Retired and In Iraq

By Mitch Traphagen (

SUN CITY CENTER - The violence and bloodshed in Iraq would seem to be a long way away from the peace and quiet of Sun City Center. As SCC resident Charlotte Knaub can tell you, however, it is only a 25 hour plane ride and a road trip through the desert away.

An Observer News article on Oct. 2 told the story of 61-year-old Elmer Snow, also a resident of Sun City Center, and his job on the border of Iraq and Kuwait. The article went on to ask, "How many south county residents would be willing to do this?"

At least one more resident from the largest retirement community in Hillsborough County was willing. So much for the "retirement" part of the retirement community.

Charlotte Knaub is a registered nurse who retired in the 1990s from a position with the United Nations. She spent years on assignments around the world. As she approached the age of 60, the retirement age for U.N. workers, she realized that such a relatively young age may be a bit too young for retirement in the U.S. Aside from fulfilling family obligations, she packed her bags and headed out into the world again. Knaub, however, wasnít exactly on a tourist mission. The countries she traveled to, Albania, Somalia, Kosovo and others, arenít high on the list of "must see" locations for the jet set.

Knaub was sent to Iraq at the end of July as part of two teams with an assignment to survey the food, water, electrical and medical situation in the Basra area. "This was in preparation for approximately 300,000 Iraqis to return who had fled in advance of the war," she said. "They were literally knocking on the gates to come home."

Although the assignment was planned to last a few months, her mission was cut short due to the instability of the area. "Out of the 22 nights, we spent five nights in a safe room propped up against the wall. We had backpacks ready to evacuate on five minute alert - ready to evacuate to the British camp. I would have liked to have stayed longer but finally we were evacuated to Kuwait," she said.

With virtually no infrastructure, no government and temperatures in excess of 115 degrees, this was not a job for the weak or the foolhardy.

"We were told not to have any flags or U.S. insignias on our clothes," Knaub said. "Iím not ashamed of being an American but I have no wish to attract unpleasant attention. Usually when you have people working like this they are quite proud of their country. But in this case, we had t-shirts with small letters and people would put shirts over that when out in public."

For the most part, the t-shirts were the only way to know who the staff members were. "I never did find out how many people worked in our office," she said. I usually wore the proper dress because there were many Iranians there and there was the Iranian Morality Police - they donít know whether or not you are a foreigner and they could be pretty nasty."

As a registered nurse, Iraqi staff members would ask Knaub for medical advice and for examinations and they would often bring family members as well. Knaub believed that in many cases the people were more interested in meeting an American than they were in getting medical advice.

"They were not shy about sharing their opinions of their ex-president and urgently reminded me that Hussein was only one person and that 18 million people, long deprived of essential food and medical supplies and services, still lived in Iraq and are ready and willing to rebuild their country," she said.

On a few occasions she was left alone in the office. "Thatís not supposed to happen," she said. "There was no working telephone and people were always coming in and going out. I just smiled a lot. It soon dawned on me that everyone was wearing loose shirts because everyone had guns under them."

The picture Knaub paints is not a pretty one. The area faced problems with raw sewage, virtually no electricity, no garbage collection, polluted rivers and virtually no clean water, let alone running water. She said that she was lucky to have running water where she stayed but made a point of keeping her mouth and eyes tightly closed while showering. Raw sewage flowed directly into the river that supplied the water. In addition to drinking needs, she would use bottled water to wash her face and brush her teeth.

"I no longer ever expect to drink water out of a faucet," she said.

The quiet and peaceful world of Sun City Center is a long way from the worldís hot spots that Knaub has lived in for much of her life. But despite years of experience in some of the worldís most difficult places, Knaub has not become jaded towards the plight of those effected by war and disaster.

In fact, just the opposite seems to have occurred - it seems that things have become more difficult for her.

"Iím older and I know what happens out there," she said. "You come in and you do what you have to do and then you leave. Women and children suffer the most. Being a grandmother myself, I see these children and see my own children and grandchildren. It doesnít take very long for reality to hit you along the side of the head."

After several close calls, the decision was finally made to evacuate from their assignment in Iraq. "There was a lot of unrest," she said. "There are a lot of people coming in and causing the unrest now. When we evacuated, I worried a lot about the Iraqi staff who were left behind. I didnít feel comfortable being evacuated to the safety of the British camp if our Iraqi staff would be targeted."

For Charlotte Knaub, feeling comfortable is often not part of the job description, however.

That knowledge likely comes to mind when she hears people complain about the United Nations. "Iíve had people say that they (the U.N.) have never done anything for me so why should I even care," Knaub said. "Well be thankful that they havenít done anything for you - they work in the worldís trouble spots. Be grateful that they havenít had to help you. It is through the U.N. that the world looks to the United States for leadership."

Mitch Traphagen Photos

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