It is amazing how in such little time one can go from being oblivious to the conflicts of humanity to being completely aware of the mass destruction caused by the unwillingness to accept government as a ruling power. My mission in Iraq lasted just eighteen months, but the memories of those months are now etched in my mind. Gone forever are the childhood fantasy of “Peace on Earth” and the innocence of the girl I used to be.
We waited three months on an Air Base in Kuwait. We were scared and unsure of what was to come. For many of us, it would be the first time in a war zone, and we had all heard of the cruelty many of our soldiers had already endured. I was twenty-three years old and four years into my Air Force career when I was deployed to Iraq. I had secured the rank of Staff Sergeant and trained to withstand the worst of circumstances. But I wondered if my mind and emotions were ready for what lay beyond the border.
At two o’clock in the morning, we were given orders to cross into Iraq. As members of the Aero Medical Evacuation Liaison Team, we were in charge of communication for the safe return of wounded soldiers. There were two hundred vehicles in our caravan. Our destination was Bagdad International Airport. We were in the company of the Marines, which eased some of our worries. Though we carried much needed provisions to the soldiers on the front lines, we were not expected to come under fire. The towns we were to travel through had already been secured, but with the demand for ground troops growing in the bigger cities, most of the desolate towns had been abandoned. There was word of militias returning to regain the towns they had lost, so we were constantly on high alert.
We stopped only to sleep. After a sweep for land mines, we were allowed only three feet of space on either side of our trucks. Most of us slept in and on the truck. Some set up cots and used ponchos as makeshift tents. Our bathroom was a hole dug in the ground, and with little room for privacy, we were forced to let go of our modesty. We did our best to remain in good spirits. We retold the story time and again of the day we were called in for briefing. We were all nervous and scared out of our wits. The Sergeant finished his brief and returned to his seat only to fall head over heels onto the floor after the back broke off his chair. Too scared to laugh at the time, we harbored the humorous incident and used it to cheer up during stressful times.
After twenty-three days of driving, we arrived at a supply area. One of the worst sandstorms in the country’s history hit while we were waiting to move forward. It lasted four days. During that time, we could only leave our tents to use the bathroom, which was a job in itself considering the stabbing sand blustering about. We needed eye goggles and a cloth covering our nose and mouth just to be able to go outside. The sky was black with dust. Day and night seemed to blend together making us weary and more homesick than ever.
One night as I left my tent, I noticed two black bags lying next to the entrance. My vision was blurred by the sand and the goggles, but as I knelt closer, I realized what they were. Two soldiers, that only days before stood upright saluting officers and following orders, now lay at my feet in the dust and dirt. My heart sank. I felt disgusted by the lack of respect shown to the bodies of these two men who gave their lives so that others might have a better future. I wiped the tears from my eyes, stood at attention, and saluted. I could not help thinking that it could have been me, or that it might be in the near future. Was I to spend days lying in the dirt outside some tent like a bag of garbage waiting to be picked up?
“It was the only place we could put them to keep them half-shielded from the elements.” My superior told me when I asked why they were there. To me, they deserved the cot I slept in and the cots of the others in my tent. They deserved the flag of their country draped across them to shield them from the elements. They deserved so much more than they were given.
When the sandstorm ended, we were finally able to move forward. Huddled in the crowded Humvee, I had never felt more alone. The others welcomed the opportunity to go to battle for their country. I simply wished it was over. Sleep only came with pure exhaustion. I feared the worst was to come. I thought of the people back home and the ease of their day. How I wished for one more morning to wake up ignorant of this confusion. I wondered if God granted prayers to those whose job was to cause destruction at the command of another’s foolish pride.
Ash Shatra lay ahead. We would reach the city by nightfall. As the sky grew dark, we stayed on high alert. Two miles outside the city, we began taking fire. Our convoy’s return fire seemed only to dismay the attack for mere seconds before the blasts would come again from a different angle. From the left of our Humvee, I could see the bullets tearing through the tarp that covered the back where we sat. Seated on the right, I was unable to return fire. As the bullets blazed, only narrowly missing our heads, we received orders to turn around and head back out of the city. Two hundred vehicles were to make a one hundred and ninety degree turn and run for cover. I felt like a wooden chess piece being moved about by some amateur player sitting unscathed behind a desk. I imagined the King standing tall in his tower as the members of his court scurried to his defense. There were no Bishops or Knights ready to take on our plight if we should fail. We were all Pawns with no honor pressing us forward, only simple minds seeking simple treasures.
The Marines summoned Cobra helicopters to clear the city of the militants. Word spread that a supply vehicle had over-turned leaving its driver and two passengers trapped inside. They were left alone in the darkness. No one came to their rescue. No one turned back. No orders came in to save them. We were left only to pray for their safety. There were miles between us, but I wanted nothing more than to run to these men. Again, I saw myself in the place of these soldiers, and hatred for those nearest to them began to swell in my heart. Orders or not, these men were people. They were fathers, sons, and brothers.
As the helicopters hovered overhead, our night vision goggles played the scene like a video game. Deafening blasts came from all around us, lighting up the sky like fireworks. As the others sat in awe of the destruction, my head hung low, my heart still reaching for the ones left behind. The bombing seemed to last for hours. Soon the militant’s fire from the ground ceased, as did my faith in our country’s leaders.
