airport in Paris waiting to depart to Jordan. I actually slept well on the overnight to Paris. My favorite thing about traveling is the people that you meet along the way. My seat neighbor on the flight from Atlanta was a young comedy writer and actress from L.A. headed to Paris on a mother/daughter vacation. Cool. Good luck in your career, Kate.

The closer we get to Iraq, the more emotional it becomes for the mothers. Earlier I noticed one of the moms being comforted by another in the airport. They are all really concerned about each other.

It’s been interesting to watch the reaction of other travelers as they hear about this group and why we are traveling. Southern accents tend to attract attention, so we are getting asked a lot about where we are from and where we are going. As other travelers hear and understand the story they are amazed. Some actually tear up. Almost always, you find them patting, hugging or thanking one of the mothers for the service of their children, and expressing condolences for their loss.


Security and Bagels

We met with our security detail in Atlanta. Judging by looks alone…we are pretty secure! It was a little unnerving to get their instructions on what would happen if we were in the area of an “event” and they needed to move us quickly. We were also briefed on greetings, when to nod a greeting or when to shake someone’s hand. No one expects any problems during this trip but it’s their job to make sure we are safe and that’s what they intend to do. And trust me, they take that job very seriously.

Seat 11A. My seat from Atlanta to Paris is 11A. Which on this airbus is in the second row of coach. From here I have a perfect view of how the folks in first class travel. Especially the Frenchman sitting in row 8C, he’s in my direct line of sight. I don’t know if I have ever been so aware of “coveting” anything before, but this morning I coveted his nice, hot, in a regular coffee cup, cup of coffee, and his bagel with cream cheese. I think I’m over it now, I was finally served my tiny Styrofoam cup of coffee and banana and I’m trying not to look toward 8C for the duration of this flight. Enjoy your coffee Mr. Frenchman.

In seats 10A and 10B are two of the Gold Star mom’s from Utah. 10B is also a Blue Star mom. Her oldest son was killed in Iraq and her youngest son is deploying to Afghanistan on Saturday. She’s on her way to Iraq. I think I would be a basket case if I were in her shoes.


Thursday, September 23, 2010

On our way

So we are finally on the way and so far so good. Well, except the issue with the internet. Ann and I just spent an hour looking for a place to get free access. Mission accomplished and Ann is blogging away and posting to You can follow along there as well.

At this point, my traveling companions include Ann Hicks who is freelance journalist covering the trip for The Greenville News. The leaders of the group Joan and Fareed Betros, security detail, the Gold Star Mothers and one Blue Star Mother. At GSP the mothers were presented with gold star lapel pins to wear for the duration of the trip.

I caught my first glimpse of emotion at GSP as one of the mothers, Tammy, pulled a small Bible out of her bag to read a message from her husband. She teared up as she read the sweet note with the reminder to come home safe. Then teared up some more when she explained that he had not bought into this trip 100% because they had lost so much in Iraq already.

There are some pretty brave ladies making this trip. And I expect many more tears to come.


Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Getting Ready

My bags are packed and I'm ready to go. NOT! Nice song but not at all true. I now have a mental list of what goes in the bags, especially the camera gear, and for me, that's a good start.

If you are taking the time to follow along on this journey, remember I'm a photographer and not a writer. My teacher and writer friends are not allowed to judge. :)

Thanks to those of you who have supported this trip. Monetarily, through prayer and kind words. It means a lot.

Myron, Chandler and Kaitlin (and Kevin) - thanks for supporting my need to use what I do for some greater good. Hopefully this trip will produce more than just photos, hopefully these images will be reminders of how blessed we are as a family and a country.

For the Gold Star Mothers who are seeking healing, I hope this trip brings you peace.