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A Stranger in a Strange Land Turkiye

I had been apprehensive about accepting a job overseas-especially in the land of the Terrible Turks-but I survived.  I even thrived!" ~ John D. Tumpane, Scotch and Holy Water


SSG Neel, you're on Levi Orders for Turkey

I had to look the place up on the map.  The only thing I knew about Turkey was what I had seen on the movie Midnight Express.  When the Army asked if I would take Jonathon and very pregnant Kim, I immediately chose the fifteen-month unaccompanied tour. 

"Apprehensive?"  No.  I was dreading it.

What I found when I arrived was a beautiful country, filled with the most beautiful, hospitable people, with delicious food, pristine beaches, music I would learn to love, and interesting places to see.  Turkiye is both ancient and modern at the same time.  I fell in love with everything about it.  Since that first tour, I volunteered for two more tours, and would go back tomorrow if I were still in the Army.

Like Tumpane, I thrived.


Culture Shock!

I arrived in Turkey not knowing what to expect.  From all the literature the command sent me, the process of signing in looked like an overwhelming series of tasks.  I had to find a place to live among the Turks, get the utilities turned on, take classes in the Turkish language, shop in a very small PX or Commissary or out in the Turk marketplace.  I wouldn't have a car, TV, or phone.  I would travel on a NATO bus to work and I had no clue how that was supposed to happen.

I was assigned a great sponsor, Rick Coburn.  He and his wife Liz taught me how to do things the Turk Way.  Within a few days I had a great little apartment on the economy, had all the utilities turned on, knew how to get to work, where the PX and Commissary were hidden, and had a membership to the Video Club. They took me all around the city, helped me in-process, got me started in my new job, and, most importantly, took me on my first trip outside Izmir to the ruins of Hierapolis above the city of Denizli.  After they left, I pretty much kept to myself, making a few friends at work, but mostly traveling solo and spending time alone.

My job was different than anything I had ever done.  My Bosses and I were responsible for moving the Alternate War Headquarters to a location, somewhere in Turkey, as a backup in case the bunkered HQ, called Disco Hit (Don't ask me why, because I haven't a clue) ceased to function.  This included vehicles from four different nations, officers and enlisted from all NATO/OTAN nations and the spectrum of war fighting jobs, all the communications needed to communicate worldwide, and a Turk security detail.  The whole thing was covered by a gigantic camouflage net, an amazing feat accomplished by the young Turk officers, NCOs and Askers.  Sometimes we moved this by road, but once, I moved it by Turk LST from Izmir to Tekirdag, up the Aegean, through the Dardanelles, and into the Sea of Marmora.  I was always a proponent for ditching the whole idea and setting up in a hotel somewhere close to the war if there ever was one.

I was also the Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical NCO for the HQ.  The command sent me to Vilseck Germany to school and had me evaluate the HQ's defensive preparations and capabilities.  After making my recommendations, and meeting complete resistance, I suggested to the Turk 3-Star that, in the case of an attack, having not listened to me, that we should all just die in place.  I was quickly ushered out of his office by his subalterns.  One does not disagree with Turk Generals.  It turned out OK.  He was actually amazed that a Junior NCO would have the gumption to speak with such candor and he backed me up several times after that when I asked for changes.

A very brave Kim brought the kids, 3 years and 3 months old, over during the summer during this tour and we had a great time together. The Turks loved Jonathon and Elise.  We did a little traveling and visited Chios, a close-by Greek island, so they could stay longer without extending my tour.  Kim came back over at Christmas and spent a month with me.  We had a blast.


First Tour, Unaccompanied, 1984-1986 (SSG-SFC)

During my first tour I was assigned as the Ops NCO, Headquarters Command, Land Forces Southeast Europe (LSE), outside the city in Sirinyer.   I rented a small, two-bedroom apartment, across from Alsancak Cami (mosque) just off one of the main thoroughfares in the city.  It was noisy, but I got use to it.  The Imam's morning call to prayer was my signal to get up and commune with the gods of running.  I ran a lot this tour.  Right down the street from my appartment was Kultur Park, which had a nice running track and a figure eight of roads running through it.  I think back then it was free admission early in the morning.  I'd be out there all by myself most mornings.


