Washing Away Sin

I was baptized in an unholy place—one of Saddam Hussein’s palace pools in Baghdad to be specific. At first, I thought this was a horrible place to get baptized, but actually it wound up being perfect.

When the chaplain mentioned where the baptism was going to take place, I started imagining the horrible things that must have happened around these grounds. It was pretty common knowledge that Saddam was not the nicest and holiest of men. With that in mind, I started to think that I should not go through with it. I wanted my baptism to mean something, to be special. I didn’t want it to be tainted with a history of evil.

Then it dawned on me, having my baptism in a place known for sin and violence and who knows what else, was actually very symbolic. I mean the entire point of being baptized is to cleanse you from the sin, from the past. To make what was tainted and dirty fresh…and start anew.

It was a moving experience to say the least. And the host of the service, Cannon White, spoke so eloquently, making it even more meaningful. It’s funny, because over the years, I had forgotten his name and it bother me. One day, I was listening to a National Public Radio broadcast and heard this religious speaker. I recognized his distinctive voice immediately. Without a doubt, he was the one who baptized me in May of 2005.

Now, ten years later, I think about that day and what it meant. I can’t say I was completely changed and that I am now the perfect Christian. No. I still stumble. I still sin. I am not perfect by any means. And I am not completely changed since I was a practicing Christian prior to my baptism. I just had not be baptized before and wanted to take that step.

I remember being a small child and watching someone get baptized. I wanted to do it. I wanted to be close to God. So right in the middle of a service, I started begging my mom. She told me I had to wait. I had to be older. And well, I couldn’t just go up there and jump into someone else’s moment. So of course, I threw a fit like the child I was. I lay under the pew crying that she was keeping me from God. LOL…my poor mother.

It was the right choice of course. Being baptized as an adult meant more. I had to really evaluate what I wanted and why. I got to choose for the right reasons. Every day is still a struggle though. It is hard to have faith in times of stress. It is hard to hold unto hope when things look bleak. It is hard to feel loved when you feel alone. And boy is it hard to turn the other cheek when people are cruel. But I try. I really do try. I think that is all we can do as people. Regardless of your faith, I think most of us try to live our lives well, have a purpose and make a difference. We try to be good, loving, and caring people. We won’t succeed every day. What is important though, is that we know, each new day is a chance to start anew. It doesn’t matter if we are coming from a bad past or have not always been the best person. We can all start fresh and wipe our slate clean, even if we do it with some questionable pool water.

For the Daily Post ~All It’s Cracked Up to Be.


Hindsight on a Bad Leader

Naturally, I have made many mistakes in my life. Who hasn’t? There are also a plethora of missed opportunities I wished I would have seized. That is the thing with hindsight. It is always so much clearer…later.

I was talking about deployments to someone the other day, and it dawned on me. I missed a big opportunity, and I regret it. And oddly enough, I was given multiple chances, two deployments, and one conference to seize it. I let it float away like a butterfly though.

It started on my Iraq deployment (2005-2006). I was a first lieutenant then. It was not a high rank, but I was in charge of ALL of the embedded media for the first Iraqi election. So, I did have a fairly important job that I did alone for most of the deployment. As the Multinational Force Iraq media embed coordinator, I did everything concerning the embedded reporters. I mean everything. I coordinated their plans of what units to go to when they arrived and their travel plans on getting into Baghdad (which was only weeks of countless emails and phone calls at a minimum). I would literally go pick them up at the flight line or armored bus area. I took them to get a media badge. I escorted them to meals. I answered their questions. I helped them with their bags and a place to sleep. I assisted them with work space. And, when it was time for them to head out to their unit, I played liaison and taxi again. While on they were embedded, I remained available for any questions they might have (as well as for the leaders of any units they were with). I had to know at a moment’s notice, what media was with what unit, what was their latest story and what were their upcoming plans. My leaders always wanted to know these things. So it had to be in my head, on slides and in full detail. It was the first Iraqi election after all, so the pressure was understandable. When the reporters were ready to leave, I had to play helper and taxi in reverse if they passed through Baghdad on the way out. It was an all-consuming job. My phone was constantly ringing. My inbox never had less than 80 emails. I was struggling to keep up and stressed. But, I managed the program very well for a staff of one I have to say.

