The Magazine of the University of Minnesota Duluth

Volume 21• Number 2 • Summer 2004

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In Our Hearts and Minds

Above: Amber Benning (left) with a co-worker. Cheryl Diaz Meyer (right) in an Iraqi orphanage.

News about reconstruction and humanitarian efforts in the Middle East reaches us every day at UMD. We heard from Amber Benning, who gave up her position as Student Association President last year when she was called into active duty. She’s back now, but was stationed in Kuwait and ran missions into Iraq from April to December, 2003. We’ve been in contact with alumnus Donald Uram, who was hired to work on a project in the southern Iraq town of Samawah to implement a local governance program. We’ve also received e-mail and photos from Dallas Morning News photographer Cheryl Diaz Meyer who just completed her second visit to Iraq

Last fall, Specialist Amber Benning, 428th Quartermaster Company, Kuwait wrote: “I’ve been overseas for seven and a half months now and things are going well. I’m living about an hour north of Kuwait City at Camp Victory. We are a lot closer to ‘civilization’ since we moved here in late September. It’s certainly not home but now we have bunk beds, which is a blessing after sleeping on a cot for five months! We are living in large tents that hold about 50 people so privacy is non-existent. Time alone is almost impossible to come by... it’s a good thing that I like people and that I can sleep through just about anything!

“Over the months the desert has become more bearable. The temps only reach the 80s now whereas in July and August it was hitting 140-150 degrees almost everyday. That heat was so hard on everyone. The breeze was like to burst of hot air you get when you open an oven, only it was constant. Now it gets cold at night; I had to ask Mom to send me some ‘long johns’ so I wouldn’t freeze during guard duty! Another good thing about the change of seasons is that the sandstorms are few and far between...

“This will be the first year in my life not seeing snow... I never thought that I would miss it so much!

“I’ve been very blessed. I’ve met some truly wonderful people and I’ve been safe. I certainly can’t complain. We’ve been to Iraq only a handful of times and we’ve had no incidents to date. We are lucky, and I pray every night that our good fortune continues.”

Donald Uram, who graduated from UMD in 1981, doesn’t know Amber Benning, but during his two months in Iraq he saw many military personnel like Benning in dangerous situations. “The people I was with were fairly safe. We were civilians and our job was to start rebuilding services for the Iraqi people. It was the military personnel who were in danger. I saw them, in their uniforms, rebuilding schools, rebuilding hospitals and they were targets for terrorists.”

Uram left his job as the Director of Management and Budget for the city of Eden Prairie to work for RTI in Iraq. RTI is a research organization with 2,200 scientists, experts and researchers who help universities, government, industry and other nonprofits around the world solve problems, from drug development to education reform. After a training period, he landed in Samawah, a city of about 150,000 people in an area that had been largely neglected by Hussein’s regime. “Samawah and the southern part of the country had taken the brunt of Iran-Iraq war and the first Gulf War,” Uram said, “The conditions are still very poor and you can imagine how frustrated people became when the temperatures reached 130 degrees and there was a sporadic water supply, no electricity, and fuel shortages.”

Uram’s task was to assess 20 different ministries or departments, and try to understand what services they could rely on and what still needed to be provided. He traveled to offices with his interpreter and assessed the condition of each service.

During his stay, Uram sat down with 30 different department heads from the 20 ministries to gather information to use in preparing a six-month spending plan. This plan included such basic services as electricity, water, fuel, sewer, education, health, oil distribution and also youth and sports. “I felt very strongly about helping the children. It is just as important as the other services,” he said. Uram knows the value of athletic activity. Back in the states, Uram is a triathlete and has participated in two Ironman distance triathlons. “Those kids need something healthy to do; they need to feel self-respect. One way for them to feel pride is to form athletic teams.”

Uram felt safe the entire time he was in Iraq, but safety came with a price. “We couldn’t live with the locals. The housing just wasn’t available, and even if it had been, there were security issues,” he said. “We stayed in a hotel and ate at the CPA compound. It seemed like every day I ate chicken and rice.”

Uram’s team wasn’t allowed to go to restaurants, but Emad, an English professor serving as the head translator, was able to make special arrangements. “Emad grew up in Samawah; he went to college in Basrah; and he knew everybody,” Uram said. Emad was able to secure a private dinner at a Samawah restaurant for the team.

“Every day, Emad sat right next to me,” Uram said. In addition to translating the interviews with the ministry directors, Emad translated the information documents, which contained complicated finance jargon. “Emad was always trying to teach me Arabic,”said Uram. “First off, I learned ‘Al salaam a’alaykum!’ which is hello and goodbye.”

Uram made it back to Minnesota safely. He said, “While I knew it was potentially dangerous, I didn’t let it bother me. I’ve never let fear dictate what I do with my life. This was something I wanted to do. I only regret that I couldn’t stay to see some of the projects completed.”


World traveler, award winning photographer, and Duluth native, UMD alumnus Cheryl Diaz Meyer covered the war in Iraq for the Dallas Morning News. Then, in November, 2003, Diaz Meyer returned to Iraq for a several week stint to work on stories about reconstruction. Both times, she shared her story and her photographs with the United States.

In Iraq last spring, she saw serious action and nightmarish incidents. After coming within 20 feet of exploding bombs, Meyer had the prayer, “Please make it stop” running continuously through her head. But she didn’t retreat. Instead she continued to photograph the Iraqi people and the American soldiers who shared with her their first-hand account of the war and its effects.

During the war, Meyer kept a daily journal throughout her assignment in the Middle East for the Dallas Morning News where she is a senior staff photographer. “She recorded history,” said her boss, Ken Geiger, the director of photography at the Dallas newspaper. “She did a marvelous job.”

Diaz Meyer graduated from UMD in 1991 with a bachelor’s degree in German and from Western Kentucky University in 1994 with a degree in journalism. Shown above in an Iraqi orphanage, Meyer has covered news in Afghanistan, the Philippines, and Guatemala.

Travel is not uncommon to her. On the Iraqi assignment, she first covered war-related stories in Bahrain and later was embedded for over a month with the Second Tank Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment. Meyer’s mother, Sylvia Meyer, at home in Duluth, tracks her daughter’s movements through photographs on the internet. When Diaz Meyer travels, each picture is reassurance to her mother that she is safe.

— Cheryl Reitan

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