November 10, 2021

The Music That Got Me Through It: A Veteran Reflects

a person listening to music as the sun rises

Most days on Camp Victory, Baghdad, Iraq were like Groundhog Day. Eat, work, receive incoming fire, try to sleep. Rinse and repeat. For 12 long months. The only way to break up the monotony was to work out. But soon, even that became a cumbersome chore. Run, lift, run some more. Rinse and repeat. Day after day. I was beyond bored. Until I discovered Zumba and a whole new world of music.

A few days per week, the on-base chapel hosted small group classes like yoga, Pilates, HIIT, etc. to help raise morale and provide alternate forms of fitness. A friend suggested we try out Zumba, a high-energy Latin-based dance class. My two left feet and I begrudgingly agreed. To my surprise, I enjoyed it tremendously. The instructor’s positive energy was intoxicating, and all the stress of the deployment just seemed to melt away. I felt a sort of freedom - while dancing, I was free from the orange dust that clung to everything including my eyelashes, free from the dull sound of small arms fire in the distance, free from my roommate’s incessant snoring, free from the daily barrage of indirect fire, the alarms going off, the frenzy of people running for the nearest concrete bunker. The true star of the show, however, was the music. Cumbia. Salsa. Merengue. Bachata. Rumba. Reggaeton. Oh, the music!

If you looked for it, music was all around in Baghdad - the daily prayers blasting from the towers of the area mosques, the hard rock tracks blaring in the makeshift gym, a group of runners singing cadence (this one still baffles me), even the consistent hum of the generators seemed melodious. But there was nothing else like the vibrant beats and rhythms of Latin music. I was hooked! As a girl from a small town in northern Pennsylvania, I was never exposed to this type of music. I’m normally an alt rock sort of girl, raised on Floyd and Zeppelin, so these new sounds were literally music to my ears. Oh, the music!

Soon, I was a regular Zumba attendee and quickly befriended the instructor. She introduced me to some of her friends who were preparing for a dancing presentation for Hispanic Heritage Month. Even though I’m not of Hispanic descent, I was invited to hang out with the group and help them practice. My ears, and feet, craved more of those sweet salsa sounds so was a no-brainer and making new friends was the icing on the cake. Most times we danced. Other times we just shared a takeaway box of food from the chow hall. But there was always music. Always music to kill the monotony, to bring a sense of normalcy to a not-so-normal place. Rob Sheffield, journalist for Rolling Stone, once said that “[b]ringing people together is what music has always done best.” That’s exactly what Latin music did for me in Iraq. This group became a little family away from home. On hard days, we could turn to each other for guidance and support. On good days, we could laugh and listen to music. Always the music.

Author’s note: I understand the absolute privilege, almost luxury, of being deployed to such a large base, it’s sheer size alone providing a relatively safe environment not afforded to many, many others. I did convoy a lot back and forth to smaller camps throughout Baghdad, but most nights, I was able to return to the “comfort” of my CHU [Containerized Housing Unit. Essentially, a small, windowless, metal shipping container retrofitted as living spaces for usually 2-4 personnel, organized in large clusters.], the protection of the 20-foot concrete barriers surrounding it. Many Soldiers were not afforded the comforts of leisure and I do not take that for granted. This was simply one experience out of many, many different ones.

If you liked this piece, you may also like For the Festival and Everything in the Cosmos is Sound (... Including You)

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