Anyway, at some point during all this, some group of leaders were having an email discussion on the embed program and how it was broken. I was copied on the email conversation. So naturally, I thought I could contribute to the discussion.

I did a reply-to-all response that I drafted very carefully and edited. I professionally stated that I did not think the program was broken per say, but certainly could be improved. Then, I laid out a couple of paragraphs detailing ideas on what I saw wrong and how it could be improved. I chose my words cautiously and think the final contribution to the conversation had value. I was THE embed coordinator for the entire country/war after all. I thought I had a very good perspective on the situation, at least at the boots-on-the-ground level. I was wrong, very wrong.

Shortly after my email response, my boss did a reply-to-all email as well. His email simply stated, “Please disregard 1st Lt. Lunato’s response. It will be discussed internally.” Well snap. That was a slap in the face if I ever saw one. I did have the nerve to ask him after that (via email) why I was not entitled to speak on something that I was in charge of. He reply was short, sweet and very to-the-point. “There is only one voice of the CPIC (Combined Press Information Center), and it is not yours.” Well hell. That was clear. I was just to be in charge of a program and not offer input. That message was received loud and clear. I can’t say it was a great mentoring moment though, and I completely lost respect for that leader as there were other situations similar to this.

Years later I regret not having the courage to ask him why he had such a problem with me, and I had multiple times to do it.

I could have done it tactfully during the deployment. There were certainly a handful of situations like the you-do-not-have-a-voice situation where I was slapped down. I could have approached it from a learning point angle. I could have straight up asked him if he had a problem with me. I could have asked him to mentor me and show me why he did the things he did. I didn’t though. I just brewed irritation with the leader.

Then years later, I missed another chance. I was at a military conference. He was there for the entire three-day event. There was plenty of mingling time. We crossed paths a number of times, but I refused to speak to him. I simply smiled, nodded and moved on. I had so much to say and ask this man, but it just didn’t see like a good time.

On my third deployment, I ran into him again. (Small world huh?) Though I was deployed to Afghanistan this time (2010-2011), I had to travel to Iraq (twice) to visit one of our battalions. While at one of Saddam’s palaces, I was trying to find a friend who worked in the building. Who do I run into on the stairs? Yep, the dismissive leader from years ago (who a friend I referred to as SAM, for Short Angry Man). This time, he stopped me. I couldn’t really avoid it as we were on a spiral staircase, alone. (If I thought I could have jumped from the staircase, I think I would have.) He started some small talk. I was polite, professional, but very curt. After exchanging some meaningless courtesies, I said I had to move out on my mission. My brigade did send from one war zone to another after all. Clearly, I was a big deal, or so I made it sound, lol. I had nothing to say to the man. There was no point in reminiscing or catching up. What I had to say could not be said on a staircase in passing…and probably would seem silly bringing it up years later. Clearly, it still bothered me though.

Now, I feel like I should have asked him. Obviously, it upset me since I remember it so vividly. I look at some of the things he slapped me down for and can see his twist or perspective made sense or offered some validity. What I don’t understand is why he delivered his messages or decisions in such an arrogant way. He could have been a wonderful leader and sat me down to say hey, “You have some good ideas but we are going to do it this way and this is why.” That was not his style though. He was not a mentor or leader; he was just the Short Angry Man in charge.

Well SAM, it is said that you can learn from bad leaders just as much as good ones. You thought me how NOT to be. You also taught me that if something bothers me that much, I just need to speak up and ask questions about it. Maybe that is why God kept making me run into him? Perhaps. Or maybe God was just teaching me professional restraint and thought it would give me something to write about today.


For the Daily Prompt.

Three Young Men I Never Met, But Will Never Forget

On Veterans Day, I always think of three young Soldiers I never met. They were killed in June of 2006 in Iraq. I was there as well, working at the Press Desk, which essentially is the hub for journalists to call for information during an event.

