Baghdad isn't exactly the kind of place that lends itself easily to the traditional Valentine's Day fare of chocolates, flowers, and greeting cards. As a civilian employee of an international aid agency, I didn't have high hopes of seeing many Valentine's festivities, considering that the American demographics are weighted toward macho men who would probably forget the holiday even with the usual persistent reminders back in the US: TV commercials, red hearts lining the grocery aisles a month in advance, and local news looking into "the best gifts for that special someone."
So I decided to take matters into my own hands.
With some red card stock, ribbons, glitter glue, a few pages from a Mary Engelbreit calendar, and a red and white cake mix, I had plenty of ingredients for a cardmaking party.
I invited all the women in my compound and beyond, but only the hard-core cardmakers appeared, ready to create a little holiday cheer.
Karin came with sugar cookies decorated with pink and red icing, Maya brought a CD of love songs, and Amy won the prize for most crafty when she arrived with 15 pairs of scissors that cut in different patterns.
Bits of paper flew everywhere as we cut, pasted, and glued our way into what we felt would be the most successful American campaign in Iraq yet – Operation Iraq Love.
The cards started out with classic "Happy Valentine's Day" slogans, but quickly morphed into humor that would be appreciated only in Baghdad.
By the time the bowl of pink and white M&Ms had nearly disappeared, we were armed with 50 or so cards and plates full of sugar cookies.
So, on Feb. 14, when the sleepy bureaucrats waltzed into the office, rather than the regular yawning and moaning, I heard giggles and laughter as people gathered around our little stand of heart-shaped cookies that tasted like home and a wall of crazy Valentine's Day greetings with caricatures of flak vests and duck and cover bunkers on red construction paper.
Although our cards were a big hit, I didn't discover the true spirit of love and support that this holiday can symbolize until much later in the day.
I walked over to the palace that houses thousands of military and State Department employees and found in the hallways piles of valentines sent by schoolchildren and other Americans to cheer up the troops.
Each letter was filled with sincerity and childlike individuality that made me want to laugh and cry at the same time.
One letter that included a photo of a little girl with a toothless smile read:
Thank you for serving in our country. I ripped my pants on the slide today. It wasn't just a little rip, but a very big one, so that everyone could see my purple underwear. I was a little embarrassed that everyone could see my underwear, but I was sure glad I had it! Please stay safe in Iraq. Happy Valentine's Day.
I think Natalie will host a successful TV talk show one day!
On the other hand, I hope that Stephanie, now in the fourth grade, will go into politics. Her letter said:
Thank you for risking your life for freedom. I am so grateful to have a hero like you. Please come home safely. We are praying for you.
Kids wrote very moving things: "I want to be you someday." "You are my hero." "Please come home safe." "I love you."
One of the letters from a teacher in Texas said, "These kids were so excited when I told them about the project because most of them have family members that are there or have been over there recently. These letters are from the heart."
Oh, they are.
Reading those cards from children liberated me from a burdening sense of cynicism and discouragement.
Although I wasn't a soldier, or a hero, I felt that the sweet sincerity and innocence of penciled letters pasted onto Crayola-crusted construction paper held me to a higher standard of integrity and diligence than any manager or auditor could ever enforce.
I suspect that the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction would become obsolete if everyone out here could see the smiling face of a Natalie or a Stephanie looking up at them saying, "Thank you for the good work that you're doing. I want to be you."
It forces one to ask, Am I worthy of this child's unswerving praise?
Yes, that was a Valentine's Day to remember. I never knew that a holiday so inherently commercial could feel profound.
I had attempted to create a little slice of home that brought a fun twist to our topsy-turvy lifestyle in Iraq. But those children had conveyed a deep love with their simple greetings. They sent their creativity and sincerity to an unknown person, confident that it would reach someone doing good work, whom they could admire.
They didn't know it, but their little Valentine's Day cards had raised the bar for all of us.