Thursday, July 30, 2009

Visiting the Troops in Landstuhl Medical Center

Although I've lived here for three years already, there's always something new to experience, even if it has to do with my own country. On July 18, I went down to Kaiserslautern with some fellow members of the Democrats Abroad to visit the soldiers in the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center. We wanted to do it to show them our appreciation for their sacrifices and hard work that they've done, plus it's always fun to spend the day with some fellow Americans.

Nine of us went down and I was the only one who had ever been on an American base before (I found this strange, but then again, I never know what to expect from people anymore). I think it might've came as a surprise that security is so tight even for American civilians trying to get on base. Our guide, Staff Sergeant Griffin, had been on call because a plane full of soldiers had arrived earlier in the morning at 1 a.m. By the time we got to the base at around 1:30 p.m, she was obviously exhausted but nonetheless cheerful and informative.

We got a basic but in-depth introduction from a Navy Sergeant Griffin (no relation to our guide) who informed us of the inner workings of the Landstuhl Medical Center. To my astonishment, the majority of soldiers are not there due to "battle injuries" (gun shot wounds, being burned after an explosion, etc.), but because they got sick on their deployment or because they have regular every day injuries (breaking an arm playing football, dropping a pan of hot oil or something while cooking, etc.). Landstuhl is also the first stop for anyone "down range," that is, in Iraq or Afghanistan, though people stationed in other parts of the world (the Balkans, eastern Europe, Africa) may also end up there. If soldiers are well enough to be transferred, they won't stay in Landstuhl long; the majority only stay for two or three days up to fourteen days and then are brought to hospitals in the States. If they recover (from illness, for example), however, they will be sent back to their place of deployment.

We then got a tour of the facility itself and it's no different from any other hospital you would see in the U.S. They even have a maternity ward! OK, maybe there were a few obvious differences, like the fact that many of the people walking around have some sort of camouflage clothing on. Even some of the doctors and nurses worked in camo-scrubs. Additionally, there were some signs that were in both German and English, but for the most part, it's not super noticeable. The hospital also didn't have a very hospital-y smell to it and frankly I don't know why that is. But the cafeteria served American food, there was a convenience store with American goods, even the vending machines only accepted dollars. (We actually had to ask Staff Sergeant Griffin if she had any extra dollar bills since none of us had any on us and some people were dying to get to the Reese's Pieces.)

The highlight though was being able to talk to some of the patients. I had the opportunity to speak with two soldiers: an older man suffering from pancreatitis and a young 19-year-old suffering from pneumonia. Both had been stationed in Afghanistan; the former had been in Landstuhl only a few days and could barely get any sort of food or water in his system and the latter had just arrived the morning we got there. What was really interesting was that both soldiers were really sad, even disappointed, that they couldn't be in Afghanistan. They felt that they were actually helping the people there and making a difference. The first soldier's job was to help locals get electricity (I think) and the second searched for improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Though the jobs were quite different, both soldiers believed that they were helping improve lives in Afghanistan little by little and that the media's portrayal of the situation focused too heavily on the negative. And they're right: why couldn't the media focus more on the positive aspects? The obvious answer is that nobody cares about good news and that it doesn't sell; however, I think it would really give people a different perspective of things if we got these personal stories out there.

The soldiers seemed to be appreciative of our visit and bringing them (German) chocolate and toiletries seemed to brighten them up a little bit. We also thanked the nursing staff for all that they do and they were really excited to get some chocolate as well. It was truly a perspective-changing experience to know that soldiers aren't going there for mostly battle wounds at the moment; the situations in Afghanistan and Iraq are not nearly as bad as we think they are. The soldiers were also just glad to know that there were people in the outside world thinking of them and that they haven't just been forgotten (especially since the withdrawl of American troops from Iraqi cities). I think it's really important for their morale to know that and it's quite obvious from the fact that everyone who was there when President Obama visited in June was completely pumped to talk about the experience. It wasn't even when he had been in Germany when he went to Buchenwald with Angela Merkel; it was a separate visit with no media, no cameras, not even the remotest hint of planning. It was simply just to visit the troops and say thanks. And because of the way it happened, I think it really made an impact on the soldiers.