I started getting calls about three missing Soldiers. Obviously, if the reporters are asking, something has generally already happened. I started sending up inquires on the situation for releasable information. When Soldiers are missing, information is held tight for their protection (and hopeful recovery) and out of respect for the families’ privacy. Of course, media have a job to do, so they still call wanting information. It is a tough balance between operational security and the public’s right to know.

As the story eventually unfolds, all three Soldiers were found murdered. Casualties of war. Story over.

But for other Soldiers, the story is never over. I had not met them, but my tiny involvement in their story burned them into my brain forever. I thought about how these three young men (who were only in their 20s) would never go home. They would never grow old. They would never know how much people loved them.

Now, whenever I salute the flag, hear the National Anthem, or celebrate a patriotic holiday, I think of them. I have their names written in my calendar so I can be reminded of them. I try to live my life to the fullest because they can’t. I work on being a better Soldier in honor of them.

So as you celebrate today, put them, and their families, in your heart and prayers.

Pfc. Kristian Menchaca (23), Pfc. Thomas L. Tucker (25), and Spc. David J. Babineau (25), I will never forget you, and I am sorry you never made it home. I am sure God needed some warriors by his side though and I hope to meet you one day in Heaven.


For some basic information on their story, click here.

My Unintentional Cruise Down Haifa Street in Baghdad, Iraq

I do not normally fling myself into dangerous situations, but one day in Iraq, I found myself cruising solo down Haifa Street. It was not my plan to wander a known battle zone alone…but there I was – by myself and slightly terrified.

As the Army media embed coordinator for the first Iraqi election, I was responsible for nearly all things concerning the embedded reporters in 2005-2006. This included providing them with logistics support, like taxi services and flight coordination. So on this particular day, I was required to pick up a reporter at Assassins’ Gate, which was one of the military gates into Baghdad’s International Zone.

While speaking to the reporter on the phone, I kept driving in attempts to locate him. Well, I drove a little too far and realized, I was in the exit lane. I immediately stopped and told the closest guard, a British Soldier, that I was not trying to leave the “Green Zone.” He simply smiled and told me to just drive out, turn around and come back in the entrance.

It sounded simple enough and frankly, there was not much choice as the road was a narrow, barricaded one-way path with combat vehicles behind me. Therefore, I drove – just me with my little pistol and my up-armored suburban. Talk about being on alert! I was sitting on the edge of my seat, literally. I had never been out on Haifa Street, let alone by myself. In addition, from what I knew, that street was treacherous, which is why the gate was named Assassins Gate, or so I assumed then.

Nevertheless, out the gate I went, but some of my common sense appeared to cling to the security of the compound. As I drove down the street, I felt like I had a flashing disco light on my vehicle that proclaimed my vulnerability. “Hey terrorists! Look at the blonde American girl all by herself here. You don’t get this chance every day!” Fortunately for me, the terrorists had not yet noticed the beacon of opportunity I was providing them, or were otherwise occupied.

As I tried to figure out where to turn around, I saw local Iraqis move about the city street. The bullet holes in the buildings and the mortar craters along the road where just part of their day. It was normal to them by then, but it frightened me. Don’t get me wrong; I had seen these things before. This was not my first deployment, but I had never witnessed them…alone. All of my prior experiences had been in the comfort of a convoy or patrol with armed friends at my side.

With only myself to rely on, I kept driving. I found a place to turn around and headed back in the direction I came. I saw the exit and shortly after, I saw another gate. When I saw the sign, “Do not enter or you will be shot!” I drove past it. (My common sense was obviously replaced with fear at this point. In hindsight, I have to assume that I would not have been shot had I entered that gate and that the sign was not intended for American soldiers. ) So, no shit, there I was, continuing to drive down around in the “Red Zone” by myself.

