At the beginning, when the war had just started, I had a problem changing my clothes. I was scared to go into some of the buildings. My unit decided to let the soldiers who needed to change use an abandoned bus on the road side. The bus was checked to see if it was safe, and to make sure there weren’t any undetonated landmines, or anything else that could sabotage the bus. The males and females took turns. While I was on the bus, I prayed that nothing would happen like an ambush or be hit by the enemy. A lot of my peer soldiers felt the same way as I did.
We moved approximately five times in Iraq because we had to relocate. We lived in our vehicles and we did not know what was happening from day to day. There was a time we had to unload all the items from the Connexes so we could start to build our tents and set up a motor pool, bathroom, and showers from scratch. It was a team effort and we did a little bit at a time until everything was completed. We had generators and in the battalion they put up a military field phone. In order to make phone calls, you had to call a military installation Defense Switch Network (DSN). You could call 24 hours a day and a representative was there. You told the switchboard operator both where you are calling from and the number of your destination that you were calling. He would dial it for you and you would be connected to speak to your family or friends. The line to wait to make a phone call sometimes took over an hour. When you had to make a phone call at certain times it would be difficult to go because you needed to go with a buddy to prevent sexual attacks from male soldiers. I remembered in Kuwait there were signs that females had to be careful because a male would have his gas mask on and start to attack the females. The first thing that went through my mind was how a soldier can be doing this type of act to their fellow soldiers. How can a soldier attack another soldier preparing for a war? I do not know if these soldiers wanted to be caught and brought up on charges so they did not have to go to war. You never know what is going through someone’s head. A few of my female buddy soldiers felt the same way, but there was no real time to inquire about that topic
In the briefing in Kuwait before departing to Iraq, we were told there would be no fraternization, no sexual activity, and if caught, we would be fined. I heard about a few female soldiers who had gotten pregnant. They were fined and had to be redeployed back to the United States. There were soldiers who experienced sexual trauma by other soldiers or superiors of the opposite sex—this was mostly male perpetrators. I heard from professionals it also happened with the same sex. There were other female’s soldiers who I heard were raped.
The first few days we were in Iraq we kept the same clothes on although it was hot. The soldiers had their armor on and were sweating. Soldiers had to downgrade and take off some of their clothing because their clothes were wet. By the time the shirt dried, you would see the white deposits on the shirt which was from the salt the soldier lost from their body.
That it took so long to take turns for the shower, I got in contact with my mother and told her if she can mail me a camp shower. It took a while for me to receive my camp shower, but when I received it I was so happy. My mom mailed me a good camp shower—the Coleman Battery Powered Shower. It came with a clear long hose, the hose head, and a battery pump. I used a 5-gallon jug for my shower. The water would pour out from the hose, it felt so good as we were often dirty from the sand storms. It would be something. Sometimes the wind would be so strong it would knock down the tents and sleeping area. We had to re-tie and wire the tents all over again.
It was difficult for me to get accustomed to this lack of personal hygiene. My unit had about 15 Connexes or containers filled with equipment, office supplies, lumber, and other needed materials to set up. In our unit, we were very fortunate to have a few handy men that were able to build showers and bathrooms out of plywood.
We had a 55-gallon drum cut in half to put in the bathroom and we used as a toilet. A soldier cut a seat into the drum and hole above the drum. It was like having an outhouse. We had to put JP8 fuel in the drum to alleviate the horrible smell to a certain degree after a soldier used the bathroom. The heat was unbearable, and often, it would be over 100 degrees; flies and other insects were always buzzing around. The soldiers had to wear gloves and pull out the drums and put it at a different location to form a section from the outhouses and add more JP8. We had to stir it with a long piece of iron rod stick. As it was burning the fumes and the smell was not a pleasant. We took turns turning the waste, it took about 5 hours to complete the whole process to perish and disintegrate. I gagged so hard from the smell I thought I was going to vomit. The next time I had to do this job I wore a scarf around my face. I brought a scarf with me. I bought it from a fabric store back in the states. It was a close color to my Desert Camouflage Uniform (DCU). At times, I felt like when I am in a kitchen putting the ingredients to make a cake and to stirring it up. Another slang term we called it was the shitters. In my unit, there were over 160 soldiers and we all had to share six camp showers. Some soldiers wanted to use the 400-gallon water buffalo to wash their clothes. Within two days, they were told they could not use the water to wash their clothes because there was insufficient water. Two other females and I had to tie three ponchos together between two tankers and we took turns taking body washes. We guarded the area.