Dawn appeared on the horizon, and our convoy headed toward the site of the previous night’s attack. The survivors of the town replayed the last moments of our fellow soldiers’ lives. Dragged though the dirt like dogs that had bitten their masters, the passengers of the vehicle where forced to watch as the driver was hanged in the middle of town. If they closed their eyes or lowered their gaze, they were beaten until their sight, once again, fell upon the heaving chest of their friend. With the last breath of the driver came the last sight of the passengers being beaten, as they were dragged out of town. The driver’s body was left as a message for those who followed. Though meant to wreak fear, it only fueled hatred, and, for some, became the reasoning behind the lies that had brought us here.
I had heard strength is forged on the battlefield. If seeing another human being lying lifeless on the ground and continue walking without emotion is considered strength, then I suppose the statement holds true. As we moved closer to our destination, our strength was tested. There were towns torn apart by grenades and aerial missiles. Cars and transport vehicles, charred by fire and filled with bullet holes, lined the sides of the road. These places, once home to many, now seemed only ghost towns in a desert wasteland. Leaving one of the towns, we saw a transport truck with a bullet hole through a blood-spattered windshield. The bullet’s target, not given a trial by peers, was now silenced forever and left lifeless in the seat of his judgment.
Questions raced through my mind. Why were we here when it seemed so many did not want us to be? Who was to benefit from all of this when it seemed we left nothing of value for those who called this place home? Does freedom, for those who survive, come at a price of losing everything short of their lives? I prayed for these answers just as I prayed for the safe return of our soldiers and a normal life for those we were here to help. As we entered one of the towns, people came to greet us. They were shouting,
“Thank you.” and “I love you.” Though my mind still searched for resolution, some of the weight began to lift from my shoulders.
We received reports of increased casualties, and were forced to stop short of our destination. We began setting up the treatment facility fifty-five miles southwest of Bagdad . We were the long awaited oasis in the blistering heat of the desert, and soon the wounded began pouring in. The triage center filled within hours. My unit began relaying communication for the transport of the severely wounded. During down time, I would walk through the facility. I saw the medical teams reading the charts, and moving the soldiers to the proper areas. I knew there had to be a line drawn between doctor and patient or each one of us would be brought to tears by the situation, but there had to be something that could be done to ease not only the physical pain but the emotional torment as well.
After receiving permission, I began making calls home to the states for the wounded. For some, it had been months since they had spoken to their families. The voices of their loved ones seemed to ease their pain more than the medicine running through their veins. The smiles on their faces gave meaning to our journey, but one call home was extremely hard to bear. A soldier was brought in with no bodily injuries, but he had suffered major hearing loss from an explosion. His mother could not be told of our situation. He told her that he was ok, and that he would be returning home soon. I listened as his mother spoke, and I mimicked her words as the soldier read my lips. I fought back tears when I saw the longing in his eyes to hear the voice of his mother. The fear in her voice made the situation more unbearable, and reminded me of my family back home.
A week passed, and our team received orders to return to Kuwait. Two hundred soldiers had passed through our doors. Some were heading home, and some were sent back to the front lines. I was overjoyed at the news of returning home, but saddened by the fact that we would be leaving so many behind. Our mission was over, we had done what we came to do, the wounded were being treated and evacuated, but I felt there was so much more that needed to be done.
We were told there would be no transport plane coming to retrieve us. Fifty people and three vehicles were ordered to return. It had taken months to arrive at our destination by road. Where we expected to drive back out? What if there was another attack? Our Sergeant haggled with the Marines and was able to get a flight out in exchange for a day’s labor. Our safe return came, not from those who had commanded our presence there, but from the sweat of our own brow.
Back in Kuwait, we were able to shower. The water rushing over me felt like kisses from God himself. It is the simple things in life you miss the most, and yet, seem to take for granted until they are no longer there. We were still in tents, but we had the luxury of air conditioning. These few comforts made me miss home even more. The day to return to the states could not come soon enough, and before long, my wait was over.
After the dreary emptiness of the desert sand, looking upon the lush greenery of my home town was as if beholding the beauty of the Garden of Eden. Seeing my family again was when I truly felt that I was home. But there were so many questions about my mission. I just wanted to forget. I understood they wanted to know what I had been through, but the scenes would race through my mind, and I would relive it all over again. Some parts of our mission had to be omitted. Only those who have been there would ever know the truth. I wanted to go back to before all of this had happened, back to a time when I could close my eyes and dream of glorious things, instead of being awakened by hideous nightmares.
I had signed with the Air Force with intentions of making it to retirement, but as my contract came up for renewal, I began to rethink my future. I thought about our motto “Land of the free. Home of the brave.” The words began to mean something different than they had before. I realized we were free to live our lives in whichever way we chose as long as we were brave enough to do it. Was I brave enough to endure the scrutiny that might come with my resignation? Was I brave enough to live my life on my own terms, free of unjustified destruction? The renewal period came and went without my signature on the contract. No more missions, no more wars. I stand now for what I believe in, my future is my own.