Balloon animals
Army Spc. Jessica Velasquez makes a balloon animal out of a surgical glove and hands it off to a group of excited Iraqi girls at an elementary school during a recent combined humanitarian mission in the Baghdad suburb of Salman Pak, Iraq, September 2009.

BAGHDAD, Sept. 24, 2009 - Army Spc. Jessica Velasquez spent years trying to muster up the nerve to talk to a recruiter. She finally found that resolve when she needed to pay for college to pursue her dream of becoming a nurse.

Now, she is soon to wrap up what she says has been one of her most rewarding experiences -- making a difference in the lives of Iraqis during her past year's deployment here.

"The whole experience has been surreal," Velazquez said. "The deployment has moved by much faster than I expected and I'm excited to go home." A medic with the 82nd Airborne Division's 3rd Brigade Combat Team, she will be heading back to Fort Bragg, N.C., with much more to show for her military experience than tuition coverage.

The daughter of an Ecuadorian mother and a Colombian father, Velasquez left her home in Gardena, Calif., to join the Army in order to serve her country and hone her skills in her dream profession of becoming a nurse. But joining the military had always been in the back of her mind, she said.

"I was in Junior Recruit Officer Training School in high school and had always thought about joining the Army but never had the guts to actually do it," Velasquez said.

After high school, Velasquez wanted to go to college to pursue a nursing degree and go straight into the career field. But after three years of school and completing all of her basic undergraduate classes, the then 21-year-old decided she wanted something more.

One day while shopping in Hollywood, Calif., with a friend, Velasquez said she finally mustered the courage to walk into a nearby military recruiting office where she was offered benefits that were too good to refuse.

"It all worked out perfectly," she said. "I needed a way to pay for college so I could get my nursing degree and the Army would provide that. I chose to be a medic so I could carry some of the experience and training I received in the Army back over to my career field."

Even with all the benefits and guarantees the Army offered her for a chance at a promising future, she said her family wasn't as supportive as she had hoped they would be. "At first they tried to discourage me because they were afraid for my safety, but eventually they gave in and now that I have been in for over two years, they are very supportive and proud of me," she said.

Velasquez has been in the "Panther" brigade for more than a year; she deployed to Iraq in December 2008. Whether it's serving as a line medic during a combat logistics patrol in east Baghdad or working at a health clinic inside her operating base, Velasquez is always ready to provide medical assistance to her fellow paratroopers.

When not helping her fellow servicemembers, Velasquez is assisting Iraqis. During a recent combined humanitarian mission in the Baghdad suburb of Salman Pak, Velasquez was one of six female medics who visited an all-girl elementary school where they gave out several school supplies and assisted Iraqi medical personnel by conducting several medical screenings and giving health tips to the women and children in the region.

Velasquez said helping the people of Iraq has been the highlight of her deployment.

"The humanitarian mission was my favorite experience in Iraq so far because we got to help out the young girls, and it felt like we were making such a huge difference. It surprised me how friendly the Iraqi people were toward us," she said. "The news always shows bombings and attacks that are happening in Iraq. You never see the good things we are doing here."

During her spare time, Velasquez likes to work out at the gym, watch movies, keep in touch with her family and boyfriend, and cross-stitch.

She hopes to finish college and one day find a job in the medical field doing what she has always loved to do, which is to help people.

(Army Pvt. Jared Gehmann serves with the 82nd Airborne Division's 3rd Brigade Combat Team public affairs.)

Page last updated Thu September 24th, 2009 at 21:38