Initiation

Lina is a petite woman from a small protected community, Port Washington, New York.  She joined the military for school benefits.  This was before 9/11 and of course, before the war in Afghanistan. To begin with, she had no war – her father’s war was the Vietnam war, her grandfathers was the Korean war, her great grandfathers was WWII.  The war in Afghanistan became Lina’s war.

The night before she deployed for Afghanistan; Lina remembers sitting on her cot in her barracks wondering if she would come home in a box, wounded, crippled for life or come home OK but she knew she would somehow come home different.

She called her mother, her aunts and her grandparents telling them she loved them and there was nothing that needed to be fixed or different about their relationships.  All was good and she signed off as she will always sign off from then on:

See ya soon.

Never goodbye,

just

see ya

She left the U.S. on a military plane for a 14 + hour trip to Kandahar with a stop in Germany — Kandahar, a place she could not have pictured in her wildest imagination – and the reality of what Kandahar meant, began when the military plane was coming in for a landing.

Kandahar.

Through the airplane window, Lina could see these oh so foreign mountains – colored in varieties of brown – with deep yellows, oranges, gold and only a little of green, bushes perhaps. Some afghan pine and live oak – certainly not her idea of mountains of luxurious greens in the U.S. but still, she found the unfamiliar landscape beautiful, stark and overwhelming…

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And I’ll never forget over those mountains, a panorama rolled by through window of the plane. They were stunning and unlike anything I had ever seen before.  I watched and watched as I took in the landscape of my new post.  And then we landed and there was the sand, the reality of sand, a constant from then on, sand somewhere within view every day.  Sand.  Sand. Sand.

As the back of the plane opened, to disgorge its cargo of people and war machinery, a rush of heat hit me.

I was overwhelmed by the 125-degree temperature; the weapon in my hand seemed to double in weight along with the increased heaviness of all the stuff I had to carry. The heat was so intense, I felt as though I’d had been tackled and pinned down by it.  The intense heat was ever present during deployment.

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I first realized emotionally that I was in a war one of the first days on trash detail where I drove a truck for the Afghan nationals who were hired to pick up trash at some unthinkable low salary.

In a small group, they were herded in through the tall metal gates with its guard tower and soldiers everywhere– weapons, sandbags for ducking behind and sand.  It was a big area but so crowded with precautions and retaliatory weapons, it felt claustrophobic.  As the people came in I heard a strange whistle, one I had been warned about.  I knew to hit the ground.  Then the explosion – I lay there for a while: “did this really happen?” It felt surreal. Like a movie but eventually which was probably only a minute, I got up, brushed off the dirt and continued on with the day. This was it, the real thing. War. And I was in it.

It was really a shock, that rocket, a big one but that was the last time it was a total shock. Thereafter the rockets came just about every day, often several times and after a while I got used to them, but really, nobody ever gets used to them – just ask someone whose been in a war zone — though the rockets  never are  as shocking as that first one.  But there was always this tension – waiting, subliminal waiting for something bad to happen, something very noisy —sometimes the tension was more potent than others. But be sure, it was always there.  The tension.   Plus, you are with the same people 24 hours a day for however long you are there, sharing a tent with the same women – people you didn’t choose but with whom you have very intimate contact.  This had its own tensions.  Then a woman had to be careful in how she moved around base to be sure she wouldn’t be sexually assaulted – getting someone to accompany you to the laundry facilities, this was the service my husband to be provided me while we were there.

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We had reservists attached to our unit and one of the women did not adapt very well at all and she was put on suicide watch.  I would have to go to the medic station, take my turn, and watch her.  Just sit in a chair and watch her.  How weird could that have been for her?

One of the nights I went, there was a little girl there, same room, heavily bandaged, a Afghani child. She reminded me of one of my little cousins who I adored.

I had been mentally prepared to see soldiers and adults in hospitals but for some reasons I hadn’t imagined children there. Not children. I was told by a medic that the mother, to get the child care, walked and carried her for three days.   It was 120 to 125 degrees in the day time and women was in traditional clothing, a long shirt, those baggy pants and wearing a head scarf.  It must have been unbearably hot and the child as heavy as her worry.   I was struck by the love that the mother must have had for the child to carry her three days in that heat to get medical care.  I remember hoping that I would be that kind of mother. The image in my head is as strong today as it was then; I see that child, that bandaged little girl with the fifteen staples in her head and imagine the mother carrying that child and then sitting with a younger little brother quietly by the little girls bed.  I never found out what happened to her, to them,  and to this day, I still wonder about her – wonder if she was all right, her head, I mean, if she lived, grew up, if she is a mother. I hope she made it.

