Seventeen years ago: Baghdad

Seventeen years ago today I went on a convoy from Camp Victory to the Green Zone in Baghdad.  It was not a long drive, but it was the longest I’d been on outside of the wire, up to that point.

The purpose of the trip was to take another soldier in my unit to a medical specialist.  She had some sort of spider bite or bacterial infection that was nearly eating her skin away, and the most common thing she was being told was “huh… I’ve never seen anything like that before.”  Amazingly, helpful and soothing to hear, I’m sure.

So in the morning, I was told to PMCS (preventative maintenance checks and services) a HMMWV (Humvee) so that we could convoy.  The vehicle I was checking, had been sitting stationary in desert sand for about eight months and there wasn’t an alternate we could substitute if there was something wrong.  So, with the formality of the checks complete, we were off with two other vehicles – our lieutenant was in the second and the third was our military police (MP) with a gunner in the turret.

Shortly into the drive during downtown Baghdad’s rush hour, I hit the brakes and they locked up.  The vehicle spun a full 360 degrees where I ended up next to some Iraqi in his sedan, before it spun 360 degrees  the other direction where I ended dangerously close to the MP vehicle and the gunner looking scared I would have knocked him out of the turret.  Who knows how on earth I didn’t hit either one of them or anything else.  Really shook up at this point, but with no choice but to continue driving, I did.

The next scare was nearing the entry control point to the Green Zone.  I had been told not to let ANY vehicles pass on the driver’s side of the vehicle.  This was a common technique at the time.  A black SUV tried to pass me and I defensively blocked it.  As we pulled up through the barriers it passed on the passenger side and stopped ahead of us breaking us off from our other vehicles.  Someone got out (probably Blackwater or something) with a full load of ammo strapped on their chest, screaming at me for not letting them by.  Although getting yelled at was not my favorite, my larger concern was that we were surrounded by very tall apartment buildings – again they may have been home to Americans, but as it was my first time off the base, it was all I could think of.  The lieutenant took the blame for me not letting this gentleman pass and we continued to the hospital.

I wandered around with the MPs to a small cafe, talked to the children selling dvds, bought a little Saddam money just to kill time till the hospital visit was over.

On our drive back, of course it couldn’t be uneventful.  Shortly into our drive we were diverted by another military unit because of a suspected IED.  We were then forced to drive the wrong way on a few roads in order to get back to base.

All in all, a pretty boring day that I’m glad I won’t be reliving.

Sadly, part of the stress I felt that day wasn’t because of the day but because it was an old boyfriend’s birthday and I didn’t want to be yelled at because of his OCD tendencies.  I was on time with the birthday call and mentioned nothing about my day’s stress.

Private Benjamin

Nineteen years ago a somewhat bratty former figure skater and former sorority girl left for Army basic training in Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.  She signed up for the Army a few short weeks before September 11, 2001 and was worried her loan repayment plan may turn into a little more than she bargained for.  She was excited though to take her first steps out into the world on her own and especially to see Europe.  She was very  naive, and wasn’t really giving much thought into what this commitment might entail.  She was young, she didn’t work out, she didn’t know what she was getting into and she really didn’t have a love of authority.

She nearly missed her connecting flight to St. Louis because she was drinking El Presidente margaritas – as in the gate doors had to be reopened for her.  When she arrived at basic, she was first yelled at for saying “bless you” when someone sneezed.  The thought that you got yelled at for being polite, something she had always been yelled at to be was initially very confusing.  Throughout the experience she would get yelled at for smiling too much, but she learned not to mind it.  One of her first meals she couldn’t quite recognize whether it was Mexican or Chinese food, so she didn’t touch it.  They yelled some more.  She learned she could do so much more than she thought she could.

During my recent deployment to Afghanistan, one of my close college friends sent me some hilarious letters I wrote to her during basic training.  If I had to guess I wrote them in church or when I was supposed to shine my boots.  They are a bit garbled and written as quickly as my hands could scribble the words. It was hard trying to explain what I was doing, though not really unique experiences, I felt like my college friends couldn’t begin to imagine this chapter in my life.

Well, I made it through the two road marches (10k & 15k -that’s kilometers) and the Field Training Exercise (FTX).  FTX sucked ass!  The only good thing I can say is that it didn’t snow.  We marched the “10k,” really a 13k to the field (and left about 2:30am) carrying probably 60 pounds in our rucksack (backpack), rifle, canteens, gas mask and heavy clothes.  We got “there” and had to dig fox holes in the mud and set up a barricade of sticks and leaves to hide behind.  Then we set up our tents.  That night we marched around checking security (there wasn’t even a moon).  During the march, the Drill Sergeants threw a CS gas grenade at us.  We had to stay in our foxhole till 2am — of course we got gassed more, they shot off flares and we shot blanks.  I of course wanted no part of the war games and fell asleep (by accident) in my foxhole with my gas mask on, sleeping on my M16.  At 4:15am we got woken up.  Gotta love sleep?! Slept in a tiny-ass tent with another person — not a hot guy.  It was like -10 degrees with windchill.  The next early, early morning we took the camp apart, shot off the rest of our blanks.  Then we took our 15k march to another range — where we crawled under barbed wire, with live rounds shot way over our heads, tracer rounds, flares and of course too dramatic music from Saving Private Ryan.  Only problem was crawling on elbows and knees on rocks!  

It’s a world I don’t miss, but I’m glad to have grown so much in those five years and wouldn’t trade the experiences for anything.  Every veteran has unique experiences, but they are all amazing and deserve to be remembered and celebrated on Veteran’s Day.

DIY Financial Plan: Step 3 & 4

The third step of the financial planning process has been to analyze my balance sheet.

