Beth Bugay is a wife and mother of five school-aged children, but her daily toils now take place thousands of miles away, among the sick and wounded, defending the homeland in a dusty, searing Iraqi desert.
While she serves as a medic with the U.S. Army’s B Company, husband John is at home in West Mifflin, Pa., struggling to keep up with the demands of Jeremy, 15, Zachary, 11, Nathaniel, 10, John III, 7 and Bethany, 4.
John and Beth Bugay (John Bugay photo)
In Beth’s candid letters, John’s love for his wife is reflected as strongly as his displeasure with his family’s new situation.
He says: “I am not happy at all that she is there.”
Beth’s unit catalogues and studies weapons seized from the enemy. She arrived in Kuwait April 20 then headed to Tallil, Iraq, near Nasiriyah, as part of an advance team that sat in the desert for about a month, waiting for its supplies to arrive from the U.S.
John says her primary motivation for enlisting in the reserves was to help ensure her children’s future, noting she carries around magazine pictures of people jumping out of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11.
“She saw terrorism as a threat – they’re coming here to our home, and we have to stop it,” John told WND.
But in February, as she awaited deployment at Aberdeen Proving Grounds, Md., doubts threatened to seize her.
Sitting by herself in damp, dirty and cold barracks while her colleagues went on a shopping trip, “the quiet was overwhelming,’ Beth wrote Feb. 19.
“I took a very deep sigh, and I just looked around with my mind screaming OH, MY GOD, what am I doing here, all alone and away from my beloved family. I must be crazy.”
John, who has little time for his work as a freelance business journalist, says Beth’s unit has a couple of more months in Iraq before returning to Maryland. He hopes to have her home much sooner than February 2004, the end of her scheduled tour of duty.
In the meantime, occasional phone calls and letters such as these help them navigate through their days apart:
Saddam’s Birthday, April 29
We left Udairi [a U.S. base in Kuwait] early morning after spending the night there. The night before, we experienced the worst dust storm they said that they’ve had in years. The wind blew and blew. The dust was thick powder. While it slammed you all over, and in your face, you couldn’t open your eyes. So I walked with my head down, eyes closed, and every few steps I’d peek at my feet to see if I was going anywhere, or if I was walking into something. That night I slept with a wet washcloth over my face and nose, because the dust was blowing in my tent.
Beth Bugay (John Bugay photo)
We left early with a Special Forces team leading our security, complete with a high-speed medic unit. After our briefing on convoy tactics and positioning, we mounted for movement north. You could tell everyone was concerned at departure. The convoy was a fairly decent size. We had two gun vehicles, a med-ambulance, two hummers, a 2-ton, a 5-ton, and two SUV’s.
The drive was eight hours long. As we passed through small villages, children would blow us kisses and ask for food, with mouth signals. They ran after us with good will chants for America and making peace signs as they chased after us. It was very odd to see major modern highways with signs and rest areas that had metal umbrellas over the stone tables, when the other side of the road you could see mud, stone shacks with dress-clad people shepherding sheep or camels. The entire drive was amazing. Even though it was hot, dry and dusty, I cramped up a lot riding in the 5-ton [truck]. I saw a lot of southern Iraq. Most of it was dry, but every once in a while you could see a pile of shrubs. There was one stretch of road that they call death row, because for about a half-mile, there are corpses of assorted vehicles all blown up in different angles littering the center of the highway. It was a devastating sight to me. There were many times during the drive that my eyes teared [up]. I hated seeing such misery with people and material. Especially in the land of God’s mercies.
At one time during the drive, I was very warm and sleepy, but I was supposed to be alert and watchful. Many vegetable trucks were passing by us. The drivers would stare and smile at us. A lot of oncoming vehicles were miles and miles of military convoys. The sight was awesome. My head started to bob in a sleepy state and all of a sudden I saw a flash and then heard a great, loud explosion, off to my right, about a mile down. A plume of smoke began to billow into a mushroom cloud. I nearly s–- myself. I thought, “Oh boy, we’re being bombed.” But we weren’t. Over the underpass was an explosive ordnance demolition team. They were blowing up a stash of weapons. It was the first time that I saw an explosion of that magnitude and it wasn’t on TV. I watched the cloud rise for as long as I could I watched herds of camels along the roadside. I saw a couple of sheep too. Finally we made it to our destination dirty, tired and hot.
That night we unloaded our cots and our life support gear. We’re all crowded in an abandoned Iraqi hut. It’s very primitive. The Brits were here first. They dug the latrines and made the cisterns for drainage, but we’re basically living in a hole. I believe it’s a graveyard hole. We’ve seen all the bombing that the Air Force did and we’re living in what was left after all the bombing. In the midst of blown buildings and craters the size of our house are clothing, material, and shoes strewn throughout areas of debris. The Air Force left alone historical buildings or pyramids such as “The Tomb of Abraham.” However, the Marines desecrated the tomb with graffiti after their fighting. I think they didn’t know what it was.
