LIANE HANSEN, host:
For American soldiers deployed in Iraq holidays are always difficult. As Valentine's Day approaches we thought we'd check in with two of them. We begin with Army Major Elizabeth Robbins. She came to Iraq in May 2007, and writes speeches and briefings for a two-star general at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. Major Robbins told us how she stays connected with her 22-month-old daughter.
Ms. ELIZABETH ROBBINS (Army Major): Weeks after I arrived here the tightness in my chest just wouldn't let up. I learned that the baby started walking two days after I left and babbling shortly thereafter. I put up pictures of the family in my workspace but I soon realized they mostly just made me sad. So for awhile I mentally pretended that I didn't have kids, blunting my heartache with nonstop work.
Then Baghdad got more dangerous. In my second and third months our location was increasingly attacked with rockets and mortars, sometimes several times per day. I prayed that no one would perish, to include myself, but if I was killed I wondered how my daughter would learn that I had loved her deeply. How would she know what had mattered to me? What my dreams were for her? What my dreams were for us together?
I was writing postcards to my preteen son but it didn't feel right sending pictures of tanks and Humvees to the baby. Then a fellow Army officer suggested that I make homemade postcards. Her daughter still had every one that she had sent from Haiti, Kosovo and Kuwait.
So using Crayola markers and 5 x 8 office supply cards I started drawing simple pictures of my daughter and me in all sorts of situations, each time with me in a red dress, the baby in a purple dress. Some cards show us having fun recreating, others convey messages of faith and family.
Here are some recent topics: Mommy and Rachel go hiking, Mommy and Rachel help the less fortunate, Mommy and Rachel plant a tree, Mommy and Rachel visit our elders, and Mommy and Rachel make cookies.
Each card takes about 30 minutes to draw, and trust me I'm not illustrator. But drawing them is a tangible act of love that I know will soon be held by my baby, a physical connection to the miracle of the U.S. Mail. And each one is a visual prayer that portrays my hopes for our future.
My husband tells me that Rachel understands the cards are from me and she hugs them when they arrive. He tells me that they read the cards and look at the pictures together. And when he asks, where's mommy and where's Rachel, she points to us in turn.
I feel better knowing that if something happens here my baby will have something concrete with which to know what mattered to me and what my dreams were for us both. Some day when Rachel is grown I hope that together we can revisit these simple expressions of love. We will talk about why I went overseas, about the value of service of thyself and how grateful I was to return home. And I will tell her what she already knows: our duty to make the world a better and safer place sometimes requires real sacrifice.
I turn you over now to my colleague at Ballad(ph) Air Base in northern Iraq.
Ms. MARY RONE (Helicopter Pilot, U.S. Army): Hello, my name is Mary Rone and I am a helicopter pilot in the U.S. Army. I'm 26 years old, originally from Berkeley, California. I'm the only female pilot in the company of approximately 90 men. And we fly Medivac out of Ballad, Iraq.
I think that the guys within the unit don't think of me as any different than them. It's just when people come in from the outside and they see me, they don't expect, I guess, a girl to be flying into some of the situations that we go into or to be doing the jobs that we do. So it's actually cool to be a girl and do what we do.
I'm writing this letter to my mother, and she currently lives in Richmond, California. It's just me and her. She is 65 and she does landscaping. She's my valentine. Whenever I'd get up on Valentine's there'd be a box of Sees Candy for me, from my mom. And I think I'm going to miss that this year. And I wanted to read a letter that I'm writing my mom that I'll be mailing to her shortly.
Dear Mom, I hope all is well back in California. Things here are going all right. I just got done with another duty cycle and looking forward to time off. We're all steadily approaching the halfway point and are starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. It'll be so wonderful when it's finally our time to get back on that plane.
It's been cold and rainy here. You don't ever really get to feel the rain. It just gets really muddy. I hope the weather back there has been nice and that you have been able to get out and work a little. I miss you very much and can't wait until you can come to Clarksville and visit.
Jenny says hi. She's doing better. Give my love to everybody. Take care. I'll try and call soon. Love always, Mary.
HANSEN: Mary Rone is a U.S. Army Blackhawk helicopter pilot based at Ballad Air Force Base in northern Iraq. Her tour of duty ends in October 2008. We also heard from Army Major Elizabeth Robbins in Baghdad. She says she'll be coming home to San Diego in 100 days.
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