Lina, US vet: Small Woman, Big Truck

linaAngelina is small women from a protected  Italian-American family in a small New York community  She joined the military for school benefits before 9/11 and thus, before the war in Afghanistan.

Her first impression of warfare was seeing shots of the Gulf War on the six o’clock news, sitting with her mother and grandparents, seeing the explosions on their not so good TV and wondering if the people being bombed were still alive and if their families were all right.  She worried about them and was glad she was not wherever those scary things were happening.

Unlike her father and grandfather, Angelina had no war.  But the Afghan war became her war.

She remembers sitting on her cot in her fatigues in the barracks the night before deploying to Afghanistan, wondering if she would come home in a box, wounded, crippled for life or OK.  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:

“I’ll see you soon.”

Never goodbye, just see you soon.  Angelina was 20 years old.
As she flew in to Kandahar after a long flight, stopping in Germany, she could see the mountains through the plane’s window — the browns, earth tones, oranges, gold and a little green.  The beauty was stark and overwhelming.  She had never seen a landscape like this…TOPafghanistan mountain

I’ll never forget flying over those mountains. They were stunning and unlike anything I had ever seen before.   Then the back of the plane opened up, to disgorge its cargo, a rush of heat, hit me. And then there was the sand, the reality of sand, like sand on mars, kind of powdery sand and I was overwhelmed by  the 125 degree temperature. The weapon in my hand seemed to double in weight along with increased heaviness of all the stuff I had to carry. The heat was so intense, I felt pushed down by it.

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 Afghani nationals who were hired to pick up trash.  In a small group, they were let in through the tall metal gates with a guard tower and soldiers everywhere, weapons, sandbags for ducking behind and sand.  It was a big area but so crowded it felt claustrophobic.  As the people came in I heard a strange whistle, one I had been warned about and hit the ground.  Then the explosion – I lay there for a while thinking:  “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.

It really was a shock, that rocket, a big one, but that was the last time. 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 —  they are just never as shocking as that first one that lets you know that this really is war. But there was always this tension – sometimes more potent than others.  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 intimate contact.  This had its own tensions.

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 were 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 the 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 that mother carrying her 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.

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 young men.

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

Angelina 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 the fuel 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 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 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, they left.

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. Like the bible. I really felt as though I had time traveled. Or like I was in a movie or something. People in traditional dress. 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. It looked like Jesus Christ’s time…I was time traveling.  Jolting.  Culture shock and I was not the only one.

Then an Afghani truck appeared through the dust and it was heading for me.  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.  Challenging me.  But I had been taught – do not move to 2459097754the side of the road – ever!  Ever.  That’s where the majority of the bombs were.  So we each moved a little and we face – he looked surprised when we were able to pass each other, the Afghani and I — we could see each other face to face 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. And when we finally arrived at the base, I couldn’t go inside, the truck was too big. So I was outside the gates, there by myself with my partner.

And then the kids started coming, a whole group of them.  Crossing the road toward me. Such beautiful children in their loose native clothing but what was hidden there? There were about fifteen of them.  I suddenly thought:  Where are the mothers?  Who is supervising these kids? Why weren’t they in school?   What a stupid thought — these children were not even going to school.  Were the mothers allowed out by themselves to be with their kids?  I know so little.

One of them tried to give me a chicken, a live white chicken; another one offered me some chips with really grimy hands. It seemed they wanted to trade me something, probably an MRE – meal ready to eat – it was a standard thing that soldiers gave the kids — those meals.  But god, a live chicken for one of those crappy meals?

There they were, the kids and they were 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, even back  in the states, was to watch the children.  Not the adults so much but the kids.  Sometimes a child, yes, a kid would run up and stick a hypodermic needle in a soldier – who knows what was in it, I never found out — or 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 except for my quiet partner outside the gates of a base with 2,500 gallons of fuel in my truck with these potentially dangerous children in my face.  This one in particular — this little ten year old boy who would not back off.

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 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.

During trash detail I got to talk to some of the local people – it was one conversation with this one man that destroyed the ideas of who I thought these people were. What this Afghani man wanted most in the world was that his children, I think he had two, went to school.  He was a father and 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.  He was a father, a man who loved his children and wanted a future for them.

I had arrived in Afghanistan, a typical soldier. I got there, 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 did and most would never get them. I would.

I didn’t realize how changed I was by those few months, nine, until I got home and was discharged.  I got a job in a bakery which was really a nice reentry and I was in school full time. The pleasant comradery with the women, all women, the smell of the goods baking, and yes, the taste. Donuts my favorite. Chocolate.   I really put on a few too many pounds there.

One afternoon then phone rang, I was close by and picked up, which I didn’t usually do. It was a woman, can’t remember her name,  and she was very upset, crying really, almost sobbing because her cupcakes didn’t turn our right.  What?  Your cupcakes? What are you talking about? Something about the colors being wrong, something like that. Like, what?   They still tasted the same.   Are you fucking crazy?  Cupcakes?  It made me mad, really mad.  What a stupid thing to be upset about. Someone took the phone away from me which was probably a good thing and soothed the woman on the other end and I heard her say something about veteran, about PTSD. It scared me because it was hard to get a job as a vet.  There were always the looks, like I had a gun in my belt and was going to kill someone. That’s the truth, no kidding.  Just ask a vet, if you don’t believe it.  What happened to me with that call?  Yes, traumatic stress symptoms but over time mine passed, most of them but I learned what reactivity meant. I was lucky or I had a good childhood so I wasn’t as vulnerable. Who knows?  I don’t but it went away.  But hey, anyone who has four even five deployments is going to get PTS to some degree no matter how great their life before the military.  And not everyone who has PTS stays in a seriously traumatized state.

Still the experience in the military has been very special.

It is like I joined a club only after discharge,  I couldn’t find the club house or the other members.  Even the vets groups didn’t get it for me.  They were all men with one exception and she left pretty quick for another part of the country. The men had different stuff going on. They belonged to a different club.

The changes left me grateful, impatient with small talk, prejudice about people who are different and aware of how much I have while some people have so little. The changes left me questioning things I would never have thought to question before deployment.

My world was not just Port Washington, New York any more. There were the people in this country, so self-involved, they never got  that others have it worse than we have. That people in other parts of the world have to be careful, careful just crossing the street because they could be blown up, their children killed for simply approaching a soldier. Nothing is the same once you know this. Once you know, it never goes away. Never gets any lighter. Just something you carry around. The knowledge of other worlds. And it’s not a bad thing except when it is.

So things have changed. I came home to a different world or the same world only I was different. Sometimes I feel so isolated by what I learned. I have changed and it was not something I did consciously or looked for.

I am married to a vet, actually a man I met there. He has some pretty serious PTS  and we have two daughters, ages six and eight and am quite protective of them, truthfully, in the extreme. (Wouldn’t even let them take school buses, had to deliver and pick them up myself and lived with an exaggerated anxiety of something terrible happening to them – never talked about it.)

Part of my protectiveness comes, I am certain, from my encounter with the kids in Afghanistan and the fact that I could have killed them and then there was the mother with her daughter in the medic station, the daughter with the fifteen staples in her head. I discovered difficult things about me that I know exist in each of us but most non-military 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 experiences that other people can’t relate to and probably couldn’t handle, especially the mothers I know. While there are things not right about war and the military, still  there are times I desperately miss being a soldier. I was really good at it.

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