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It was very important to me, by God, that I was a good soldier which meant moving beyond being a woman.

Being a woman did not mean Angelina was incapable of doing the same job as the men.

She was adamant about this and kept at her sergeant for duty beyond the wire out of the relative safety of the camp…  until she got it.

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Lina awakens alone – her tent tapped on by the sergeant.  It’s dark. She is quiet, careful not the wake the other women.  She dresses, gets her equipment and goes outside the tent to fuel the truck.  It feels massive.  She walks around it checking for anything amiss. There is nothing. She feels the heft in the truck door as she opens it and with some straining climbs in where she checks to see if the gas tank is full.  She turns the key and then sits there awhile with the engine running, listening to it, to the healthy rhythms of the engine, while she digests the reality that this is a day different from others.  She is part of a convoy going to another base with supplies.  She will be delivering fuel, 2,500 gallons of it.

She is leaving the tall protected metal gates, thinking what the hell did I get myself into – why didn’t I just keep my mouth shut, stay on the base?  She double checks her weapon, the additional magazines. Everything is where it needs to be.  And she too is where she needs to be, scared but very ready to join the convoy. So. with another soldier, her partner, a quiet guy sitting on her right, she is driving, they left.

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And oh my gosh, this drive.  The drive took forever – seemed like hours and hours – it was three –three chancy hours where anything could go wrong any time. Keep your eyes open. Breath.  Watch.  Only this one dirt road in the area — I could barely see — dust like crazy kicked up by the rest of the Humvees in front of me. Take it all in. The houses we passed would be called shacks in the states.  Some made out of mud. It was like a movie, images went by, they were like pictures in my children’s illustrated bible. I really felt as though I had time traveled. Or like I was in a movie or something — People in traditional dress.   It looked like Jesus Christ’s time…This is the kind of stuff you see in movies, or on TV but it’s so different when you see it in real life.  Jolting.

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Then an Afghanistan national truck appeared through the dust heading for me — and the road was not very wide — a field on one side, mountains on the other  and by God, I was not moving to the side of the road – No Matter What.  The driver of the truck was like pushing me to the side – or trying to. Challenging me.   But I had been taught – do not move to the side of the road – ever!  Ever! That’s where the majority of the bombs were.  So, we each moved a little, that other truck and mine and were able to pass each other.  The Afghan and I could see each other face to face – he looked surprised when he saw me – perhaps, because I was woman driving a truck, a fuel truck carrying 2,500 gallons of fuel.

Good lord, I was driving a weapon, a bomb.

When the convoy finally arrived at the base, I couldn’t go inside, the truck was too big. So, I was outside the gates, scared to death, there by myself with my very quiet not very reassuring partner. Seems he was scared too. No shit!

And then the kids started coming, a whole group of them. Such beautiful children in their loose native clothing… but what was hidden there?

There were about fifteen of them.  The children arriving were scary and seeing that, I had this kind of irrational thought — where are the mothers?  Who is supervising these children? I had always been very well supervised. Mothers. Aunts. Grandmothers.

One of the kids tried to give me a chicken, a live white chicken, another one offered some chips with grimy hands. It seemed they wanted to trade me something. What. Probably an MRE – meal ready to eat – it was a standard thing that soldiers gave the kids — those meals.  Then this random thought popped in “why aren’t these children in school?”   At that point, I realized this was a stupid thought and that they didn’t go to school. Not these children.  They were here and they were getting too close. I tried to shoo them away. It took some time but the children backed off, all except this one little boy — probably about ten.

Scary.

Why scary?

One of the first things we were taught in the Army, back then in the states before deployment — watch out for the kids there. Not as in: take care of them but rather: they are a significant danger.  Not the adults so much but the kids.  Sometimes a child, yes, a child would run up and stick a hypodermic needle in a soldier – who knows what was in it, I never found out — or they would toss a grenade into or under a truck.  It was the kids.  The kids were dangerous.  And there they were focusing on me, me alone outside the gates of a base with 2,500 gallons of fuel in my truck with these potentially dangerous children in my face. It was surreal. Children? Dangerous?  This one in particular — this little ten-year-old boy, who would not back off.

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It was an indelible moment when I realized I could and I would shoot him if he didn’t back away.  It was that moment frozen forever in memory that I realized I was not who I thought I was.

He did back off but that didn’t change the fact that I now knew I could kill children.  It was horrifying.  What kind of person can do that? I was 21.

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During trash detail, I got to talk to some of the local people – many spoke English.  It was one conversation with this special man that destroyed the ideas of who I thought these people were.  This man, this Afghani man wanted most in the world that his children, I think he had two, would go to school.  There he was — a father like lots of fathers I knew whether in New York or Afghanistan – he wanted the same thing – he wanted his children to go to school. He was not a stereotype any longer, a cardboard figure, an image in a shooting range with a target on his body.

