6 Feb
Iraq Gardens. Letter from a Physician 2010

Posted by Kenneth Helphand in the Iraq archive

The following letter was received Feb. 2013 from Dr. Rachel Wasserman. It was originally written in 2010.


Hello Professor Kenneth Helphand,

 I read Defiant Gardens recently and it hit home. I have been a career Army Officer, physician and amateur gardener for over thirty years. In that time, I have read thousands of books related to these pursuits, but yours was the first that I came across that was so relevant to all three. In the spirit of the book, I am sending you some photos related to war time gardening and an essay that I sent to family and friends during my last tour to Iraq. I don’t usually send unsolicited mail to persons I have not met, but I hope you will take a look at it and if you do a sequel you can use what was sent.  I really enjoyed the book.  Thanks for writing such an original and thoughtful work.


Below is a copy of my writing.


It was a little short of midnight when I finished up spreading the large mound of earth in the area that I had hoped would be the future vegetable patch and completed the much needed watering of the hospital courtyard garden. I was working by the light of the moon and the bright lights in the front of the hospital, but in the darkened corner of the garden where I was putting the final touches on the soon to be pumpkin mound I could still see the stars in the sky. Although the days often blended together, I would have known even without a calendar or the change in weather that nearly seven months had passed since I had come to Iraq when I saw the Scorpion rising barely visible above the eastern horizon. Looking into the sky and measuring the passage of time in much the same way as the first gardeners of this land, I felt a personal connection to this place that had been the birthplace of my people, and the profound irony that truly but for the grace of God, who had told Abraham to leave and seek his destiny elsewhere, that I might be sharing the fate of the populace beyond the razor wire topped earthen and concrete fortifications of FOB Diamondback. I could imagine that over a thousand years after Abraham headed to Canaan, that a very distant ancestor of mine could have been here in Nineveh province, the reluctant guest of Assyrian or Babylonian conquerors, or a voluntary member of the resultant Diaspora that lead to Iraq having a very large and long established Jewish community until the late 1940s when many were forced to flee to the re-born state of Israel and beyond. And here I was, returning to the origin, like the circling constellations above, a part of another cycle of history. When the Hunter rose in the early morning eastern sky, it would be time to redeploy home. Turning my gaze from the sky to the earth, I placed my shovel in the corner and headed off to shower and then to bed. Tomorrow would be another day in the clinic and there would be sunflowers to plant after the blazing sun went down in the evening.

It was only a patch of green, but in a situation where none of us at the 47th Combat Support Hospital had any control over the events occurring outside the wire and very little over what happened inside it, that hospital garden was more than just a project that I and a few other green thumb types did to pass the time. It represented a source of peace and order, a symbol of life in defiance of the chaos and destruction that surrounded us in Mosul back in 2006. Many of the patients, staff, and passersby found it therapeutic to walk through or sit and relax amongst the green and bright colors of the trees, grass, and flowers while watching the antics of the sparrows and chickadee like bulbuls that gathered by the fountain and snatched insects with aerobatic grace. I remember one Englishman, a member of a private security firm who was recovering from wounds received in an ambush that had killed his friend, remark that the roses were beautiful and his friend, who had been an avid gardener, would have liked to have seen them. Although he was sad about losing his “mate”, the fragrant roses reminded him of the good times they had shared and that helped as he tried to get himself emotionally and physically ‘back in the game’. On happier occasions, I enjoyed seeing the smiling faces of the infantrymen of the 172nd Stryker Brigade who often told me that it was so nice to see the rows of sunflowers that grew over the tops of the T-walls surrounding the hospital when they returned to the FOB from a mission. It made it feel a little bit like coming home.