The shell, or concave that we’re bunking at is full of camel spiders. They are huge, hairy beasts that crackle when you squash them. The walls and ceilings are crawling with lizards. I’m always afraid that they’ll drop on my head, or on my cot while I’m sleeping. I’m very uncomfortable. So I’ve been sleeping in the 5-ton cab area. The first night in this infested shell of a dwelling my flashlight blew. My other one was packed away deep under 100 other soldiers’ bags. I was more afraid of the spiders and lizards without my flashlight than getting shot at.
There’s a PX here and I went right to it and bought a mini-mag light and extra batteries. I can’t be in the dark with these critters running around me. I was so surprised that the PX took my ATM card. And I was so relieved, even though it was expensive, for detergent, batteries and a flashlight.
The Special Forces escort wasn’t any help with the critters. They were afraid of them too.
I haven’t been able to make house (May 2nd, Fri) yet with my duffle bags because we’re still moving around. We’re not sure where our main spot is going to be. I’m concerned about mail. I haven’t heard from you in a long time. I don’t even know if you’ve sent me mail. I’ve heard that it takes a long time but I’m still wanting to hear from you. We don’t have computers or hook-up for computers where I am. And there certainly aren’t long distance phones yet. But I hear all that’s coming.
John Bugay and his five children monitor the war from their Pennsylvania home (Pittsburgh Tribune-Review photo)
My mail to you is free, but your mail to me isn’t. I’m sorry. I think all soldiers’ mail should be free. I’m mailing this to you from Tallil, Iraq. I’d like to know how long it takes for you to receive my letters.
I think of you always and I love you so. I really hope that I won’t have to be here for too long. Tell me everything that you can about what you’re doing and what is going on with all of you. I love and think of you every minute.
Always give the babies an extra kiss for me.
Saturday, May 3
How are you? I’m sure that you’re missing me terribly. Are you getting [the kids] through the school year OK? I wish I could get mail from you faster. I’m not sure that you’re even getting my mail yet.
Well, we’re at a nice little base area. The days seem to go fast. I’ve been helping the security team’s medic get supplied and prepare his vehicle for usage if he should ever need it. I help fill the water buffalo daily at a water point. I am eager to maintain our water supply. I get up with the sun and fill two big tubs with water for my daily primping. (I barely get that to myself.) If I didn’t get up real early I’d miss out on that because when the unit stirs in the morning, they all head to the water spigots and then it’s a war to get a spot for yourself.
I’ve caught a terrible cold. The dust and pollution have made it almost unbearable. The cold came with a headache, which lasted a couple of days. Combined with the heat the two really made me lethargic and depressed. Now I have a terrible cough, and I can’t enjoy smoking. “Damn,” you say!
I’ve been going to bed very early in my truck. The cab of the truck is very uncomfortable because the emergency brake and transmission are right in the middle where I want to stretch out. I’ve been putting my Kevlar helmet over the top of the stick handles, which helps fill the gap between the two seats. Then I lay my body armor over the helmet which makes a board effect crossing the two seats together. It’s lumpy and better than sleeping with the camel spiders. The spiders scare everyone here. One of the security team soldiers screamed like a girl last night when he found one of the huge, ugly spiders on his sleeping bag. I laughed so hard I nearly cried.
Sunday, May 4, 10 a.m.
I’m still missing you and not getting any mail. I hope everything is all right at home.
Every morning at sunrise I fill up my wash tubs and I set them on foot lockers in a holding connex and I try to wash as well as I can. My face is first and then my hair. I use my canteen cup to help rinse my hair. Then I wash my under arms and my chest. The clean fresh feeling only lasts for three seconds or until the next dust storm.
Cinco de Mayo, Monday, May 5, 8:00 a.m.
I’m thinking that [our neighbors] Bev and Smokey will be having a party tonight. They usually celebrate Cinco de Mayo. I hope you’ll get to have a beer and enjoy the day.
Each day away from home and you and the babies is agonizing. I can’t wait to come home to your smell and arms. I miss you so much. Today our Brit neighbor moved out and up north from here. We’re working back and forth with the Brits and the Navy too.
Monday, May 7, 2 p.m.
The days have been busy with filling the water buffalos for our washing water. Also the last two days more than half of the special-units soldiers have fallen ill from dysentery. They’re all vomiting and sleeping. At first I wasn’t concerned but now it’s turned into an epidemic.
Friday, May 9, 8:30 a.m.
