I've been home from the Iraq War for eight plus years.
The last six years I've spent a great deal of my personal and professional life trying to help America put meaningful action behind all the signs and stickers that say "support our troops". Without community action focused on...
David J. Morris' The Evil Hours: A Biography of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, is excellently written and a must read for anyone interested in understanding what many have referred to as the 'signature wound' of my generation of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. Miller creates a plot line around PTSD, almost as...
In a February 19th Special to Roll Call, Colonel David Hunt, U.S. Army (Ret.) penned a column about "Obama's War on Arctic Energy". Personally, I would like to thank President Obama and Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell for their decision to keep drilling out of the Arctic....
I spent the last two days in Palm Springs, California at the Clinton Health Matters Initiative (CHMI) as part of a group assembled by Spike TV and CHMI for Veterans Operation Wellness. Specifically, I was talking about the power of the outdoors to help heal -- not in some fluffy...
2015 did not start off how any of us would have liked. No one or at least I hope no one that would read this blog would want to see anyone killed for speaking their mind, no matter what it was that was being said, even if they disagreed.
Doug Peacock is considered by many veterans as the godfather of the modern movement to connect those who have been to war with the physical land they fought for when they come home. Outside, Doug argues, veterans can search for, "...a peril [experience] the equivalent of war but aimed in...
video made by Romina Penate
Earlier this year we told you about TentEd, an humanitarian project started by three Iraq War veterans delivering school supplies to Syrian Refugees in Kurdistan in partnership with EPIC, a non-profit working to support a peaceful Iraq. TentEd's co-founder, Zack Bazzi, recently produced a short video about the project and is now preparing a return trip to the region in December. Since the first TentEd visit to Kurdistan, a lot has changed in the region so I sat down with Zack recently to find out what he sees has been accomplished and what he thinks he can get done with another visit to the region.
Tell us about how much you were able to fundraise for your first trip this last summer and what you were able to accomplish? (Include metrics, numbers of backpacks delivered, schools helped, children served)
I landed in Erbil, Iraq on 7 June. Two days later, Mosul, Iraq's second city, fell to ISIS. Needless to say, it complicated the project. I assessed the situation with my teammates back in the U.S. and we decided that I would stick around and see the project through. The Kurdistan Region of Iraq where I was is pretty stable and secure, and it is defended by a wall of hardened Peshmerga warriors. I was pretty comfortable with that decision.
I ended up staying in the Kurdistan region for a little over a month. It turned out to be a pretty productive stint. In just a few weeks we:
1) Stocked the Afreen Elementary School (in Domiz Refugee Camp) Library with 300 Arabic books
2) Purchased teaching supplies, stationary and furniture for the Derek Secondary School (also in Camp Domiz).
3) Funded three months of bus transportation for children who could not afford it at Garanawa Elementary School in Erbil.
4) Provided school uniforms for 200 girls and boys and badly needed shoes for nearly 100 first and second graders.
5) Distributed 200 stationary kits.
I think that's pretty good impact for $17,000.
A lot of people would look at your work this last summer and I think be congratulatory for your efforts but with the headlines now discussing ISIS, why go back, are you afraid?
I'm going back because there continues to be a clear need for the sort of support that TentEd can provide. I also have many dear friends from all faiths and backgrounds in Kurdistan and so I'm going back to visit them. TentEd is not just a humanitarian project. It's also a personal initiative. Frankly, it's tough to figure out where the project part starts and the personal one begins.
The concern about danger is understandable, although, it is important for people to understand that the Kurdistan region in Iraq feels like a separate country all together. It has its own government, parliament and security forces. It's fairly secure and stable and I feel very safe traveling throughout that region. I ALWAYS present myself as a proud American veteran--never an issue. The people of Kurdistan love America. I think we should show them some love back.
Regarding risk, that's something I think about on a routine basis. One mantra that stuck with me from my Army days (also my favorite) is this: we don't avoid risk. We manage it. I think that's also a good way to live life. That's all the philosophy you'll get out of me!
You going back to Kurdistan, and you being in graduate school at Georgetown, brings up natural comparisons to Austin Tice, the Marine Combat Veteran who, while on summer break from law school went to cover events in Syria and has now been missing since 2012 (http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/05/03/war-nostalgia-is-leading-veterans-to-places-like-syria-one-marine-never-came-back.html). Some have labeled his return as 'war nostalgia'. Does war nostalgia factor into your decision to go back to Iraq?
