Big Bird in Baghdad

Tattoos are little billboards of self-expression. Through them, you announce to the world important things about yourself without uttering a sound. I wanted to tell the world that I was back and ready for action. After months of seeing my yoga teach, Krista, with her body-art museum of amazing tattoos, I made up my mind. I had to get one. I was definitely going to get a Winnie-the-Pooh tattoo. Pooh bear had been my childhood best friend. But then again, so had Big Bird.

And Big Bird had welcomed me to Baghdad, when I needed a warm welcome.

In Frankfurt, six members of my unit, including me, had been bumped off our C-17 aircraft. Everyone else got to enter Baghdad as a group. We didn’t. We were going to be late for the war. After almost a week, we got another flight and landed at the Baghdad International Airport (BIAP) on November 17, 2003.

I wasn’t happy to be in Baghdad. The air smelled of smoke and it was dark and the sky was low. Other people wearing uniforms similar to mine with weapons hanging off their bodies surrounded me. I was very frightened. I had spent so much time obsessing over the enemy that I thought that when we landed I would be collected by them and taken away. But, I think everyone was scared.

We were herded into a tent about the size of your average national park welcome center to wait for the morning. Over the span of my three tours, I would spend a lot of time in this tent. This tent was important to our mission. It was the gateway to the country. You would have to go through it to get out of the country or further into the Theater of Operations. On that first day it was packed and steamy warm inside. I was too nervous to sleep or stand or read or talk. I just wanted to cry and watch the people.

A television program with English subtitles and a dancing woman in blue gauze and bangles filled a huge screen playing in the far right corner. The colors were overly bright, and the music was distorted and obnoxious. I watched an Army lieutenant complaining to a guy in civilian clothes and pointing to the screen with great vigor. Then the channels whipped by and landed on Big Bird. I knew right then, it was a sign. Big Bird in Baghdad was the sign that no matter how bad everything seemed it was going to be all right. I was going to be okay and I didn’t need to be afraid. I stood there watching him on Sesame Street for a long time. Big Bird was my pal and Big Bird never lied. Suddenly, the channels whipped passed again, landing on Fox News. I entered the war the next day.

Tanner, a tattoo artist at Twelve Volt Tattoo applied Pooh Bear to my right ankle. A couple of weeks later, he added balloons.

Sylvia Bowersox first went to Iraq in 2003 as a US Army broadcast journalist. She was stationed in Mosul and Baghdad, but reported from Coalition outposts around the country. A year in Iraq wasn’t enough, so she returned to Baghdad as a civilian, spending almost two years working in the US Embassy as a State Department press officer. Bowersox received her BA in English literature from San Francisco State University, and is currently completing her MA in creative writing at California State University, Chico. She was recently honored by a Pushcart nomination for her nonfiction essay, “This War Can’t be All Bad.” Her nonfiction essay, “The Importance of a Dollar Bill,” has been submitted to the National Associate Writing Program Awards competition. She lives in Chico with her husband Jon, her son Holden, and her service dog Timothy.