It’s been two days for the soldiers here, puking and s––ing. We’ve been giving IVs straight now from morning till night. I think it’s the water that they’ve been drinking. The water is coming from an underground stream and there is supposed to be a special team working with the water to purify it. But I’m not convinced that it’s OK yet. I haven’t drunk any of it. I’m having enough trouble on my own. My chest hurts and I nearly gagged to death from coughing so much. It’s finally breaking up but it’s still thick and uncontrollable. Plus I’ve caught sand mites. They’re itching me like crazy. Around my calves and upper arms. I scrubbed myself in bleach water but I forgot to put on my insect repellant and afterward I was attacked again. The little red bumps all over me are getting bigger.
Saturday, May 10
Yesterday in my afternoon I got one of the best moments of my life. I got to speak to you, Johnny, from the pits of Hell here in Iraq. I was so happy to hear your voice. I wish that you weren’t so angry at me, but you said when I get home that we could fix things.
All the horror of being away from you and home, along with all the trouble here at this God-forsaken country have my spirits at an ultimate low. I’m feeling as bad as when my mom died. I tried to do the right thing with the army, and what I had started for our extra money and career. And I want to take care of my family and home. Today, I believe that I’ve failed in everything that I hold most dear to me.
Sunday, May 11, Mother’s Day
The main security unit left yesterday. They moved up north. Now there are only seven or eight of us left here. The rest of our unit is still in Doha. They’re on their way up but it’s taking them a long time to get here. All of our equipment is still in the States. And even more crazy is, not only is everything that we need still in the States, but the gear and life support needs are all coming by boat. Meaning that it will be another month or so before any of that stuff gets here. Meanwhile, we’ll have about 150 people or so here without vehicles, gear, tents, or computers and equipment. I can’t understand why we’d have everyone move to Iraq and not be able to do any work.
The other day we spent breakneck speed putting up one of our huge tents that we obtained from another company. It’s long hard, dirty work setting these tents up. Plus I was very ill and tired. Then after it was all completed (without floors or bracing), we started our other duties. I help retrieve water for cleaning and washing. That job includes hooking up the beasty tank to a 5-ton truck. Then we drive to the water point, get out, fill it up from a huge hose attached to a giant water bladder. The whole process takes about an hour and a half. One day it got up to 130 degrees. I’m always tired and dirty.
That evening after we set the tent up and finally got to sit down, a dust storm overtook us. Anything that wasn’t tied down with sandbags was blown away. Cots, nets, bags, gear, you name it and it was gone! We all went out later trying to find things, but we didn’t recover much. Worse was that the tent we sweated over putting up was blown, tossed, bent and mangled beyond repair. It took us another two hours just to unpiece it and pack it up, all broken and twisted.
All I eat is the MRE’s (packaged meals) when I can. All I drink is water. I’m sick of water. One of the soldiers gave me Kool Aid to put in my water and I nearly cried with happiness. I have enough Kool Aid now for four bottles of water, which I’m saving for in the evenings if I get a break.
I’m spending Mother’s Day miserable and sad. I had to finish stocking up on all the medical supplies that the security unit left me. We had to move boxes of MRE’s and water boxes for our rations, and of course fill up the water buffalo. Now I have a few minutes before some of Charlie Company arrives. They’re supposed to stay the night and then leave in the morning up North. They’re supposed to bring our mail and some of the flat bed [trucks] full of equipment that I’ll have to help unload.
My illness feels a little better today, but now my arms look like I have a pox of some sort because of all the weird fly bites. They’re bumpy, bloody, and scabby from scratching and digging at them. The weird flies dive in and bite my arms before I even see them. Sometimes I don’t even see them. I’ll only hear of reel them, and by then it’s too late. I’ve been using the Army’s insect repellant, but I don’t think it works very well, and it feels and smells bad.
Why we’re here without our major equipment and without my unit is beyond me. I wanted to come, do my duty and go home. But time is being wasted. It makes me frustrated to not do my work so that we can come home. All the delays and stops seem meaningless to me. I’m so sorry for my family to suffer and I’m so very sorry things didn’t work out the way I bargained on the army. I hope you’ll forgive me, and when I come home you and I can make our world together again.
I miss and love you all. Any time I get I’ll write and tell you what I’m thinking and doing. I hope everyone is well and happy. I see all your faces in my mind’s eye all my moments.
I kiss you and hug you now and in my dreams. Sometimes not even prayer helps me, because I miss you, Johnny, So much!
All my love to you! Forever Love, Bethany
Still Mother’s Day, May 11
I just got a letter off to you that was incomplete. But I wanted to get something in the mail to you. I don’t remember when I talked to you on the phone from here but it was such a happy time for me. Even though [our neighbor’s mother] Mary’s passing was the forefront of pain. All my girl friends and family are hurting and I’m not there. I hope I do something good here that will make a difference so that our loss of these months won’t be in vain.
I finally received some mail from you today. Thank God, I say. I read one letter about your Easter. It made my heart ache to miss that time with all of you. Thank you for making it special for all of them. I hope never to put you through this again. I love you. I say it and say it and I want it to mean more each time that I say I love you to you.