Besides visiting soldiers who were confined to the wards, we also had the opportunity to visit a little building run by the USO. There, soldiers who could move around and get around on their own could watch movies, play on XBoxes or Wiis, play cards, cook, check their email, video record themselves reading a book to their children, read books, or call home. Essentially, it's to make the soldiers feel a little closer to home while being away. We donated a poker set and the volunteers were so excited because they could now hold a Texas Hold 'Em tournament with more people. It was really wonderful to see what the USO does for our troops to make them as comfortable as possible, so if you want to do something for our troops, check what the USO needs...they always could use something!

The last thing I want to say about the Landstuhl visit is that it really did change a lot of our perspectives. The wars (missions, jobs, whatever you want to call it) in Iraq and Afghanistan are far from over and there's a lot of work still to be done. Though the events don't make really big headlines like they used to, we can't forget that people are still over there risking their lives trying to improve the lives of others. Normally I don't like being super political with my blog, but I think it's something we really need to be more aware of.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Free Music: The Rheinkultur Festival in Bonn

July 4th weekend was the Rheinkultur Festival in Bonn, which is one of the biggest free open air festivals in Germany. If you want to see a full list of bands, you can see it here. I went with Christian, his friend Nils and his brother Titus and met up with Felix, Claudia, and Freddie. Because the festival was free, the crowd was an incredibly colorful motley of people: parents with their baby carriages (no joke), teenagers, older people, punks, wiggas, skaters, hipsters, techno enthusiasts, etc. Additionally, people were more willing to spend money on beer and food, as well as not staying for the entire length of the festival. It was probably very good exposure for any of the bands that don't have a huge following and probably just plain fun for any of the more popular bands. The only band I actually knew was No Use for a Name and we didn't actually stay for them since we needed to drive back to Düsseldorf. For a free all-day music festival, I had a few observations.

First, each stage was pretty much divided up into genre. The blue stage was probably the most diverse with more mainstream hip-hop and some rock, the red stage mostly appealed to the alternative/punk crowd, the green stage was for jazz enthusiasts (I think...we didn't go), the "Tanzberg" was for techno junkies, and the last little stage was definitely for hip-hop and rap people. Because the stages were divided, the types of people were also quite obviously divided through fashion. For example, the techno stage had all half-naked people dancing around in some sort of trance, whereas the hip-hop stage was pretty much just a bunch of wiggas with their flat-visored baseball caps, oversized t-shirts, and low-hanging pants. I don't want to just describe stereotypes, but really, that's what it was. Additionally, it was also funny because you could almost see or know what drugs were being taken at each stage. The red stage's drug of choice was most likely just alcohol, perhaps with speed, the Tanzberg stage was most certainly ecstasy, and the little hip-hop stage was quite obviously weed. Because the blue stage was the most diverse stage, you couldn't really say one particular group of people hung around there and therefore, the drugs there were also probably a mix.

Another observation is the sheer number of parents that brought small children with them. We definitely saw several baby carriages and parents carrying their kids in their arms. Maybe a stupid question, but seriously, who brings babies and small children to music festivals? I suppose the answer lies in the fact that it was free because otherwise, I would think no parent in their right mind would pay to bring a kid to a music festival. However, despite the fact that it was free, I personally wouldn't want to schlep my kid all over the place on a hot day where there are lots of inebriates. Not only that, I would think it would be tedious bringing a little person around from stage to stage. At some point, I'm sure they will just say they've had enough and you certainly can't force a child to do something like you can force your friend (then again, some friends are like 5-year-olds anyway.)

Oh and my last comment is about the picture above...In Germany, it's actually illegal to jaywalk/cross on red. People will yell sometimes yell at me if I cross the street without waiting, especially if they are a) old people or b) parents with their children. I've gotten old people yelling at me saying that young people are a disgrace to society. With parents, I get that I'm a bad person because I cross and that the kid shouldn't follow what I do. They shouldn't follow what I do anyway because I'm a stranger, though, right? However, in Bonn, they have these signs all over the place: "Nur bei Grün den Kindern zum Vorbild." A rough translation would be, "Only on green. Be a role model for the children." We were all laughing at this because, hey, don't cross on red because it's illegal, just don't cross on red because you should be a role model for kids. These are the things when I think to myself, "Ha ha, I live in Germany. Only in Germany would you find something like this!"