After a few minutes, I saw the building where I worked. Unfortunately, it was next to a pedestrian gate, and on the other side of the fence. So unless I wanted to abandon my vehicle, which I assumed would get me in trouble (and provide the enemy with a vehicle), I had to keep driving. At one point, I stopped when I saw an Iraqi police officer walking along the road. I attempted to ask him where the vehicle gate was. Unfortunately, all he did was point at my suburban and continually ask, “Car boom?” I repeatedly said, “No, no car boom. Where is the gate?” Getting nowhere, I smiled and drove away. When I came to a traffic circle that pointed out my way to Tikrit, Basra, and other places I had no desire to travel to unaccompanied, I started to panic. All I could think of was: I am going to die; I am going to be raped and killed; I am going to be on the news; and I will be known as the stupid blonde soldier who got herself lost and killed. Every thought pretty much ended in my gruesome death that was created by my embarrassing performance as a soldier.

In efforts to avoid an undesired outcome, I drove around the traffic circle, and yet again, headed back from whence I came. It dawned on me that I had been driving down a one-way road though. So, I drove up over some four-foot wide, curbed road divider. (Clearly, I would not want to break traffic laws at this point in my military career! And, remember that my common sense abandoned me at the gate and my hair was getting blonder with each dangerous second ticking.)

As I cleared the curb and my vehicle bounced onto the adjoined road, an intense beam of light blinded me. It appeared to be coming from a humvee up the street. “Great. Now I am going to be shot by soldiers!” was my thought. (I mean, as a soldier myself, I would have considered shooting a vehicle that was driving erratically over curbs at dusk.) Immediately, I responded to the warning light by stopping my suburban, flipping on the interior vehicle lights and raising my hands in the air. Within in seconds, two other humvees surrounded my car and six to eight men started to walk towards me with weapons. At first, all I saw were Iraqi Army uniforms, and I was terrified. (There were a number of reports then of Iraqi soldiers working with the terrorists.) My mind raced with dread. What if these were bad Iraqi Army soldiers? What if they could not understand me? What if they kidnapped me? If I tried to escape? They would just shoot me anyway, right? After a few seconds of paralyzing fear, I saw two American soldiers. I cannot even explain the sense of relief that washed over me.

The group of armed male soldiers approached my vehicle. One of the American soldiers asked, “What are you doing out here alone?”

“I drove a little too far in the gate and I am trying to get back in,” I replied with a timid, stupid-girl smile that had to show my desperation.

He translated my situation to the Iraqi men. They all laughed. Great, I thought. I have just completely embarrassed all females in the Army. And to make it worse, I was also a blonde lieutenant on top of that. At that moment, I was living up to all of the stereotypes that created bad jokes. But, hey, my odds of living now where much, much higher. So, I hid my disgrace with gratitude and held back my tears of joy.

The American stated the obvious. “You should not be out here alone. It’s very dangerous.”

“I know. That is why I am trying to get back in. I just got a little lost when I accidentally exited the gate.”

He translated my plight again. The group of men laughed, smiled and made some unknown comments, which I have to assume where not about the impressive soldier skills I was displaying.

“Do you know where to go once we escort you back in?” the translating soldier asked.

“I do. I just don’t know my way around out here. You all never let me out alone before,” I stated with an embarrassed smile.

The American soldier proceeded to tell me what to do and tell me how I lucky I was. Had I not been sitting in my vehicle and utterly mortified, I would have jumped out to hug him. However, in efforts to hang onto my remaining strands of dignity, I professionally thanked him and followed his vehicle back into safety.

I look back at this ridiculous story years later and thank God that I can laugh about it now. This very well could have been a completely different kind of story for me, one that I would not want to retell or would not be able to.

Everything happens for a reason though, or so I believe. What exactly the reasons were behind that day, I cannot be sure, but in the end, I learned a few things. One, certain signs do not apply to me. Two, that in moments of danger, I need to turn off fear and turn on focus and action to remove myself from the situation (which I call the art of cold heartless action – a later blog). Three, that being a blonde female lieutenant in this situation must have been extremely humorous for the men who found me. And four, that I never ever wanted to roll out of a secure compound alone again. Been there. Done that. And, I even got a few t-shirts.


*This was for a Blogging 101 Challenge on telling an absurd story. How did I do?


Reposted for a Daily Prompt ~ Sink or Swim.