By TEDDYE SNELL
When Crystal Bond, Tahlequah resident and graduate of Northeastern State University, decided to volunteer to help victims of Hurricane Katrina in Mississippi in 2005, she had no idea how much her life would change.
Until her experiences in Mississippi, Bond was employed first with the Cherokee Nation then by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Bond, a cartographer - or map-maker - is currently a serving with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at Tallil Air Force Base in the Muthanna Province in southern Iraq, and it was her trek to Mississippi where she made her decision to volunteer.
“When my friend and I were volunteering in Mississippi, so many service men and women were returning from Iraq and not going home, but coming to Louisiana, Mississippi and the Gulf Coast to help out,” said Bond. “I figured if they could do that, then I need to do it at least once in my life. I don’t know how to describe it - the feeling to go and serve. It was a calling - potent and intense - something I couldn’t ignore.”
Bond returned to her job with the BIA and since she was a federal employee figured she’d be a shoo-in for voluntary service with the USACE.
“They [BIA] said ‘no,’” she said. “I couldn’t believe it. So, even before I had any confirmation of the job with the Corps, I quit the BIA. Just up and quit my job, that’s how strong this urge to volunteer was.”
Shortly after quitting the BIA, Bond received word she’d been accepted to the Corps of Engineers. Her family had mixed feelings about her going to Iraq, despite the fact she has a brother in the U.S. Air Force.
“When I talked to my family, one of my sisters was OK with my volunteering,” said Bond. “She seemed to understand my reason for going. But my other sister was angry, almost fearful of my going. I don’t know how, but I knew I’d be OK I just had faith in that fact. Once I convinced her of that, she eased up a little. I kept telling her, ‘you can’t be fearful and faithful at the same time.’”
Evelyn Stephens, Bond’s grandmother who is also a Tahlequah native, was more supportive, but demanded an explanation.
“My granny didn’t want me to [volunteer] but took the news pretty well,” said Bond. “She supported my decision but wanted a detailed explanation as to why I wanted to do this.”
Bond had never traveled outside the United States, and was shocked when she arrived in the Middle East.
“Of all the places in the world to go, traveling to the Middle East had never been a priority,” she said.
When Bond shipped out to Iraq, it was her understanding she and her friend who had also volunteered after the Katrina emergency would be stationed together in Basra. But a reunion with her friend was not in the cards.
“The base here at Tallil is a major clearinghouse and most people coming in make a stop here,” said Bond. “When the folks here found out what I did, they kept me instead of sending me on to Basra, where my friend was. I was really upset.”
Bond, a recently reformed smoker, took her disappointment at having to stay at Tallil out on her lungs.
“I was smoking up to two packs a day,” said Bond. “I never smoked that much before, but I was because they weren’t letting me go where I wanted to go. They weren’t letting me go be with my friend.”
Bond quit smoking for good on Nov. 1 this year, and has found a healthy replacement for her unhealthy habit.
“The best part of being here aside from helping build schools, clinics and hospitals, is my spin class,” said Bond. “Spin bikes are stationary bikes with added tension. Once I got involved with that class, I traded my nicotine for adrenaline. It’s the best workout because you sweat and strain and suffer together and there’s really no entertainment here to speak of.”
Bond’s official job is to create maps of the nine provinces in southern Iraq, and she’s fine-tuned her position as a “computer nerd.”
“I work with computers all the time,” said Bond. “But I also visit with Iraqi engineers to help me relieve discrepancies in map misspellings. I want to label my maps in Arabic, since it’s the native language. But many maps have English versions of Arabic spellings, which are confusing, so I enlist the help of the Iraqi engineers. I mean, who are we to impose our spellings on their words. I want my maps to be accurate.”
Bond indicated the Iraqi engineers did not consider her being a female an impediment to a solid working relationship.
“They [male Iraqi engineers] are a delight to talk to,” said Bond. “They are well-educated, they all speak English and are quick to teach you how to speak Arabic if you’re willing to learn.”
Bond has been in Iraq for four months, and her tour is supposed to end Oct. 17. She has made a number of new friends, which came in handy when her birthday rolled around in November.
“We’re so lucky this is such a large base,” said Bond. “We have all ethnicities here - Italian, Romanian, Brits - so when my birthday came up in November, my friends took me to the Italian installation, which has a restaurant. I was fortunate to spend my birthday eating authentic Italian food.”
Bond keeps in touch with family via the Internet and has received packages from family and friends throughout her stay.
“That [Internet] is the best thing about being here at Tallil,” said Bond. “We are so fortunate because all civilian personnel have Internet connections in our rooms. It’s been a real lifeline for me. I e-mail lots of people and instant message a couple. I really enjoy the instant messaging because it’s like having a conversation.”
Despite Bond’s upbeat humor, she finds it difficult to maintain a shiny outlook all the time. Aside from her family, she misses her horse and her truck the most.
“Now, I understood what I was getting into when I volunteered,” said Bond. “I knew that I was going to be cut off being on a base, and it’s loads of beige and barbed wire - similar to a prison - but I was used to getting in my truck and driving wherever I wanted whenever I wanted. So I miss that the most.”
In addition to the restriction, Bond says losing coworkers is the hardest.
“The worst part of any given day is when you find out someone - an engineer or someone you know - has been killed,” said Bond. “I understand, we’re in a war zone and people die, but it’s hard. We hold memorial services on the roof of our building. There are times when I get down thinking about it, but you just can’t allow yourself to be that way.”
Despite her October homecoming date, Bond is pondering the possibility of staying.
“I have the option of an extension, but I haven’t really addressed that issue yet,” she said. “It’s heartening to see the work we’re doing and how much the schools, clinics and hospitals have improved with the Corps’ help.”