I've been out of the Army many many years now. I loved my time in uniform and if you ask me if I miss it sometimes, the answer is a definite yes. Most former soldiers will answer in the same way. I miss patrolling the mountains in Kosovo with 100 pounds of gear when I was deployed there with the 101st. And I miss the electric thrill of a firefight in Iraq and the extraordinary beauty of the Hindu Kush Mountains in Afghanistan.
All that is normal and healthy. But I'm also very comfortable and content being a reintegrated citizen. When the uniform comes off, it's time to move forward. I certainly don't live in the past.
You don't take a salary for your work, so why not just send the funds raised here to do the same work and be administered by someone already in the region?
It's very important for me to maintain the trust with TentEd supporters and donors.
It frames every action and every decision. And crucial to maintaining that trust are two things: accountability and responsibly. As the person who oversees TentEd, I believe that it is my responsibility to personally implement the projects and ensure full accountability for each dollar invested. Our generous funders deserve nothing less.
Do you see any near term solution to the refugee crisis in Kurdistan? How long does TentEd need to continue?
Given the historic nature of what's happening throughout the broader Middle East, the demographic fracturing of Syria and Iraq and the intensity of the regional Shiite -Sunni rivalry, the refugee situation in Kurdistan is not likely to improve any time soon. Iraqi Kurdistan will continue grappling with wave after wave of refugees trying to escape the violence that's plaguing their communities. It's not a rosy predication, but that's the reality right now. This is why it's so vital now more than ever to support organizations that are trying to ease the situation.
To the second part of your question, I'm currently enrolled in an Emergency Management master's program at Georgetown University. The challenge is to balance school demands with the responsibilities of TentEd. So far, it's been a good balance. I plan to continue doing the occasional TentEd trip to (Iraqi) Kurdistan as long as I can maintain that balance.
What are your long-term goals professionally and with TentEd?
TentEd is a program within the Education for Peace in Iraq Center (EPIC). This provides the initiative a stable and very supportive home. For now it's one project at a time while I focus on grad school. After that, who knows!
What do you think the United States should be doing in the region to support a more stable Iraq and Syria?
That's a very complicated question. And if I had a good answer, chances are I would not be a student at the moment! What's really important is for those of us in a position to do something, whether through volunteer work or careful donations, to try and do what we can when we can.
As we close in on the American holiday season, why should people give to TentEd?
Because we're making direct impact on the ground in a place that urgently needs all the support possible. There is very little separating donated money from a school child who, to be frank, is not having the best winter.
I will be flying to Kurdistan in mid-December and I will spend my time there making sure that the $15,000 we raise is invested wisely and carefully. I can't think of a more appropriate and thrilling way to spend my holiday...
On October 7th of this year, internationally certified mountain guide, Ken Wylie published a book, Buried, analyzing his experiences and the role he played in a January 20, 2003 avalanche in the Selkirk Range of British Columbia on a mountain called La Traviatta. After a frantic hour of digging by...
I am sitting on my couch paralyzed, impotent, and full of rage. Its 10:41 p.m., I have emails to catch up on and work I'm behind on and I'm glued to my Twitter feed. I'm frantically posting and emailing wondering if I shouldn't be organizing a bus to take people...
On June 2, I wrote a blog titled "Shinseki is a Hero" and was encouraged by the vigorous discussion on social media. I was also surprised at the number of people who are blaming the former Secretary of the VA for Congress' inability to do their job outside...
General Shineski is a hero.
He took a job nobody wanted where everyone would criticize, few people would help, and yet he and a group of incredibly hard working public servants have done nothing short of revolutionizing the VA. In his five years of continued service to our nation he:...
Last week I had the opportunity to catch up with my good friend and fellow veteran Zack Bazzi who is planning on making a trip to Northern Iraq in June of this year to bring support to schools in refuge camps for Syrians...
Our high school mascot was the Bobcat and we had this substitute teacher, an old Coach named Bill Gibbons who called us all "Bobcat" or "Young Bobcat." He never knew your name, or maybe he did, but he just called us all "Bobcat" anyway. And when something was cool or...
On Saturday, I posted my thoughts surrounding the responses to the shooting at Ft. Hood and there was quite a solid discussion on what ended up being the Facebook post about the many different reactions to the challenges of coming home from war, fitting in after a deployment,...