Friday, December 7, 2012

My Dengue Fever and Wildly Unanticipated Life

I typed up this blog post and titled it almost a month ago during the final throws of Dengue fever. I decided to sit on it for a bit, knowing I might not be in the best state of mind to write this kind of thing. Looking at it now, I think it is safe to share. Interestingly, one of the final symptoms of Dengue is a few days of depression, so that might be the cause behind the genesis of this topic and the somber sounding ending. I assure you I am in a better state of mind today. Anyway, here you go:

November 2 will go down as the day I came down with Dengue Fever, a mosquito-borne virus that manifested itself in the following symptoms in no particular order of appearance: high fever, body ache, chronic low fever, upset stomach, diarrhea, rash, headache, pain behind eyes, fatigue, cold sweat, painful sensitivity on palms and soles of feet, dehydration, weight loss, nausea, and probably more…memory loss perhaps (that last one is a joke). I was in bed for about six days and am only now spending the whole day “up”. This ordeal has given me a lot of time “in my head” and one of the latest thoughts that got me thinking was, “How did I get here?” If I were to ask my 18 year old self there is no way I could have concocted the string of events that have unfolded over the last ten years of this unanticipated life that led to lying in Jamaica with a nasty illness.
Ohio farm where I was raised

I was going to raise pigs. That was my plan at one point. I was a true, blue 4-H and FFA kid who lived for the county fair. For example, my job shadowing experience in high school was at a large wean-to-finish hog barn in Knox County, Ohio. OK, swine farming was probably never going to be my primary occupation, but I definitely had a love for raising show quality pigs; Durocs specifically. The career I settled on out of high school was to be an agricultural science teacher at the high school level and I started as a freshman at the Agricultural and Technical Institute (ATI) branch of The Ohio State University. ATI was perfect: it was located in my hometown and was basically like an extra year of high school with nothing but farmers as classmates. ATI was affectionately referred to as the Alcohol and Tobacco Institute by students, probably because of all the farmhouse parties and so many Skoal rings in the back pocket of Wrangler jeans. My plan was to save money by starting at this branch before transferring down to main campus. Yup, I was living in hillbilly heaven and I was on my way.

Baquba, Iraq (probably 2004)
Or, so I thought. As the saying goes, “if you want to hear God laugh, tell him your plans.” At the end of 2002 and early 2003, George W. Bush was making a pretty darn good case for regime change in Iraq and just days after “shock and awe” commenced, I was proudly enlisted in the Army Reserve. So, after my first year of classes and bad grades, I completed the Army’s initial entry training and within a year I was off to Iraq, 20 years old and green.

There is an aptly named book called Fiasco about the first few years of the war. I would sum up the experiences of my first deployment as a bunch of military men and women doing what they could to make the best of a bad situation made worse by an administration that had no clear strategic vision or plan. This made coming home to the college setting…interesting. I wouldn’t call it PTSD, but I was definitely 21 and bitter, though fortunately a little more serious about my grades.

I was blessed to be able to start back to school at main campus by living with my best friend’s brother who was also a good friend. He was a couple years older and grounded, so I think that helped. However, after about a year, it became clear that I wasn’t cut out for high school teaching, so I changed majors to Animal Science with the intent of going into Extension education. That might have worked out, but in 2007 I met my future wife and also found out I had to go back to Iraq.

By January 2008 I was back in the Sunni triangle. The sequel to the aforementioned Fiasco is called The Gamble, which is about the surge and change in tactics that paid off so well. Current scandal notwithstanding, I feel I owe a great debt of gratitude to Gen. David Petraeus and guys like Amb. Ryan Crocker and Sec. Robert Gates for the much more purposeful experience I had the second go-round.

