Update: Club Triumphs at Camp Victory

Update: Club Triumphs at Camp Victory

 First Toastmasters club in Iraq offers stress relief, camaraderie for enlisted members.

 By Paul Sterman and Army Sgt. Abel Trevino

Caption: Lt. Col. J.C. Sorensen (left) and SK2 Jeffrey Howell (right)
speak at a Camp Victory Toastmasters meeting in Baghdad, Iraq.

Amilitary base in the midst of a war zone is perhaps the last place you’d expect to find a Toastmasters club. But that is exactly what you’d find if you walked into Victory Base Camp in Baghdad, Iraq, any Friday during the noon lunch hour.

There, in a building called the Air Force House, about 15 to 20 American servicemen and servicewomen gather to give speeches, offer feedback, participate in Table Topics and generally try to improve themselves.

Most of those at Camp Victory aren’t assigned to combat in Iraq. “The base is next to Baghdad International Airport, and almost all of us work in staff positions and don’t go off base into hostile territory,” notes James Bender, treasurer of the Toastmasters group. “The working environment is much like any other in the world…”

Well, that is “until we receive incoming mortar and rocket fire,” Bender says. “At that point, it does seem kind of eerie.”

Toastmasters around the world often complain of distractions they face when giving speeches – from whispering audience members to clanking forks at dinner events. Imagine how unnerving it would be to give a talk at your club meeting and suddenly hear the sounds of gunfire and mortar blasts overhead!

But while a Toastmasters group in Baghdad might seem like an odd fit on the surface, the club has proved to be a refuge for those enduring life here. “There are real challenges being in a war zone,” says club member Albert Reilingh, an administrator for the Multi-National Corps in Iraq. “Certainly, there is a lot of stress. One of the biggest challenges we face here is the ‘Groundhog Day’ syndrome. We work here seven days a week and are at work pretty much all day (12 hours or longer).

“There is little difference from one day to the next. Toastmasters provides relief, a real change in our daily battle-rhythm. It definitely takes the stress away from the daily grind.”

Adds Bender: “The afternoon of our Friday noon Toastmasters meeting is always my best, most productive afternoon of the week.”

Members of Camp Victory Toastmasters, which is the first Toastmasters club in Iraq, say they relish the camaraderie of the group – but also appreciate the chance to grow and improve their skills.

“This is a great opportunity for people who want something to do on deployment, and to do something where they can speak better, talk better and function better,” says Petty Officer 2nd Class Jeffrey Howell. “For me, it helped me overcome a fear of public speaking and to make better judgments in word choice in speeches.”

During one of the early gatherings of Camp Victory Toastmasters – which formed at the beginning of this year – Howell gave a speech bemoaning the state of literacy in America. He provided a variety of figures to demonstrate the severity of the problem.

Noting that this was only Howell’s second speech for the group, his evaluator, Technical Sergeant Karen O’Garro-Thompson, was full of praise for his performance. “I like that you provided a lot of statistics and information,” O’Garro-Thompson told Howell at the meeting.

Even amid battle-plagued Baghdad, Toastmasters have the ability to research the topics that they speak on. The base has Internet availability, notes Bender. “We probably have access to about 80 percent of what one can access in the States,” he says of finding things online.

O’Garro-Thompson and Bender both work with the Freedom of Information Act for the Multi-National Corps in Iraq; she’s a manager and he’s an analyst. One day last December, O’Garro-Thompson asked her colleague if he’d ever heard of Toastmasters.

Well, funny she should ask: He’d been in a Toastmasters group since 2001. A retired military man, Bender was working in the Pentagon as a civilian contractor at that time. Two weeks after 9/11 happened, he joined the Pentagon’s Toastmasters club – called Helmsmen Toastmasters.

“I achieved ATMB and CL, and I was the Division A Governor at the time that I was re-assigned to Fort Bragg in November 2003,” Bender says. “I have truly enjoyed Toastmasters ever since my first visit to Helmsmen.”

Full of enthusiasm, the two co-workers spearheaded the formation of the Camp Victory Toastmasters. The club was chartered by the end of February this year – no small feat, considering this was not only a war zone but a country with no Toastmasters districts nor other clubs to lean on for advice and mentorship.

There’s a positive vibe to many of the presentations, as Camp Victory speakers talk about their own life stories and how they got to where they are now.

“People share true and real success stories,” notes Reilingh, who is the vice president of membership for the club. “Lieutenant Colonel Rodney Williams spoke about his childhood in poor, rural Arkansas, and how he rose through the enlisted ranks and then completed his college degree and now is rising through the officer ranks.

“Technical Sergeant O’Garro talks with pride about her service to the United States of America. She spoke of the challenges she and her family faced coming [to New York City] from a small Carribean nation, and about her first job – at McDonald’s.”

Reilingh adds of Toastmasters: “I don’t think there is any better place to hear the success stories of America.”

Jay Sorensen, a lieutenant colonel who is president of the Baghdad group, says learning about people with diverse backgrounds is one of the most important things that Toastmasters offers. The Camp Victory club, he points out, is a mix of civilians, contractors and military personnel from the Army, Navy and Air Force.

“There’s a wealth of personal experiences and different backgrounds,” says Sorensen.

In addition, Toastmasters skills can have very real, very practical applications for those who serve in the military.

As Bender notes, Toastmasters improves one’s ability to manage a meeting, to speak effectively under pressure, and to use presentation techniques that would benefit something like a military briefing. “Toastmasters skills – all of them – are essential in a soldier’s line of work,” says Bender. 

Paul Sterman is an associate editor for the Toastmaster, and Sgt. Abel Trevino serves in the Army’s 28th Public Affairs Detachment.