In the cold, damp darkness, she sat quietly reflecting on the events of the past few days. Somehow, it just wasn’t giving her any great peace of mind. The things that she was recently witness to were incredibly brutal by far, and she was having a very difficult time dealing with it. The musty, pungent stench of death mixed with the smell of dust filled air continued to penetrate deeply into her lungs as she tried steadily to calm the intense shaking that had taken over her body. Sitting alone in the silence had given her time to replay what had been taking place, and cohesive thinking had replaced her fear. Survival was of the utmost importance at this point. She kept wondering how she ended up where she was and how was it all going to end. She just wanted to go home.
At home, she was Nisa Avlong, a loving mother of two children, Jared 12 and Anneyese who was only 3 years old. She was a single mother, who was always struggling and working very hard at part time jobs, just to survive. More often than not, she would be working two or three jobs, just to eke out a living. It was not a comfortable living at all. Sometimes she wasn’t even able to put food on the table for her children, but this young woman did the best she could with the cards that life had dealt her. She was very strong, but sometimes it just got to be too much, especially when she would look into the eyes of her children. She wanted more for them, so much more.
Then one day, as she was walking home from her morning job as a motel housekeeper, she saw the sign that was stuck onto the window of a small office. The sign read, “An Army of One”. How fitting that slogan was to her life. She was an army of one, constantly fighting for the lives of her children. She had never thought about joining any branch of the military, but something made her feet take the steps towards that glass door. She found herself peeking through the streak free glass. Inside she saw a woman dressed in a green uniform, with shiny buttons, and colorful ribbons upon her breast. How important this military woman had looked to her. Oh, to be such an important person in the world, it must be an amazing feeling.
Without much hesitation, Nisa pulled the heavy door open and slowly walked in. She didn’t want to seem too anxious, because in reality, she didn’t know very much about the military. To her, it was all a little scary and unfamiliar territory. The woman inside heard the bell ring as the door was opened and quickly turned to greet Nisa. She even sounded important, very official yet she had a calming tone to her voice. She shook Nisa’s hand and invited her to join her by the large mahogany desk to discuss her options. Next thing Nisa knew, she was signed up for the military life. It had so much promise for her and her children. She never imagined that she would one day be in a war zone.
About a month later, Nisa found herself at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, completing her basic combat training. It was a long, difficult and lonely eight weeks, and then another seven weeks to complete the advance instructional training, but when she returned home, she could see the pride that lit up in her children’s eyes. Their mom was a real soldier. She had received her orders, and they would be moving onto an army military base and living in the base housing. This would be the first time they had a real home, with their own rooms, and a real yard to play in. They couldn’t wait to start their new lives.
Things were wonderful. Nisa only had to work one job, allowing her to spend more time with Jared and Anneyese. They were no longer struggling to make ends meet, and the military helped them a lot. Furniture was provided for the family from the military supply. They didn’t have to worry about rent or utility bills any longer. The children started to do well in their new school, picking up their grades and even making new friends. They were all happy. This went on for two years, and then it happened. Nisa received orders to go overseas on a fourteen month deployment. She felt a heaviness as her heart sank. She had always known that there was the possibility, but she didn’t really think it would happen. Now, here it was, the reality of military life staring her in the face. She had no choice, she had to go. So, she prepared herself and her children for the pending upheaval of their lives. She packed everybody’s belongings and got them settled in with the family that they would be staying with during her deployment. Nisa and the children said their good-byes and promised to write every day, and then she headed to the airport to meet her unit for departure.
Several hours had passed, and Nisa awoke to find that they had arrived safely in Iraq. The reality of the situation still had not penetrated into Nisa’s conscious realm of reality. Was this all a dream, she had wondered, maybe a nightmare. The doors on the plane had finally opened and as they began to disembark from the plane, the very first sound to penetrate her ears was the popping and cracking of live rounds going off in the distance. Unbelievable, she thought out loud. She really wasn’t prepared for the intensity of this land. Quickly they loaded up into the awaiting Humvees and the convoy whisked them off to the safety of the base camp. They were then left on their own, to find their sleeping arrangements and to settle in. Nisa had no problems finding a bunk and unpacking. She was ready to try and get some sleep before the 4 am wake up call.
The next morning at oh dark thirty, the commander approached the formation. He welcomed all the new comers, gave a safety briefing, as well as a briefing about the local customs, and security rules and techniques. Nisa paid close attention. The commanders’ words made Nisa feel as if she were very important. Just like she had thought the recruiter looked in her uniform on the day she enlisted. She didn’t feel afraid at all. She felt proud and ready to do her part to make this a success. They were dismissed and each soldier went about their daily duties. Nisa did a little exploring around the camp just to familiarize herself with her surroundings. Several weeks went by with no real incidents or excitement. Nisa had hoped that her whole fourteen months over here would be as smooth.