The military contractors built showers and bathrooms out from the Connexes where 6 female soldiers and I were taking showers. We did not hear the explosion; I guess the building was insulated. Someone, I believe another female from the outside, opened the shower room and told us we needed to come out now. We were naked and had to drop everything, put on our clothes quickly and get out of the shower. We got our gear and went to a safety shelter by the sand. We speculated and hoped that Operation Iraqi Freedom would be like Desert Storm, which only lasted approximately 30 days. It lasted longer than what we expected.
After 6 months or so into my first deployment they had the military contractors help build the compound living areas better by making the Connexes into showers and bathrooms. They also made medium to large size tents and installed AC in the tents. This made the soldiers feel better; it improved our living conditions immensely; especially when we were sheltered from sand storms which sometime lasted for hours and days. We had our tent blown down once and we had to build the tent from scratch all over again. There was one time the sand storm was so bad a few soldiers put on their gas mask so they would not be hit with all of the dust and sand. My battle buddy had an asthma attack and she went into the truck. I went with her; we both brought our sleeping packs and weapons in the truck. We remained there until they storm died down.
In my bathroom, we had a tanker, and we utilized the fuel and we refilled the tanker with water. We used the tanker to wash our clothes and take showers. We made a clothes line to hang up our clothes. As fast as you were washing your clothes, you would see sand on them. Either some soldiers stole clothing or clothes may have gotten mix up. I used a black marker and initialed the inside of my clothes.
We had to build our tents from scratch, and we packed our tents into the Connexes. A Connex is a portable steel storage it can range from 10 - 40 ft. long were you can put all equipment, including the soldiers’ trunks with all personal belongings. We had to unload our Connex and put the tent supplies in a separate pile. It took some time to unload the Connexes and to put the stacks and frames together. Many soldiers made sand bags to put around their tents to make them more secure. We had to make over 100 sand bags using our military shovels. My unit also had to pull 24 hour shifts on the compound guarding the perimeter. Sometimes we worked twelve to sixteen hours a shift and we had to also build a tower and camouflage it. There were times we might get bitten from a scorpion or camel spider and be transported to nearest medical unit to get treated for infection.
The thoughts ran through my mind whether or not I could make it through my first tour of duty in Iraq. My hands were always sweating and my heart was constantly racing with fear. Through my devotion and will to succeed I made it through two deployments and looking back I realize it was an amazing journey. I remember my mother looking at the CNN news coverage at the time the war took off. I knew she was worried about me since it was dangerous and she told me she would pray every day.
In my life, I always had to work harder because of my learning disabilities. Life has been difficult for me in every aspect, especially being in a combat zone where everything was moving so rapidly. My chain of command and some soldiers in my unit were aware of my limitations, but not everyone understood how to work with someone like me. I felt I was educating the soldiers on how to interact with someone who has a learning disability.
My job in the military was to be a mechanic in the tool room. Some of the soldiers did not understand why I processed the information differently and one of them asked me why I couldn’t learn the information like the rest of them. The platoon sergeant from my first deployment used to give me a hard time. He had been assigned just before we departed to Iraq. It appeared that he did not have the patience to work with me. But my squad leader was different with me. My battle buddy and another squad leader from my platoon had a conversation with me about platoon sergeant will be messing with me for the duration of deployment and when I get back to the state side. I would be reassigned a new platoon sergeant. I remember she told me to hang in there little longer and she would do what she could to work with me so we could get through this difficult deployment. He was the only Sergeant that made me feel safe at peace and he died. Since, my squad leader got killed in vehicle accident it was a lost to entire unit and a lot of changes had been made.
Two photos stand out to me from my album. One of my pictures was from where my dear sergeant leader was killed in a vehicle accident. His name was Sgt. Nathaniel Hart and the truck was brought to the compound at the motor pool after the accident. We needed the wrecked vehicle for parts hence it was salvaged and brought to our post. The vehicle cab was completely destroyed; I still could not believe he got killed. I felt so sad that he was gone. We got along so well and we were the same age. Sgt. Hart was a nice person and always would take care of his soldiers. He was someone who would watch your back. He was a loving person, husband, and family man. He also gave 110% of effort. He was one of the best mechanics in the unit. He brought an Xbox at the PX for his son. He wanted to buy it and ship it overseas so he would get it in time for his birthday. We had a memorial service in Iraq for him. Many of the soldiers would have liked to go to the funeral service in the states. We were not allowed because of our commitment. The chaplain had his department make a video of memorial service. The chaplain told us we could say a few words after the memorial service concluded and have it videoed to send to his wife. It was windy during the service and it was sent to his wife. I had asked the chaplain if he could make a copy for me as well. He made one for me along with the Eulogy he wrote about him. I still remember to this day when the Chaplin spoke about how one time Sgt. Hart had considered using his own shoe laces to fix the belt of a car. This small act showed his true commitment to the army and all of us.