I had arrived in Afghanistan, a typical young green soldier.  I was ready to kill. It was almost exciting.  It was in being there that I changed when I saw what was real — most of the people there were just people trying to get along – they were not extremists, not evil murders. Just people who wanted the same things I wanted and most would never get.  I knew I would. That was why I was there. To get an education and I got one before I even started my formal education.

I didn’t realize how changed I was by those few months there, nine to be exact, until I got home and was discharged.  I had a job in a bakery which was really a nice reentry – going to work at 5:30 am to start the baking.  The pleasant comeradery with the woman, all women, the smell of the goods baking, and yes, the taste. Donuts my favorite.  I really put on a few too many pounds there.

Then, one afternoon the phone rang, I was close by and picked up. It was a woman, I didn’t catch her name because she was very upset, crying really, almost sobbing — her cupcakes didn’t turn out right.  What?  Your cupcakes? What are you talking about?  You got green cupcakes not pink and red?  Are you crazy.  She kept yelling and crying.  I listened for a while but got more and more frustrated and finally responded in military: Are you fucking crazy?  Cupcakes?  It made me mad, really mad.  What a stupid thing to be upset about. The colors being wrong, something like that. Like, what?  This is not the end of world. Not even near that. They still tasted the same.  What the hell?  Someone took the phone away from me which was probably a good thing and soothed the woman on the other end.  What happened to me with that call?

Utica

OK, I realized I was reactionary.  Yes, traumatic stress symptoms.  I had them. Startles easily. Anger. Not sleeping well but over time mine passed, most of them but I learned what reactivity meant. I was lucky or I had a good childhood so wasn’t as vulnerable as those who were already traumatized before they even joined the military. Who knows.  I don’t.  But hey, anyone who has four even five deployments is going to get PTSD with all the nasty symptoms no matter how great their life before the military.  But not everyone who has PTS when they return from deployment stays in a seriously traumatized state.

Still the experience in the military and deployment into a war zone had changed me.  I became a Knower.

It’s like a I joined a club, went through the hazing, the initiation, only I couldn’t find the club house or the other members any more.  Even the vets groups didn’t get it for me.  They were all men with one exception and she left quick for another part of the country and the men had different challenges. They belonged to a different club. So, I was pretty much alone with it all.

Still, the changes left me grateful for what I have, impatient with small talk and prejudice about people who are different. The deployment left me questioning things I would never have thought to question before.  My world was not just Port Washington, New York any more.

 

There were people, so self-involved, they never got that others have it worse than they have. That people in other parts of the world have to be careful, careful just crossing the street because they could be blown up. We are so so lucky and I never understood that.  Nothing is the same once you know this.   Once you know, it never goes away. Never gets any lighter.  Just something you carry around when it pops up in your mind — The knowledge of other worlds and how people experience daily life so differently.

And this is not a bad thing except when it is.  Except when the war reality overlays the present reality and you are not quite sure which one to respond to. Sometimes when these realities compete for my attention with overlapping images, it is very strange and I have to stop and sort things out on the spot.   Still, I would not trade that experience for anything.

So yes, things have changed. I came home to a different world or I came home to the same world only I was different.  I have changed and it was not something I did consciously cultivated or sought. I am married to a vet and have two daughters, ages six and eight who I adore and truthfully, I am quite protective of them, if I am honest, protective in the extreme (I wouldn’t even let them take school buses at first — had to deliver and pick them up myself, and while they were in school I lived with an exaggerated anxiety of something terrible happening to them.  Children are so vulnerable).

Utica, New York.

Part of my protectiveness comes, I am certain, from my encounter with the children in Afghanistan –  those children all have a mother, I knew that and felt comradery — and then the encounter with myself, the one where I could have killed them.  The children.  And if I were still deployed, I would be with people where I didn’t have to hide parts of myself, the dangerous parts but I am not with them and my husband doesn’t understand. His experience of war was so different than mine even though we were at the same place at the same time.  He looked out through a man’s set of eyes.

It’s the dangerous parts that tell me that I will always have the skills to protect and save my children from dangers they might experience from others, OK. I’ll say it, men (if I am with them) and perhaps, in general, I can keep children safe.  I am studying to be a teacher of young ones.

 

I discovered difficult things about myself that I know exist in each of us but most of my non-military friends, especially the women, the mothers, in this country are Innocents.

Even ten years later, I still haven’t adapted entirely to being home and probably won’t, I have these secrets that other mothers couldn’t handle – They’d never “get it!”

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