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Tyree recounts life in Afghanistan
Lydia Tyree, left, and Louandrea Young, share a moment while Tyree is at home from Afghanistan.
Wednesday, July 31, 2013
By HOLLY KOZELSKY - Bulletin Accent Editor
Lydia Tyree returned from nearly a year in Afghanistan thrilled with her mother’s cooking and amazed at the greenery of Virginia, which she saw with new eyes.
Through the Army, she worked with the Afghan National Army (ANA) at a detention center for 10 months. Since she returned July 20, she has been staying at her family home in Fieldale.
The Afghan landscape was bland, mostly gray and brown, she said. The ground was rocky.
‘Just like us’
Tyree was in charge of a detention facility and spent much of her time with members of the ANA. She quickly began to enjoy their company.
Though their languages and customs were different, that’s where the differences stopped, she said: “The ANA were just like us,” she stressed.
She said she ended up with the nickname “Mamma Mia.” That came about one day when she was singing the song “Mamma Mia.” An ANA soldier came up behind her and mimicked, “Mamma Mia, da da da da,” and she replied that if he were going to sing it, at least she should teach him the words.
Afghan soldiers and civilians alike were friendly and helpful, she said. Even in times when she expected the Afghan people to dislike her, such as Afghan women and children visiting their jailed men, they were friendly and respectful and showed no ill will.
She said a few of the prisoners felt they had attained celebrity status, and some of them boasted that they were portrayed in movies. She didn’t believe it could be true.
While Tyree was on the jo b, she couldn’t leave to go to the cafeteria; she was required to remain at her post. That’s how she ended up sharing lunches of Afghan food with her ANA counterparts.
Most meals would start with a foundation of pita bread. It was a bit sweet, she said, often with the flavor of cinnamon. On a tray in the center of the table would be big piles of food, such as meat and rice. People would scoop up each food with their hands and plop it on the bread.
Often they would have a sour cream-type dip to eat with their bread. They made their own yogurt. The soldiers would put some yogurt in milk, put it in the refrigerator and stir it occasionally until it was ready.
Regularly, Tyree would not recognize the food. Since she and the ANA soldiers couldn’t talk well in each other’s language, it was hard to understand what it was. At times she decided that she either would not figure out what it was, or would rather not know, and would go ahead and eat it without thinking too hard on it, she said.
Sometimes the ANA soldiers would boil meat in fat in large vats. It was such an undertaking they would wear boots and roll up their pants; the floor would get oily from the splattering grease.
She loved a lamb dish that had a curry-type flavor. Lamb on skewers also was good. The skewer would have chunks of lamb with chunks of something she didn’t recognize in between. It was tasty and would melt in her mouth at the first bite.
It took quite a while of comical charades for her to understand the Afghan soldier’s explanation of what it was — fat. It was nothing like the hard, grisly fat on American meat, she said.
“It seems gross, but I ate it without knowing,” she said. When faced with unknown foods, her attitude would be, “I just don’t care. I’m hungry.”
The Afghans liked their food with a strong bite of heat and spice, she said. She would bring bottles of hot sauce from the Army cafeteria to work, where they would douse their food in it. Their food would be “so hot it’s like you’re sweating.”
The regular drink was chai tea. The Afghans frequently would bring in watermelon to share, she said.
Even though sometimes she didn’t know what she was eating, it was no worse than Army food.
“Army food is standard,” she said: “It’s the same menu everywhere, but it tastes different” across the globe. That’s due to ingredients available.
Ice cream in the Army cafeteria in Afghanistan looked the same, but it tasted different. After a bit of thinking, Tyree said, she figured out why: The milk is from goats, not cows.
She didn’t bother with ice cream again there.
Same thing with “Surf and Turf Night,” she said. It featured shrimp, lobster and steak. The lobster seemed “dirty,” she said, nothing like what you’d get in an American restaurant. The steak was thin and crunchy, making her think, “‘IS this steak, Uncle Sam?’” she recalled.
She ended up not liking much on the menu there, “so I ate a lot of grilled cheese,” she chuckled.
There was the worry of getting sick after eating food. Every now and then the Army would issue a warning against a particular food, such as lettuce which had not been washed properly: Everyone who ate it could expect to get sick and should report for medical care.
There also was the constant concern of exposure to tuberculosis or malaria, “a scare for everyone,” she said. Occasionally the Army would announce that a person (such as a prisoner entering the facility) has been confirmed to have one of the conditions, so everyone who had been in contact with him may be at risk for contamination.
Tyree was shocked by the extremes of weather. Before, when her only impression of Afghanistan was on TV, she had the idea it was hot and dry all the time.
The day she spent seven hours shoveling snow proved that was not true.
Afghanistan has two distinct seasons, summer and winter, Tyree said. Its spring and fall are mere brief transitions between the extremes. During those months it was not uncommon to have snow one day and 90 degrees the next.
The rain also was something to contend with. Rain would come on sudden and strong. When it stopped, everything dried quickly.
Because you never knew when it might rain, it was judicious to bring a parka or raincoat with you everywhere, she said. That was a hassle, because most anywhere they went they went on foot.
The Internet could have provided a great way to keep in touch with her family, with one catch — “the Internet (connection) was horrible,” Tyree said.
She and her mother laughed about one conversation they had over Skype, a service which streams sound and video at the same time. Normally, using Skype is at regular speed, allowing users to see and hear each other in real time.
During one Skype conversation, Tyree held up some Afghan money to show her family. The screen froze on the sight of Tyree holding the bill in front of her face for 30 minutes.
She said the connection was particularly bad during peak hours, such as when a lot of people got off work, so she ended up not bothering to use it after work. Instead, she got online during her one day off each week.
Though she arrived in Afghanistan without much, she soon accumulated enough goods to live comfortably. Because so many people are coming and going, and they can’t travel easily with goods, “you get a lot of stuff for free,” she said.
A medic who got short notice that he was shipping out gave her a television, she said, and a nurse who was leaving gave her a refrigerator.
Men and women slept in separate quarters, and they were not allowed to enter each other’s areas. Outside, between the living areas, was an area with picnic tables where they could mingle.
That was a good place for sharing items and food. People who were leaving would set out things they no longer needed, such as lamps. People who received care packages from home would set out extra food.
Though sometimes there were freebes, often there were shortages. The base had a store, but the base was “in the middle of nowhere, landlocked. When I run out (of something), the store probably has run out, too,” was her regular assumption.
There was a Burger King and a Pizza Hut, but the food did not taste the same as it does in America, she said — and often many menu items were not available.
Now that she’s back, she is grateful for “the little things, like fountain drinks,” she said. She is thrilled to take a shower for as long as she wants, without having to wear shoes.
She remains in contact with her “battle buddies” and has a few vacations lined up with them. This week, they are at the beach. Later this month, she is joining a group to visit one of them at his home in Dominican Republic.
She plans to take a Warrior Leadership Course for promotion points toward becoming a sergeant. Then, about six months down the road, she hopes to be deployed to the same region again.