After my squad leader passed away I corresponded with his wife and up to this present day. During my deployment his wife had sent me a hero’s bracelet. I wore it during my deployment. I wear it every day as a keepsake remembrance of him. The bracelet is a dark brown with his name inscriptions along with his branch of service, date of death, the battalion, and division.
While I was in Baghdad there was a lot of artillery fighting going on. There were rocket grenades and cannon flying over my head. There were loud thunderous sounds of gunshots nonstop for hours. I was in fear for my life and I thought the enemy would get me and the people in my unit. Certain times it would be quiet when there was no fighting. Out of the blue you would hear ammunition and shooting.
Once we believed we got hit with chemical warfare. We got training in Kuwait on how to put our gas masks and mop gear on. There were two warning signs to let us know when we were under attack: one was a hand sign and the person yelling, “Gas, Gas” and the other was a strong heavy metal crash sound. This warning sound would make the soldiers aware that they had eight minutes to put on their gas mask, top and bottom, rubber boots and gloves, and to be fully dressed in the military gear, called MOPP Level 4. Mopp level 4 is everything you put on and it takes approximately eight minutes. Mopp level 2 is the mask and hood and takes about nine seconds to put on. I kept my mop gear on for over an hour. It was hot and all the extra layers of clothing felt uncomfortable. I had to put the rubber boots over it. My boots were so uncomfortable and I remember having problems putting them on. The first couple of months during the war, I had to carry my mop gear at all times along with my M-16 and the rest of my gear.
In both of my deployments there were two soldiers who attempted suicide. They could not deal with the stress of being in a combat zone. They both had to go see professionals at the mental health department and they were evaluated and were redeployed back to the states. I had heard of other units where other soldiers had a nervous breakdowns and had to seek help.
Soldiers who were affected by the heat had to be given an IV. We were told to drink a lot of water. I always tried to drink a lot of water so I would not be dehydrated. At first, the maintenance department used to work in the motor pool during the day but the heat was unbearable and we had to change our work shift to late at night to work on vehicles. We called it burning the midnight oil.
Throughout my deployment, I did not know who I could trust to speak to. So I spoke to the Chaplain. I was scared to speak to anyone else in my unit about frustration—fearing it would get back to platoon sergeant somehow with he she said. He would make it more difficult for me. Ever since I was a child I knew I had learning difficulties. I had trouble with reading comprehension and processing and had significant trouble focusing in school. I suffer from Attention Deficit Disorder and Auditory and Language Processing Disorder, which caused me to learn differently compared to everyone else. Things took a little longer for me to grasp while I was deployed which at times made me feel uncomfortable. I found that in the military many people do not have experience dealing with people who suffer from some of the learning disabilities that I do and it was challenging for me at first.
Another photo that evokes great memories are the photos of taken Saddam Hussein’s palace. It was beautiful architecture made out of brick and the palace was located on top of a hill. The palace had marble tiling and one of the doors was made out of pure gold. My battle buddy went on a convoy mission. He visited one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces that were bombed. He gave me a piece of marble tiling and I kept it with me and put the marble into a Shadow Box as an artifact. I got a name plate inscribed outside of the box
The 3rd (ID) Infantry Division did a 21-day assault into Baghdad to dismantle the Saddam Hussein regime. I was scared since my division, the third infantry, was the first to be on the frontline to cross into Iraq. I knew when we entered the border into Iraq it was not safe. I did not realize how living conditions were so austere. There were no bathrooms or showers because we were in the desert. There were buildings that were blown up or abandoned; we had to be constantly aware of all our surroundings because we were under attack. We slept in our vehicles or on the tankers. We had to take care of our personal hygiene without running water. It took approximately two weeks for us to set up the camp showers, tents, and other equipment. To take care of our personal hygiene in the mean time we had to either use bottled water or baby wipes. The unit was so large it took a long time for each soldier to take turns to taking showers.
A Historic place I visited was the Birth Place of Abraham also called Babylon from the bible. I was glad I had walked this holy land to see where Abraham grew up. There was a tourist, who gave us a tour. There a was a huge nice building where he lived we could not go inside of it. There was a section on the side of the building, where you could go inside. It was pitch black and you could not see inside. There were a few soldiers that went inside. On a few convoys, we passed the Euphrates River and it was interesting to see and hear of this river. You hear about it in the bible.
