Mother takes break from service in Baghdad to care for son


Now that there isn't half a world between them, Army medic Cynthia Vallem and her son, Canyon, look cute together, sitting in Vallem's kitchen wearing matching tan fatigues.

But a month ago, when Vallem, 23, was stationed in Baghdad and her 19-month-old son only knew her as an enlarged picture on the wall, the situation was more heart aching than cute.

Vallem was torn between two responsibilities: To serve her country or to raise her son.

It's a difficult position many servicewomen find themselves in these days.

Indeed, another medic in Vallem's unit, Simone Holcomb, mother of seven, received national media attention when the Army planned to charge her with desertion when she planned to leave Iraq to be with her children.

But the Army has recently taken a softer stance in regard to military mothers.

On Nov. 11, the Army demobilized Holcomb so she could return home to Colorado and fight a custody battle to keep her children. And when Canyon grew sick earlier this month, the Army sent Vallem home to Craig to take care of him. She arrived in Craig last Saturday.

"Fortunately, he's too young to remember I was gone. And he's gotten to know I'm more than a picture on the wall," Vallem said as her blond-haired boy hugged her leg.

Vallem was away for eight months. She joined the National Guard in 2000, hoping she wouldn't be activated so that she could serve her country while staying in Colorado, where she could care for Canyon. But when the call to service came, Vallem didn't hesitate to do her duty.

Last January, the Army deployed Vallem to Fort McCoy in Wisconsin. There, the temperature dropped to 30 degrees below zero as she practiced medical techniques and qualified for weapons use.

She hated the cold in Wisconsin, as she would soon grow to hate the sand and wind in Iraq.

In April, Specialist Vallem shipped out to Kuwait with Charley 109 Area Support Medical Battalion.

While describing her experience, Vallem uses the word "weird" often. Leaving her son was weird. Iraq was weird. Leaving her unit early was weird. Trying to fit back into American life is weird.

She's onto something many have been saying for a long time. A world of war where all normal laws of civilization are overturned can only be described as "weird."

It's a 200-mile trip from the Kuwaiti border to Baghdad. As soon as they crossed the border, Vallem's convoy entered a corridor of Iraqis lining both sides of the street. They lined the first 50 miles of road, extending their hands to the soldiers, asking for money or food.

Vallem kept looking for trees, but there weren't any. Just sand for as far as she could see.

Occasionally, the convoy passed a field where someone was struggling to grow some crops. Mud or grass huts, sheltering five or six children and their parents, dotted the countryside. The poverty of the nation was making a strong impression on Vallem.

Then, closer to Baghdad, the houses started looking more regular to her. The houses were close together, and there were apartment buildings. She noticed it seemed to be normal for a man to have his parents, wife, children, sisters -- in total about 10 people -- living in one small home. She remembers seeing five women and 10 children standing before one house as the convoy passed.

Then she arrived at Camp Victory, an Army base located in one of Saddam Hussein's Baghdad palaces.

She describes the city as pretty nice. Saddam's palaces were architectural beauties, made of marble, with 30-foot tall doorways.

"It amazes me how much money he could spend on himself instead of his people," Vallem said.

At Camp Victory, Vallem's duties included working in the clinic every other day. In the mornings and afternoons, the clinic was open to all base staff, and in the evenings it functioned more as an emergency room.

The center of Baghdad is 20 miles west of Camp Victory and the airport is to its east. The base was staffed mostly with officers and wasn't near any major combat, so Vallem didn't see many trauma cases. She treated many soldiers for dehydration, a result of the killer temperatures, which Vallem said can soar to 150 degrees.

Windstorms would force everyone at the base to stay inside for days at a time. No one ever wanted to go outside, but when they had to, goggles were needed for protection from the violently blown sand.

Vallem spent her days off reading, sometimes watching a movie if someone around had a DVD player, and walking around the base. She said she walked all over the base, feeling bored.

Once a week, Vallem delivered supplies to a troop medical clinic in the heart of Baghdad, where Paul Bremer, administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority, keeps his offices.

Most of the Iraqis she encountered were friendly, though there were those she'd noticed staring at her.

"About 80 percent of the Iraqis seemed to be really appreciative of what we are doing," Vallem said. "Then there are the 20 percent who want Saddam back."

Now she's glad to be back home, with the trees, mountains and her son.

But she's experienced some reverse culture shock.

"I expect to go outside and see sand," she said.

She's getting more comfortable with groups of people and getting used to not always having to be on the alert, watching every person and vehicle near her.

Most people have welcomed Vallem back happily, but she has a tendency to feel angry when she sees people bashing the United States.

"We are doing a lot over there, even if people here don't realize it. People there are happy to get a job for a dollar a day," she said. "Sometimes you don't appreciate what you have until you see something else."

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