Nisa and her children were true to their word of writing to each other everyday. She missed them so much. She was always wondering about them, how they were doing in school, were they eating right, were they happy, and worst of all, were they afraid for their mother. Only eleven months remained for her in this dried up land of anger and hatred. Some of the Iraqi people hated the Americans so much for being there. Nisa just couldn’t wait to get home, back to her children and back to some sort of normal life.
One night before Nisa was about to turn in for the evening, she was notified that the commander wanted to speak with her and a few other soldiers right away. She sat up on the cot and began to put her dusty boots on. As she was slowly lacing them up, she couldn’t help but wonder what the commander could possibly need to speak to her about. Oh God, please don’t let him send me on a mission, was the plea that kept running through her mind. She knew if that is what it was about, she would have to go, no question about that, but she really didn’t want to. Nobody did, but like all the soldiers that were there, she dutifully followed orders and got the job done.
Nisa headed out into the night towards the commanders tent where she saw five other soldiers already waiting in a mini formation. She joined them and impatiently waited to hear the news. The commander stepped out and regretfully explained to them that they were to go on a mission in the morning. He told them that it should be fairly simple and should not take too long, that they would be back at camp within two to three days at the most. They stood there for about an hour receiving the briefing covering all the pertinent information that they would need to have a successful mission. Most importantly he kept stressing that safety was key. The soldiers were finally dismissed and returned to their tents to try and get some sleep before the short wake up call.
Morning came entirely too fast for Nisa. She felt as if she hadn’t slept at all. Nervous thoughts kept cramming her mind. Prayers kept dripping from her lips as she carried her pack to meet the other five soldiers. She just wanted to get this over with as quickly as possible and return to the safety of the base camp. The six soldiers loaded up in two Humvees and started down the dirt road towards the exit of the camp. Holding tightly to her M16 she began to brace herself for anything. In such a hostile environment, anything could happen, and it usually did.
Several hours had passed when they came upon a very strange sight. There was a beat up small white car on the side of the road with the hood up. Standing next to the car, was a young woman dressed in the traditional garb of the country, and from the looks of it, she was pregnant. A few of the soldiers made some rude comments about the girl, but Nisa kind of felt sorry for her. She knew what it was like to not have much. The girl was trying to wave them down to get some assistance for her vehicle, but the soldiers knew better than that. That was against the rules here. You never really know what is waiting for you around the corner.
The two vehicle convoy kept going, just slowing a little so that there would not be so much dust and dirt flying up as they passed the woman. Out of nowhere, the woman jumps in front of the first vehicle with her arms in the air, screaming something that nobody understood. She walked towards the front of the Humvee and placed her hands upon the hood of the truck still screaming. Nisa and the other two soldiers in the second vehicle had no idea what was taking place in front of them. They kept trying to contact the first vehicle by radio, but nobody was responding. Suddenly, the soldiers in the first vehicle realized what the woman was doing and then they clearly heard one of the words from her mouth. The word “Allah” was piercing the air and they could see the rage in the woman’s eyes. They tried to go in reverse as quickly as they could, but the vehicle behind them was blocking. Nisa saw the back of the Humvee coming towards them and that is when she realized there was danger ahead. Too late. A bright light flashed, followed by the deafening sound as a heavy explosion rocked the vehicle. The white car the woman had been standing near was filled with explosives. The pregnant woman had explosive material strapped to herself as well.
Nisa tried to collect herself. She was screaming to the other soldier to drive away, but they didn’t move. Nisa couldn’t even hear herself screaming because the loudness of the explosion had created a temporary loss of hearing. She looked to the driver only to see that a piece of shrapnel had come crashing through the window and impaled his head just below his cavlar helmet. Bright red blood was streaming down his face. It almost looked as if he was crying tears of blood. The third soldier behind her was trying to get out of the vehicle, so Nisa figure she should probably do the same thing. But it was too late. It all happened so fast.
Just as Nisa and the other soldier reached for the handles, the doors were ripped from their hands. What was happening Nisa had wondered. Then all too suddenly she knew. They were surrounded by insurgents, with many arms grabbing at them and hard, cold gun barrels touching their heads. She could see their mouths moving, but she still couldn’t hear a thing. Nisa knew if she wasn’t careful, she would be dead in a matter of seconds. She let them pull her in many directions sometimes falling to the ground, but being quickly dragged back up. The other soldier put up a valiant fight. He refused to go peacefully, swinging at anyone who came near. The insurgents would have no more of that. Several of them opened fire upon the now unarmed soldier and his body fell silently to the ground. His body shook for only a few seconds, and Nisa could see the last breath of life leave his lungs, then he was still.
Nisa was pushed into an awaiting vehicle as a blindfold was placed over her eyes and her hands were tied. She could feel the bumpiness of the road and the sporadic driving as she was whisked away to nowhere. She had no idea where they were taking her, or if she would even survive. She was the only one left out of the six soldiers sent on this “simple” mission that should take no more than two or three days. Thoughts of her children were flooding her mind. She had to survive, she just had to.