Second Tour, A Break After England, 1990 - 1992  (SFC-MSG)

During my second tour, I worked for Plans and Operations, NATO HQ, Land Forces South East Europe (LSE) in Alsancak.  I took Kim and the kids with me, this time for a two year tour.  I took every opportunity to goof off and spend time with them; I needed the break after the two years in the Parachute Regiment.  We lived west of the main part of town, in a thirteenth-floor penthouse apartment, with four bedrooms, a nice kitchen, two baths, and a balcony that went all the way around the apartment.  The balcony was large enough for the kids to ride bikes there.  It was a place designed for large gatherings and we made and entertained a large number of American and a few Turk friends.

The job was a no-brainer; any American Specialist could have done it. I mostly recorded, filled, and classified all of our products, which were exercise operations orders for NATO exercises in Turkey.  With the job came travel around Turkey in either one of the American General's C-12s or UH-1s.  We flew all over the place, traveling as far east as Erzurum, South to  Adana, and up north into Corlu.


Third Tour, Interrupted, 2000 - 2001 (SGM)

My third tour, I worked as the J3 Ops Sergeant Major for the new Headquarters, Joint Command Southeast Europe.  Two weeks after I arrived, I was deployed to Kosovo when the headquarters took over Command of KFOR-4.  Yeah, that was a huge, unwelcome surprise.  My plan to do fifteen months at the beach and combing the countryside for ruins ended up being only three months, but it was the best three months ever.

This time, because I was the Sergeant Major and couldn't really hang out with the enlisted or the officers, though there were some I liked very much, I made a bunch of Turk friends, and that, as they say, made all the difference. There were the Models (not kidding), the Math Teacher, the Computer Genius, the Turk SGM, and the Singer and her band who all became my preferred friends.

The job was supposed to be as J-3 SGM, but I ended up being the SGM for the whole HQ, now in a new building at Sirinyer Garrison.  It was like going back in time to my first tour.  Even many of the people I worked with back on the mid-eighties were there, mostly the ladies in HQ Command.


Three Tours and It Is All About the People

There are many great things about Turkiye, but, for me, the absolute best thing has to be the people that I have met.  With each new person came a lifetime of memories, smiles, and stories.  With each trip came incredible adventures, new things to learn, and great personalities.  I have found all of my most important friends except one and we stay in touch.


Ataturk, The Father of the Turks

You can't really talk about Turkiye, or even understand the place, unless you talk about Ataturk.

Mustafa Kemal is the George Washington and Thomas Jefferson of the modern Turkish Republic.  A hero of WWI and the battle of Gallipoli, he led the Turk forces who kicked the Europeans out of Asia Minor, deposed the Sultan, and became the first President of the Republic.  He, almost singlehandedly  moved Turkiye into the modern age by instituting sweeping social, economic, and religious reforms.  He is revered by the people of his country; to talk badly about him in Turkey is a serious crime.

He was given the name Ataturk by the people which means Father of the Turks.  His mausoleum in Ankara is a place of pilgrimage for all Turks and friends of Turkiye.


The Culture


The Turks are a proud lot.  They love their country, their culture, and their Republic.  Though a prominently Muslim nation, they are respectful and tolerant of  other religions and beliefs.  They are a giving and hospitable people, and enjoy sharing the beautiful things about their country to every visitor. 

Turks always seem to be in a rush, but will stop and talk for hours over a glass of tea or cup of coffee.  They are trusting to a fault and can always be counted on to come through on a promise, in┼čallah, in God's Time, of course.  They will cut in front of you in line at the Bank, Electric Company, or McDonalds, not because they are rude, but because they are in a hurry and would not presume to hurry you along, allowing you to relax and take your time.  Young people offer their seats to elders.  Men kiss each other on the cheek and hold hands as a sign of respect and close friendship.  They adore and spoil their children.

But, they can be aggressive, especially behind the wheel of a car.  I think it is the only place where they can still display their ancient warrior culture.  The Turks are, after all, some of the greatest warriors of all time.

When you visit Turkiye, you are immediately immersed in history.  The most ancient settlements yet discovered are just outside of Konya.  The Aegean and Mediterranean Coastlines are dotted with hundreds of Greek, Roman and Lycian ruins. 