I read all the articles you sent me with great interest. The newspaper piece about the Army families was very moving. I loved seeing you all in the photograph. I’m glad that you speak your mind about your pain Johnny. I never dreamed that this would be so hard on you. I’m also glad that you’ve made friends. Also, I’m shocked to read that bit about Scott & Laci Peterson. Do you know how she and the baby were killed? And the poem I will carry in my Bible. Thank you for all the care and love I receive from you. Plus, the King Arthur morale was enjoyable. Thank you for the envelopes and your name and address labels. Now for the photos, here before I open the album my eyes begin to tear up and my heart wants to reach out to you so very dearly.
The photo album was absolutely enjoyable. But there weren’t any pictures of you. Will you send me more?
Monday, May 12
The rest of my unit came in late yesterday. Charlie Company and the BN Commander came. They stayed overnight and left early this morning. It was good to see them, however, I worry about being left behind. They went to (up north). A couple of the LRS (Long Range Security) guys became ill with dysentery symptoms so I’ve been giving IV’s all morning. I helped pass out insect repellant and sunscreen to the departing soldiers. But now I can’t help pitch tents because I can’t leave the soldiers on IV lines. (Damn you say, Ha) I’ll pay later, I’m sure.
There are always huge tents to build. My company, Bravo, is supposed to arrive today from choppers. They’re being flown in from Udairi because there aren’t any vehicles. They are going to stay here in Tallil and move from the area to the north, receiving exploitation equipment. But how they’re supposed to move back and forth is beyond me when we haven’t any vehicles. We’re always without equipment, supplies or vehicles. But there are soldiers and busy work abundant. All of Charlie Co. seemed jubilant to see me. I was so tired that it was hard to return the emotion. It was good to see them but then they were gone. I stayed alone and waved the long convoy of vehicles away and watched the last dust sweeps drift upward. I didn’t get to wash any part of my body or even brush my teeth and I was in the same uniform that I’ve been wearing for a week.
The soldier that I am attending to had diarrhea to an extreme. He’s had two accidents since this morning, and I’ve had to wash his DCU’s [desert uniform] out twice. He looks like he feels terrible. He was so dehydrated that his blood vessels were sunken in. I had to stick him three times before I could get a running IV. I hooked him up with Normal saline 9 percent with a piggyback Ringers Lactate. After about three hours he seems better, but the heat is still trying on him. While I await his bag changes I write to you. I was just thinking of how I wished very much for mail and more mail from you. One of my sister soldiers from Udairi just told me that she had some mail for me. And as soon as she unloads from Udairi she’ll give it to me. I can’t wait! Oh, time to change his bags … .
Monday, May 14
I couldn’t write for almost two days. My LRS soldier took longer to recover than I thought he would. Also, we’ve had a couple of heat injuries, and I’ve started a makeshift clinic out of an abandoned building (with Iraqi flags painted on the sides). So far this building has been full of poor sick soldiers for too long. The weather dust, sanitary conditions and acclimation to the biological elements are giving my unit a kick in their arses. (As it did with me in the beginning). However, I believe there is a virus joining the rounds. So far I just attend to the ill while my unit builds their tents and try to accommodate a life support community in this dirty desert.
A big concern is my supplies are running low and it’s very hard for me to replenish them. Charlie Co. that moved out to the north left without their antibiotics. Somehow I need to get them and my units squared away with ordinary care. (Insect repellant, sunscreens, ointments, aspirins, band-aids, etc.) Along with antiseptics.
Each evening after trying to complete all the day’s activities I look out at the once bombed, cratered, tree-singed Iraqi dust bowl and see the changes that the Air Force is making.
One of the most amazing duties to come is the s–- burning detail. We really have to pull out the barrel under the seat and mix (stir) diesel fuel in the barrel of excrement and light it on fire. We also burn all garbage. Nothing is saved from being burned up. I think all garbage burning smells worse than the s–- burning.
The Air Force is taking over this Iraqi base and every day they’re clearing, churning the desert with big bulldozers and building something new. I heard shower trailers are coming, along with an air conditioned PX. Some day there are plans for a Burger King to be built. I hope I’m not here long enough to witness that event. But the landscape changes every day. Even my unit changed an acre of desert putting up huge tents and making a food service area. Which I won’t eat at for fear of illness. A bad thing is that there is only one water buffalo (400 gallons) for about 150 people and it’s only being used by the cooks. So there isn’t any more washing water. I’m not going to get to wash my hair or body for a long time.
I want to get this in the mail and write you another letter. I love you so, and I’m always thinking of you. I’m hoping still to be coming back home in August or so. I’ll let you know as soon as I can. Please write to me all the time.
My love to you, Bethany