She could smell the breath of the men who grabbed her, and it was making her sick. She was trying to stay brave and remember all of her training. The car came to an abrupt stop and her body lurched forward. Again, several hands were upon her, yanking her in many directions at once as they pulled her from the car. She tried to go with the flow, so as not to anger any of them. She prayed that they would not rape her or torture her. They went several feet before they pushed her with such force that she fell to the ground. She sat in the darkness of the blindfold, afraid of what would happen next. Then nothing. Nothing at all. She sat as still as she could. Her hearing had started to come back. She could hear their voices as they slowly trailed off. They were gone. Several hours had passed and Nisa had somehow managed to get the blindfold off. Her hands were still tied and she was working diligently to get the ropes off. She found herself in a small, dirty room, which had an unfamiliar odor. After a while, Nisa had figured out that it was the smell of death. She couldn’t stay here. This is not how she was going to leave this earth, leave her children. Not here, not now.
She kept picking at the ropes and they finally came off. No more sitting in the darkness and wondering. It was time to go. Remember Nisa, remember your training. Nisa began to kick the small door, like the cops do on TV series when they try to make a bust. It only took her five good, hard kicks before that fragile door broke loose from its hinges. You would think they would have a better place to put their captives than this flimsy little shack. She saw that nobody was around. Quietly she put all of her military skills to the test. Being as stealth as she could, she worked her way through the maze of rusty, run down cars. These must be the ones that they use to set up their road side traps, she had thought to herself. She tried to make mental notes of where she was and what she saw, so that when she made it back to safety, the military could come here and take care of it for good.
Nisa had found her way to a small paved road. There was a black and white sign posted near it, with some of the paint missing and many, many bullet holes in it. It had enough of a word that she recognized and an arrow. She knew that was near another military establishment and she figured that if she could make it there, she would be alright. She followed the road at a very speedy pace, but was careful to stay alert to her surroundings. After all, she was out there alone, with no weapon.
She came upon a small bundle of makeshift homes and all kinds of thoughts began to creep into her mind. Are these people here safe, or are they the enemy. If they come out with guns, which direction should I run? She heard a rustling behind some garbage and jumped. Of course, her safety was her first thoughts, so she ducked behind a crumbled wall. Nisa was ever so slightly peering through a crack in the wall, when she saw some movement. A small child with scruffy hair the color of burnt toast came out from behind a pile of garbage. Apparently, the child was scrounging for something in the trash heap, but Nisa didn’t know what it was. It made her think of her own children back home and how hard she had to work to provide for them. She always felt bad for the poor children here because they had so much less than she did, even before she joined the military.
Nisa came out of her hiding spot and slowly tried to approach the dirty child. As she got closer, she realized that this child was a boy, maybe the age of six or so. He looked very thin and as if he hadn’t had a bath in a few weeks. His hair was matted together and greasy, but it had a layer of pale dust as well. She had no fear of this child, because under all that dirt, he was just a child. Nisa smiled at the boy and he shyly smiled back at her. She remembered when Jared had been that young.
Within seconds she heard a vehicles engine racing and in the distance a cloud of dust and debris had begun to form. She could tell from the accompanying noise from men shouting and a few random pops from gun fire that they were definitely not American. Her first thought turned toward the child. She could not just run and leave this helpless child standing alone while these maniacs were coming. She reached for the boys hand, but he quickly pulled away. She begged him to please go with her and hide, but he didn’t understand. The car was coming faster and faster, and soon Nisa could see several faces inside the vehicle. There was more shooting now, and more random. They were shooting into the flimsy hovels with no regard for who may be inside. Nisa knew immediately that this was a dangerous situation. She scooped the boy up in her arms and tried in vain to get out of sight, but it was too late. The men had spotted her, in her uniform and knew immediately that she would now become the target of their random firing.
Bullets were whizzing past Nisa and the child as she bobbed and weaved to avoid being hit. In the beginning, the boy hadn’t seemed too heavy to her, but now it was beginning to weigh on her arms. She ran in vain. She threw herself into a ditch hoping to escape the assault, when she felt a strange stinging sensation in her lower back. She just figured that it was because the boy was feeling heavier as she grew more fatigued. In the ditch, she used her body to shield the boy. When it seemed that all hope was lost, she heard a different popping sound, this time much louder and many more than before. She heard the sounds from several military vehicles. She thought that perhaps it was an American convoy passing through. She heard the first vehicle speed away, but things were beginning to get a little blurry. She felt a little bit cold, which was strange being that it was about 100 degrees outside. She felt some dampness upon her back but didn’t know what it was. It was getting dark, but Nisa knew it was still daytime. How could this be she wondered. Footsteps approached from all angles, but all she could see was something that looked like American uniforms. She prayed that they were. She grew weaker and weaker until the darkness consumed her.
The convoy of American soldiers came upon the ditch and saw Nisa’s body covering the petrified child, only to realize that she had given her life to save the life of this Iraqi child. To this young boy, this soldier will forever be his hero.