Within a short drive from where I lived are the churches mentioned in John's Revelation, two of the Wonders of the Ancient World, and the Walls of Troy.  Large cities host museums and sites from pre-history, Archaic, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Seljuk, and Ottoman times.



The History

When I had a chance to look around Turkiye, I found that I was surrounded by History.  Everywhere I turned, there was a museum or ruin.  Five of the churches mentioned in John's Revelation were within easy driving distance, Laodicea was a pretty long trip .  I was living in the seventh, Smyrna.  Museums were all over the place covering every time period of Asia Minor.  Troy was just up the coast, though I didn't see it until my second tour.  One of the best purchases I made while there was a map of the Aegean Coast and a book called Ancient Ruins of Turkey.  I began to travel.

My process began to look like this:

  • Buy a book on a site, study during the week,

  • grab a bus to the closest town (Lutfen Efendum, Selcuk getmek istiyorum.),

  • find a place to stay (Afedersinez Agabey, iyi otel nerede var mi?),

  • visit the archaeology museum (arkeoloji muzesi),

  • and then head to the site. 

I would study the site the first day, reading about each stop.  The next day was for serious photography; no reading, just shooting.  I could never find balance at first.  I'd either study and forget to shoot, or shoot and never learn a thing.  My first trip, to Ephesus, was a mess.

By Pergamum, I had perfected my process.

Troy was a whole different story.



Traveling Turkiye

Travel in Turkiye is always an adventure and you must be flexible.  My weekends and holidays were spent combing the countryside for ruins, beaches, and hiking trails.  First I'd map out where I wanted to go, then catch a taxi to the Autobus Garage, tell the kids where I wanted to go, hop on the newest looking bus headed that way, pay my ticket, and sit back for scenery and map checks.

I found that keeping a map and compass on you is a must, or you're likely to end up going past your destination before someone remembers your stop for you.  Another handy item is a book, in English, to open up on the bus.  There are always students along who will want to practice their English and that really comes in handy.

Once in your town, a smattering of Turkish and some decent hand and arm signals will get you to your market, beach, site, or museum.

A small Turkish phrase book is handy for finding a good hotel, the best food, shopping, and emergencies.  Murdering the Turkish language is never frowned upon, but considered a compliment that you care to try.  Be prepared for an exacting lesson or two if you get something wrong.  The point and read method hardly ever works; Turks will almost always insist that you try to pronounce your phrase.

If you're a photographer, another handy thing to have along is a bag, or two, of Tootsie Rolls.  They keep well in the Turkish heat, make for a nice treat for the Turk kids you want to photograph, and to occupy the cute little buggers while you're trying to take photos without them jumping in the field of view.

My favorite stories of Turkey come from those trips that went a little off track.  Getting lost, missing my bus, missing my stop, or running out of gas, have made for wonderful experiences every time.  Yep.  Flexible is the way to go in Turkiye.



Turkish Cuisine

To Me, Turkish is the best food in the whole world.  It is a wonder that I didn't come back from Izmir weighing 300lbs; I ate all the time and usually asked for double portions.  The vegetables and fruits are fresh and organic.  The dishes are well prepared, pleasing to the eye, delicious, and come with great names like "The Priest Fainted" and "Woman's Thigh Meatballs." 

I quickly found or was shown amazing places to eat in Izmir.  My Favorites are: The Altin Kapi for the Iskendar Doner, Miko's Grill for the Octopus Pie, and Venedik's for the Pizza.  The best of times were spent eating at a great restaurant for two to three hours, drinking and dancing till dawn, a walk along the bay at sunrise, and breakfast at a soup kitchen before heading back to the apartment.  All other things aside, I could live in Turkey for the food.




Those were my experiences then.  I am worried now.  Yes, I would go back in a heartbeat, but I wonder at the direction my second home is taking.  It seems that the president ruling party is grabbing all of the power and crushing any opposition.  Anyone deemed a threat are being rounded up and imprisoned.  Teachers, Judges, Military, Reporters, and Opposition Leaders all live on the edge there these days.  A single powerful man in power can not be a good thing for the Republic of Ataturk.