A balance sheet will help you to calculate your net worth.

Things to include in your asset column are:

  • Cash
  • All investments
  • Home value
  • Vehicle value
  • Personal property value
  • Other assets

Next, consider your debts and liabilities, such as:

  • Mortgage balance
  • Vehicle loan balance
  • Student loans
  • Other loans
  • Credit card balances

The difference in value is your net worth which can be negative or (hopefully) positive.

The purpose of determining your net worth is so you can not improve your situation and you will see incremental progress.

I began a consistent written budget in April 2018. At that same time I began tracking my account balances and net worth at the bottom of my spreadsheet.

During that time (28 months) my net worth has increased 25%. I went from having debt on two credit cards, one auto loan and a mortgage to having just a shared mortgage.

I feel comfortable that I know where my debt is, where my money goes and what my asset allocations are.

The fourth step of the financial planning process has been to analyze our insurance policies.

This month Mr. Cabbage and I reviewed our home and car insurance policies and found we could save money on both. In a rush to close on our home last year we maxed out some coverages that we didn’t need and hadn’t shopped the policy around. Before it renewed this year, we found areas to save by taking just an hour or two to review it and make a few calls.

We combined our auto insurance policies this month as well. This saved so much and no, you don’t need to be married to do it. I am driving one of Mr. Cabbage’s cars (since my car was totaled) and I was still paying like I owned a car. What a dummy!

By making these two small moves and maybe four phone calls total, we saved enough for an extra monthly mortgage payment every year.

Later this month I will also spend some time reviewing my health insurance policy though I already have a great high deductible and HSA plan with my company contributing 50% of the deductible.

Growing up after graduation

A friend once directed me to a TED talk given by Wes Moore called “How to talk to veterans about war.”  I highly recommend you take a listen.  It made me think maybe there are some of you interested in hearing a little more about how I went from sorority girl to soldier.  If you know someone who was in the military, it is always an interesting and unique story that starts with the question “why did you join?”  It’s also a nice way to show a veteran that you are interested and thankful for their service.

At the risk of aging myself, I will tell you my story.  I graduated college August 11, 2001.  8/11 may be less famous than 9/11, but I remember it well. My cap said “thanks mom” and both my brothers, mom and nieces and nephews made the out of state trek to see me get my diploma.

What I could have told you that day about Iraq was what I learned when I was in middle school while my oldest brother was serving in the Navy during the (first) Gulf War.  What I knew about Afghanistan was even less.  I hope (but doubt) I could have found either of these countries on a map.  

At the time of my college graduation, I had been stuffing envelopes with folders of resumes and cover letters inside to all the big magazines in New York City.  Yes there was Internet back at that time, no I don’t know why I was using snail mail to get the word out.  I did get two very exciting acceptance letters, but I didn’t have the money to move to New York and work for FREE as an intern. Big sighs for bills and real life.

My other brother was full-on Army (HOOAH) and at the time working as an officer in Army recruiting.  Yes, I was recruited by my brother two weeks after college graduation and yes, my recruiter lied to me too ;).  Two weeks before 9/11, I signed up for the Army.  

It was a sweet deal!  My college loans (about $15k) would be FULLY paid off and I was guaranteed to be stationed in Europe and I would get a $3k signing bonus – enough to pay off my minimal credit card debt.  I had never been to Europe. It was far off magical land and only for the very rich!  My brother/recruiter told me that I would never deploy and if I did I would be staying in hotel-like rooms.  WHAT could go wrong with this plan??

I went back home, where I was enjoying the good life — going out with my friends, sleeping in late and enjoying the I just graduated college and I don’t have to look for a job stress-free life.  When my mom woke me up, saying “We’re under attack.”  For some reason, all this educated but ever so slightly hung-over graduate could come up with was… there are bees in the house and this woman wants me to wake up right now and kill them.  Charming, right?  But doesn’t that tell you how it never occurred to me that we could actually be “under attack?”  Oh all right, I did get up, walked to the living room, looked at the TV and sat nearly comatose wondering what the eff was happening, when the next disaster was going to happen, when I was going to see the smoke outside my own windows in Florida, and how this would change my life forever.  Again, I realize this is a very very selfish view, but aren’t most college kids looking at life through a soda straw (or a fancy and overpriced cocktail straw)?

I continued to sit on my mom’s couch for days.  My brother called to check on me and see whether I still wanted to go to basic training as scheduled at the end of October.  Did I want to go to basic training?  I had no idea what I wanted, but I wasn’t a quitter, and I had told everyone that was what I was doing… so sure. So I went.

I would spend two years in Iraq of the five years I served in the Army.  I have loads of stories that I never tell.  I learned more about myself in those years than I ever could have anywhere else.  Although my brother may have stretched the truth about the living accommodations, he made up for it (a little) by letting me share his bunk during part of my first deployment while I lived in a tent infested with desert rats.  I’m sure I have cursed my brother’s name more than once for talking me into the Army, but I would not be the debt-free woman I am today, doing the work I do, with the values I have if it weren’t for that decision.  I definitely did get my school loans paid off, and began to see the world – just not the most scenic spots first. I now appreciate things that you might take for granted.

I am very proud to say that both my siblings and I all served our country during times of war and all made it home safely.  There are certain events in life that change you forever and joining the Army at the time I did was certainly one of them.  Now not only can I identify both Iraq and Afghanistan and major cities of both on a map, I’ve spent time in both, though I can’t say I would recommend you visit either.

Would I have joined the Army a month later? No, probably not.  Do I regret that I did?  Not anymore.

Tell me: Would you ever do something so drastic to pay off your debts?