Over the past three years I have been following my dream - to study art - and I am among the fortunate who went through the Iraq War unscathed, yet I am by no mean unaffected by it. I have lost a childhood friend and I have found a new direction in life. The experiences that I went through have only made me stronger and more determined to get the most out of life. One of these experience - actually several experiences - took place at a little place called the Green Beans Coffee Shop.
The Green Beans Coffee Shop is just a little shop set up for troops to unwind. It is similar to a Starbucks and I still remember sitting in the corner doing my work. I spent long hours just reflecting on my past and trying to figure out who "I am" and asking "where am I going?" In the following story I reveal how this little shop was more than a watering hole. It was my "America, 6000 miles away."
"My America 6,000 miles away"
Everyone has a place they feel safe and comfortable, I am no exception to that. For me that safe place was a small coffee shop that radiated with the smell of coffee beans and everyone knew me. I would sit off to the right in a little corner with my “battle gear”: a triple white mocha; drawing pencils laid out in order from 4H to 6B; and my favorite music playing over my headphones. I loved this place! Every time I start to tell people about this place the first reaction is always “oh yeah I’ve been there” or they ask “is it Starbucks?” I smile and say “no it is about 6,000 miles away in the middle of a war zone!”
Every soldier, sailor, airman and marine must find a way to cope with being away from home, the stress of war and depression. Everywhere you would go there was sad news. At dinner time you could hear a group of soldiers talking about the loss of another. At the Chapel, you can count on seeing someone inside crying about another loss while another prayed for peace. The medical center was definitely not a place to visit. Even if you had a cold you did not go there out of respect for the dying. Yet, everyone had their favorite spot to escape: some would hang out at the activity center; some would be in the Chapel Lounge; some would relieve their stress at the gym; and I was one of a few who found the coffee shop to be the perfect escape. For me this place was America 6,000 miles away.
The workers inside of the shop were not American but “third country nationals” from various countries who came to know me all too well. As soon as I would walk in the door they knew what to get me! They came to Iraq as contractors working for small wages ($8.00 an Hour) to send home money to their families. There were two from india: Krishna and Safaras. The other three were Prashad of Nepal, Taj from Pakistan, and Basna of Thailand. Their English was not the best but their humor made up for the barriers! They would have me laughing and excited about life when I was down. We would talk about families and we would share pictures with each other. In fact, I think I had a better bond with them than some of my fellow airman. Some may think that I am wrong for feeling that way, yet I disagree. Regardless of the flag we wore or how different our culture was, we were all a part of the same family: the human race.
So what made this place home? The place was nothing more but a single wide trailer with plain white walls and simple decor. There was a hole in the ceiling from the fire that happened and two posters about coffee facing each other hanging on the two long walls. When you first walked in you saw everything in the building all at once. No hidden corners or doors leading to somewhere secret. There was just a counter to the left, three tables on the right and two speakers hanging in the two corners just above the tables. There was not a single design element that matched anything of an American Coffeehouse, like beige colored walls with curvy lamps adorning the walls. So what made it home? For me, it was not the décor but the illusion it provided. I recall writing in one of my journals after getting home that “I would get so into my artwork and journaling that I would forget that I was even in Iraq.” The aroma of coffee brought back memories of sitting in Starbucks and the music reminded me of sitting at open mike night. But more than anything else, there were times were I fooled myself. One night I actually believed that my wife, Dana, was sitting next to me and I said “hey honey look at what I did.” Yet she was six-thousand miles away.
Despite Dana’s absence and support, there were people that made my stay memorable and enhanced my direction in life. There were several people who varied in rank and position in life who would just walk in and say a few kind words of encouragement and advice. I can’t pin-point one guy who did the most but between each of them I observed a common message: “life is short, so don’t waste another day.” One of those gentlemen was a twenty-year master sergeant who stayed in for the retirement benefits and was on his third tour of Iraq. He said loud and clear “it’s not worth staying in” and “get out when you can!” He was echoed by another man, Specialist Williams, from the 101st Airborne Division who told the most gruesome story ever. He talked about a cold Christmas Day patrol and how a young girl from supply wanted to go. So as a gift they let her go! Of course nothing was supposed to happen and an ambush took everyone by surprise. The end is too much to repeat. Yet, his words remain with me to this day “you got talent don’t waste it here.” The messages that I kept receiving from those men sent shivers down my spine as I thought “what if tomorrow is my last?”
That question was always in the back of my head. However there was an even more important question that weighed on my mind: “Let’s say if I get through this, then what?” One evening while sitting in my corner I finally put the answer to that question in writing – I’m going back to college! This little corner of the Green Beans did more than just provide a home it brought about a decision that would change my life forever.
After I returned home I woke up one morning aching for the chance to go back to the Green Beans and sit in my little corner. I didn’t care if it was in a war zone, I just wanted to be around my other family. My America, six-thousand miles away.