Attempts to make the garden more like a typical American suburban one sometimes resulted in unexpected reactions that were darkly humorous and a precautionary tale of why doing an episode in Iraq of ‘Surprise Gardener’ would not be a good idea for now. Captain Warshak’s young daughter had mailed him a concrete stepping stone complete with hand print and ‘ I love you Daddy’ scratched into the surface. When CPT Warshak asked if I would put it in the garden, I said yes, it would be my pleasure to give it pride of place and I put it in the pumpkin patch that evening. The next morning I was confronted by one of the sergeants from the tactical operations center who wanted me to verify that it was meant to be there and not an IED disguised as an innocent kid’s expression of love for her father. For a moment I had visions of the MPs barricading the CSH as it was evacuated and EOD called in to investigate the nefarious stepping stone. “Yes, it’s just a stepping stone from CPT Warshak’s kid”. I said.  “Are you sure?” was the reply. “Of course, I am. I put it there”, jumping up and down on the stone to emphasize that short of hitting him in the head with the step, it was a non-lethal device. Another time, I inadvertently scared Khalil, one of our interpreters, nearly out of his wits by watering the grass. Khalil also liked to garden and he had planted the roses when the hospital was first built in 2004. He had just gotten through raking up the leaves prior to me watering the grass. Rich had sent me an adjustable sprinkler head so I would not need to spend as much time hand watering and I had put it behind some tiles to keep it near by the faucet and hose but hidden from sight so it would not ‘walk off’. When I heard Khalil give a desperate yell ” No, Ma’am, put it down” and saw him cringe, I wondered what was going on. “Put what down?”  “The grenade, Ma’am”. “The grenade…Khalil, this is a sprinkler head. You know, to water the grass”. Doing my best not to cause him more embarrassment by bursting out laughing, I did agree that the olive drab and black cylindrical head attached to a metallic spike did bear a close resemblance to a certain Russian made anti-personnel device. I made it a point after those experiences to not order any garden gnomes and to tell folks in advance about any changes in the landscaping and equipment.

MAJ Stephens, our XO, met me one day walking down the main road and asked what I was doing  carrying two armfuls of tomato plants and zinnias. There was a small contingent of minor league horticulturalists on the FOB and we often exchanged or just gave away extra plants to anyone interested in livening up the otherwise drab and unwelcoming environment we lived in. I told him I was taking the seedlings to the Turks who ran one of the souvenir shops. He commented it seemed strange growing tomatoes in Iraq. I said planting tomatoes in Iraq had been going on for centuries; planting bombs was what was really strange. But he had a point; sometimes it is the ordinary that seems out of place when deployed. Wearing baggy black PT pants and Gray PT Jacket, I must have looked like an ordinary gardener to the young Iraqi policeman who was recovering from a bad gunshot wound to the right arm. I had seen him sitting on the bench in the garden on several occasions for more than a week while I was doing weeding, watering, and pruning on my free time. One day he was sitting on the garden bench with an Iraqi interpreter who had suffered a blood clot deep in the veins of a leg that had been damaged several months earlier by gun shots and was being started on blood thinning agents to prevent formation of new thrombi that could go to his lungs and kill him. Both were chain smoking like typical Iraqis. Putting down my hose and pruning shears and putting on my physician persona, I went up to the interpreter and said they should not be smoking on general principles but he needed to stop right now. The interpreter laughed and said he knew. I was not the first doc to admonish him on that. I told him in his case it could cause another DVT and kill him. The interpreter laughed at that too, stating that once he left the FOB, it would be a tossup whether the risk from smoking was worse than the risk of being on the Coumadin given the origin of the major predisposing factor of his current state. Smiling back, I said suit yourself, but make sure you and the other guy pick up your butts. I didn’t want them in the flower beds.

Then the young looking Iraqi policeman said something to the interpreter. When I asked the interpreter what he said, he told me that the guy wanted to know if he could work for me as an assistant gardener, he was tired of being shot at for the money he was making as a lowly jundi (private). I replied through the interpreter that I was a doctor at the hospital, I could not offer him a job, that this was a hobby. He shrugged and said he had left his farm in a poor village near the Syrian border in search of a better living but he had been on the job for only a few months when one of the members of his police department turned out to be an insurgent and he got shot stopping the insurgent from carrying out a suicide attack. He asked if he could help in the garden even if it wasn’t for pay. It would be good to do something to take his mind off of recent events; it was so hard to know who to trust. I replied through the interpreter, that I would be happy to have his help and I knew how he felt about it being difficult to trust people as I handed him the hose to water the flowers, while I picked up the sharp pruning shears to remove the dead canes and spent flowers from the roses. For the next few days, until he was discharged, we would garden for an hour or two in companionable silence but able to communicate by gesture and a common fondness for growing things. I never did find out if he returned to the police force or back to the farm.

The hospital staffers who enjoyed gardening or who were at least willing to pitch in to water the flowers and grass that made the courtyard a place of unexpected serenity formed the “Mosul Chapter of The Guns and Roses Gardening Club”. Though thankfully we never had to rely upon our guns to keep insurgent forces at bay, I was personally tempted to use mine on certain minions of Kellogg, Brown, & Root from time to time. One of those times occurred after KBR was called upon to do contractually required grounds maintenance and they mowed the lawn nearly down to the ground with weed whackers. They must have been from the General Curtis Lemay School of lawn care because they seemed to believe that in order to mow the lawn it was necessary to nearly destroy it!  It was a good thing the work crew wasn’t there when I saw the devastation otherwise I might have done something that would have reflected poorly on the Army but would have been satisfying on the personal level as well as sparing the armorer, SPC Burrowes, from having to account for my combat load of 9mm rounds when I was redeployed to my next assignment at the Fort Leavenworth Penitentiary. With a lot of fluid resuscitation the grass was rescued in spite of the blazing sun and heat. Another KBR employee became the focus of my ire when he who took it upon himself to be a water conservation Nazi while I was on leave. Seems he thought we were using too much water for the garden. While I very much understood the need for water conservation given that the water had to be trucked in at considerable effort, expense, and even some danger, our usage had not been greater than the unit that we replaced and it was poor form to cut my hoses and disable the water pump without prior notice. It was pointed out to his supervisor that not only was it rude to do this without communication; it was also unwise to prevent us from using a water spigot that could be used for general cleaning and emergency firefighting.