Bayji, Iraq (2008)
Iraq 2008 was where my career interests really started to shift. In addition to trying to keep al Qaeda out of Bayji, I had the privilege of working with civilian representatives from USDA and USAID (one of which sung the praises of his Peace Corps experience and how it helped him get his career going). I had heard about development work from Linnae, but this was the first time I saw it in action and appreciated the impact agricultural and economic development can have on peace and pacifying combatants. This was also the first time I had heard about Team Borlaug from Texas A&M University; a group of professors and specialists touring the country to do agriculture assessments. Significant acts (SIGACTS) of violence in our area of operations fell 80% while I was in country that year and I knew it wasn’t just because we had bigger guns and mine-resistant armor protected vehicles. Late that November I was back on American soil a newly minted Staff Sergeant with a new perspective.

I’ll never forget the day on campus when I stepped into the coffee shop, embittered by the stress of another deployment, while some girl who had gone well beyond adding a “freshmen fifteen” pounds was bopping away in her stretchpants to some music on her MP3 player. Just knowing what a different world existed between those earphones was unforgettable. But I digress. Linnae was working in Washington, DC and I was struggling through chemistry, biology, and physics and applying to a competitive summer internship program in DC. Fortunately, I made it into the program on my military laurels because my GPA was only then breaking above the 2.5 mark. After six months of us commuting on weekends, I was finally in DC with Linnae for an internship at the Foreign Agricultural Service at the USDA. This is where I learned much more about the possibilities for work in international agricultural development. I also learned more about that faraway school I mentioned earlier, the one that had been doing the work in Iraq while I was there.

Wedding Day: Hippie marries Soldier ;)
That fall of 2009, Linnae and I got married and she started grad school in Development Economics at Ohio State while I completed my senior year. I spent my last two years of school firmly planted on the Dean’s List, which paid off with admission to a Master’s program at Texas A&M (TAMU) the autumn after graduation. I took a few online Master’s classes that fall and we both submitted applications to the Peace Corps. On December 30th we were two Buckeyes and a dog U-Hauling it to College Station, Texas for my year of coursework as an Aggie. There are probably few campuses in America where a veteran feels as at ease as at TAMU. I really enjoyed my time there and volunteered often with the Norman Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture, even getting the opportunity to train some National Guard agriculture specialists before they deployed to Afghanistan. I helped train those Soldiers just a few months after my Army enlistment contract expired, so it was extra meaningful at the time.

Bor, South Sudan
Conversation with smallholders in South Sudan
Linnae and I were starting to get nervous as 2011 wore on and we weren’t getting an official Peace Corps invitation to serve. I was going to run out of courses and had no plans for doing my thesis research other than in Peace Corps. That is when I got a call from the director of the Borlaug Institute; the organization responsible for the Team Borlaug I had learned of three years prior in Iraq. The Borlaug Institute had just won an unsolicited bid for a USAID project in South Sudan and wanted me for a short-term gig as the project got started. What’s that you say? Post-conflict agricultural development and a bridge of employment before Peace Corps? Done! It was about a week later Linnae and I were pleasantly surprised with an invitation to serve in Jamaica. So, with a future more or less certain, for three months I worked the project in South Sudan and learned a lot about how projects in such environments evolve into order. I came home from Africa in mid-February, helped pack up the truck to move our things back to Ohio and we were in Jamaica by mid-March.
Wash time in Westmoreland, Jamaica

So, in a nutshell, I guess that is how I got “here” to the middle of the Caribbean with a tropical illness and a world completely different from anything I have ever known. The hardest things is not knowing if my life will be able to follow a path back to the things I loved before this string of events began to unfold. Will I again get to live a significant portion of my life in the quietude of rural life? Will I be able to give my children the opportunity to participate in 4-H and FFA or exhibit something at the county fair? How will I connect to our children if I must raise them in a place drastically different from what I was raised in? Some people look at rural Americans as backward or xenophobic, but I know differently. There is something special about life outside the rat race. Whatever that something special is may not be objectively better than where you come from, but from my subjective perspective it is and getting more of it back in my life has been on my mind.   

Just listening to a man about his goats
I don’t know if this is an early mid-life crisis or just what happens when a boy has been too long away from the farm. Maybe they just need to add homesick to the list of Dengue Fever symptoms.

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