On my Second tour, I misplaced my M-16 weapon on two different occasions. I was scared because I knew I would get in trouble. I was reprimanded and written up. After misplacing my weapon, my heart was racing rapidly. I thought to myself, how can I have just put my weapon down for a quick moment? I was multi-tasking and wearing all of my armor gear and being under constant pressure for my life. I was embarrassed that I lost my weapon because the other soldiers in my unit would ask me a question, “Where is your weapon?” I did not know what to say. At first, I thought another soldier could have claimed the weapon, or one of the military contractors got their hands on my weapon, or even possibly one of the overseas contractors from the Middle East. In the military you have to be accountable for your black M-16 weapon. You must have it with you at all times. Before my weapon was misplaced, I slept with it under my cot in my sleeping bag. Both times when I misplaced my weapon I was lucky that a soldier in my unit turned it into my supply sergeant. Squad leader told me to write about the importance of having my weapon. When we were moving and I packed up, my rug stack was on the truck along with my gear; my sleeping bag fell out of the truck. With the heavy wind and the bumps on the road we could not turn back to get it. On the convoy other soldiers in my unit lost their mop gear, gas mask, and other military gear while moving around along in the desert.
When we drove our vehicles during the convoy, there were children you would see on the roadside begging for food. We used to give them boxes of MRE (Meal Ready to Eat), water, and soda. They were happy to receive the items. After a time the insurgents would use the items we gave to help the Iraqi people to make bombs or explosives out of them. Other soldiers and I would be scared to drive on the road during a convoy over an MRE, soda can, or water bottle. That is when accidents would occur and soldiers got injured. We were told not to give the Iraqi people any more supplies. I felt like we were helping them by providing the necessities what they needed. They used the inventory that they were supplied with to hurt us and blow us up. In the Middle East death comes like nothing to them. They believe in their God called Allah. The American soldiers called the Iraqi Hodgies. After a time, the insurgents would kill the animals and people they would clean out their intestines and implant bombs in them and leave it on the road side. It looks so obvious to see this on the road. We were told by higher command if we saw an Iraqi child running on the street trying to slow down the convoy not to take a chance and to blow your horn. If the child did not move off the road, we were to drive right through them. I am glad I did not have an opportunity to do this or even witness it. There also were children who had bombs on them and got blown up
The Sunni triangle means the coalition forces from Sunni and the Kurds getting hit in Baghdad insurgents and getting hit with heavy ammunition. It was difficult to get water and food supplies from Kuwait into Baghdad.
Now looking back on this war story I wanted to share this interesting topic about a NCO (Non Commissioned Officer) who was working in the battalion. He was in the National Guard and was cross leveled with my unit. He was a member of the KKK (Ku Klux Klan). He used to wear a uniform with a hood. Another soldier shared this information with me during the war. I guess the impact of the war changes a person either for the better or worse. He had to learn to live with the same people he was prejudiced against. They also held high positions in the military such as officers, chaplains, and non- commissioned. The soldier lived among different races and had to put his racism aside during the war. I was told that he regretted what he did over the years. The way for instance how he acted towards other people, nationalities, and how he usually stereotyped people. Being in a combat zone and living with your soldiers from day to day you have to interact and work as a team. There were a lot of times we got hit under fire. We relied on the same soldiers and the only way to survive was to work together. Race was not the issue. The other soldier told me not to share this information at the time. He also acted nice to me. He had a smile and we spoke time to time. He lived in the male tent right across from me. He stated when he returns home after his deployment that he would like to invite the wonderful people. We exchanged addresses and telephone numbers with the people he meets during his deployment to a party at his home. I think this is a powerful experience to share with everyone about a military member who was a member of the KKK and how the war changed him to be a better person. It was a learning experience for me as well. I would have never known this about the NCO.
On my second tour there was (MWR) Morale Welfare Recreation: a special event for the soldiers. The actor and comedian, Robin Williams, came to visit the soldiers to boost their morale. I wanted to go to the event and meet him but was unable to because I had a commitment at the motor pool. I am a collector and collect autographs of famous people such as sports players and memorabilia. Another time the MWR had an event with a famous football Hall of Famer and a cheerleader who came to the event. He was Gayle Sayers. He wore a baseball cap and the emblem on it was the third infantry division patch. One of my Sergeants told me that a football player was coming to visit the compound. He told me the name of player and he showed me about four footballs he brought from the PX that he wanted to have the athlete signed for him. After he told me about this I went to the PX and bought a football so when I met the hall of famer he would sign it for me. I put his signed autographed football in a collectors showcase I have it on my bedroom dresser.
My deployment photo album is a constant reminder of the ups and down I had to endure. I am so happy that I took these photos, which I shared with soldiers in my division, family and other people who came into my life. Through my photos I was captioning a significant part of history. Many of my friends and colleagues took photos like I did although many others do not care about the photos at all.
I served three years on Active Duty with the Army from October 29, 2002 through January 31, 2006, stationed in Georgia. I was deployed to Iraq and completed two tours. My first tour was from March 2003 to December 2003, and my second to Iraq was from October 2004 to October 2005.