Upon returning from leave, I saw that the pumpkins had perished, the grass was brown, and the flower beds were just barely surviving in the dry 120 F heat thanks to the club members using water bottles and buckets to bring water to the beds at least a few times a week.  I heard the tale of woe from MAJ Haskins and MAJ Gainok, who had tried to keep the garden in top shape in my absence but had not been able to get the water issue resolved in spite of promises by KBR to quickly act upon work orders to hook up an alternative water supply using the non-potable water used to keep dust down on the roads. When using NCO channels and polite phone calls did not work, I took on the task to win the water war. Mounting the beat up modified golf cart that served as our ‘tactical vehicle’, my driver and I donned our Kevlar helmets and roared out of the hospital parking lot at a blazing 5 mph, the top speed on that high performance beast, to assault the ‘enemy’ HQ and come back with the paperwork completed or being carried upon it in a heroic quest to save the flowers. It was a good thing the employee who had started this mess wasn’t there when we arrived at the KBR help desk. Though I had intended to give a fuming speech to that guy about the poor customer service for the billions that KBR was getting at the largesse of the taxpayer, I soon got sidetracked into being Marcus Welby, MD when I ran into a couple of employees who I had seen as patients and started doing curbside consulting in spite of my attempt to be an avenging crusader and pissed off brass. Probably that was just as well, because soon I had some sympathetic allies who brought in their supervisors to take care of my problem. I let the management know that we had not gotten the promised water source and the specific hoses that were destroyed belonged to me. If they did not want me to lodge a complaint about wanton destruction of private property they needed to either replace them or compensate me. The water supply was reestablished a few days later and I received new hoses. It was also implied that if a certain employee continued to have a bad attitude towards serving military customers he would be given the chance to find alternative job opportunities.  I guess the words ‘private property’ and ‘filing charges’ resonated with KBR supervisors. Though the garden had taken a beating, the flowers survived. Mission Accomplished.

When recalling what my most worthwhile achievements were during my first tour in Iraq, that garden may have been amongst my best. It was with this in mind that I had planned on doing something similar when I returned in 2009. Knowing that I was deploying once again with the 47th Combat Support Hospital made the idea all the more fitting. Thinking how it seemed that every time I tried to start a communal garden project back in the States, I got deployed, it would be ideal to do a large scale area beautification project when I got to Al-Asad Air Base. After all what could go wrong, I would already be deployed to Iraq. So I got command approval for the project, drew up plans, organized volunteers, requested T-walls for murals and painted gravel, a bench and had Rich ship 750 seed starter pods. Then about two weeks after starting the seeds, prepping the ground, getting the gravel, designing the mural, etc. I was ordered to Balad to be the Command Battalion Surgeon for the 61st Multi-Functional Medical Battalion, a unit providing medical planning and logistics support for outpatient clinics throughout Iraq. Guess you can be deployed from a deployment!! 

MAJ Greta Collier, who was my battle buddy back at the 47th CSH in Al-Asad, and made sure I hit the Gym on a regular basis, tells me that everything is sprouting well to include the cantaloupe that I planted for SSG Brad Averitt who was unimpressed with the quality of the melons at the DFAC. But when I get a chance to go back to Al-Asad I can only hope that something will have survived, let alone thrived, in my absence. I was told that the garden in Mosul has reverted back to scraggly grass and tough eucalyptus trees. Perhaps in the future someone else will come along and see the potential in the wasteland and put in the effort to make it flourish. On a vastly larger scale Iraq itself is like that garden. It has the potential in terms natural resources and people to thrive, but it will require the right vision and will to harness it. If the Iraqi national elections go off as planned 15 January 2010, I will have a front row seat to observe whether the seeds of democracy that were planted here with Sadaam’s fall in 2003 will continue to grow or revert back to the weed patch of dictatorship and sectarian strife.



Rochelle Wasserman, MD