By Staff Sgt. Mary Junell, North Carolina National GuardApril 19, 2019
RALEIGH, N.C. - Fifteen years. Could it have been that long? I was traveling to a long-overdue reunion. It took one of our own dying to bring up the idea of getting together.
My first deployment seemed like a lifetime ago, yet when I close my eyes, I can see the sand rushing by, the road stretching out into the horizon. I can feel the hot air on my face. At times even the wind was hot. Imagine the hottest day of the year; then someone points a hair dryer at you on full blast.
I remember my face covered in sweat and dust. Sand covered everything. I can still see the roads made of gravel and dirt, the highway with holes from IEDs, the Bailey bridges used in place of bridges that have been blown up, and the floating bridge over the Tigris river where we would wait so long to cross that we once received motor fire.
A few years after I got home, I was driving on the highway in North Carolina, and I missed my exit by more than 10 miles. I was confused at first.his was an exit I took all the time; I knew my way around the area. Then I noticed what was in front of me, a tractor-trailer carrying a large shipping container like the ones we d in Iraq. I took this highway all the time, but I was following the truck in front of me like I had done for a year in the desert.
I also see the faces of the Soldiers in my unit when I close my eyes. I remember the excitement that spread through the convoy as we realized we were passing another convoy from our unit going the other direction. We would search the CB radios we had for their channel until we heard those familiar voices because, for those few moments, we knew all of them were safe. We didn't have smartphones or Facebook in 2004. We waited in line to pay for internet time on a computer in a small trailer on our base, and we were never on base for long. Staying connected, even to people we were in the same country with, was difficult.
I remember every time we heard there had been a convoy hit and that feeling in the pit of my stomach as we anxiously waited for news. And sometimes the news was bad. Like most transportation units in Iraq in 2004, the 1450th Transportation Company got hit a lot.
Missions came down daily, and we were often only a day behind other convoys in our unit. Soldiers up north needed gear and supplies, everything from broom handles to artillery rounds. We'd often get a follow-on mission on the way back south; things being shipped home for an outgoing unit or equipment that needed to be fixed at a larger facility in Kuwait. Once, as we got to the base where we were spending the night, we heard that the convoy ahead of us had been hit. We dropped off our load and escorting what was left of the convoy back down south to Navistar, just over the Iraq and Kuwait border, the place we called home.
We loaded the damaged tractors onto our trailers. Someone said that we might want to empty the cooler, so the melted ice didn't slosh all over the inside of the tuck. We all carried coolers in between the seats of our trucks so we could have cold water and maybe an energy drink to keep us going on those especially long days, it was not uncommon to spend 12 hours or more behind the wheel in a single day. What poured out of the cooler was red. It was a mix of blood and water. I see it as vividly today as I did then, red, pouring out onto the light-colored sand. The two guys who had been in the truck survived, but they didn't get out unscathed. One of them we wouldn't see again until we landed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, in the pre-dawn hours of Easter morning 2005.
I thought about him a lot as my husband and I made the three-hour drive to Hickory, North Carolina, for the reunion. I saw his face like I saw everyone's who I hadn't seen since we got back to North Carolina. I remember other faces too. There was the young boy who tried to get me to stop my truck as we rolled slowly through his town. He ran out in the road and squatted in front of me. He moved just in time, but for a moment I thought I would hit him. My co-driver, a girl I had been friends with since we were 15, had opened to door and was hanging out of the truck screaming at him to move.
There was the little girl whose photo I took. She gave two thumbs-up to our convoy as we passed her on the side of the road. I remember watching every person on the side of the road. I would look at their hands, watch for them signaling, look to see if they were holding something. I would find myself looking into their eyes as we passed them, hoping I could see their intentions, plead with them through eye-contact to not hit the button, to let us drive by. We all just wanted to finish our mission and go home.
When I made it to the reunion, I was nervous. I had an idea in my head about what my experience was in Iraq, I had just replayed most of it on the way there, but I've always wondered if I remembered it wrong. I worried that the fog of war or the distance of time had created a false memory. I've always been the kind of person who seconded guessed my memories, down-played things that happened to me, or only thought that it couldn't be that bad because someone else had it worse.
It never helps that as a woman, and a truck driver, I came home to people thinking I never left the comfort of my base. Women weren't in combat, or so I was told. I was asked to give a speech at a local Memorial Day parade in Newland, North Carolina, shortly after returning home. I was sitting in the viewing box for the parade next to the leader of the Women's Auxiliary for the local V.F.W. She kept telling me I should join the auxiliary, that it would be great to have a young person. I finally looked at her and said, well I think I'll join the V.F.W. Her face screwed up in the same way people still do when I tell them my war stories and she said: You can't do that, the V.F.W. is only for men.
Women have been going to Iraq and Afghanistan for a while now and the attitude is shifting, but I still get those quizzical looks. I think people don't understand what life was like driving a truck in Iraq in 2004. Whatever it is, no one seems to think it's funny when I joke that getting shot at was nothing, just a thing that happened, it was the IEDs we had to watch out for.
I realized something happened after I walked into the American Legion Post 48 in Hickory for the reunion. I made that joke, and everyone laughed. For the first time since we landed back at Fort Bragg in 2005, I didn't feel like a crazy person.
There were 26 of us who showed up to the reunion. Most of us couldn't make it 10 feet into the building without being stopped by a hug, and the way people looked at each other reminded me of the way children look at their parents. There's a comfort zone in the vicinity of people with whom you stared down death's door.
We sat at round plastic tables, cramming in as many chairs as we could, despite there being as many tables as there were people. Stories and memories came flooding out of us, and I wasn't the only one who thought they'd remember things wrong. I think many of us were looking for validation.
I asked the group if they remembered the time we slept on the side of the road. I've always felt like no one believed this story. Maybe it was one of those war stories that gets embellished through the telling and isn't an accurate picture of the real event. I wanted to know if I remembered it the way it happened.
We were past the checkpoint, but not actually on the base. There were Soldiers in guard towers nearby, at least I remember being told that. But, laying on my cot that night next to my truck, there was nothing between me and the rest of Iraq except two rolls of barbed wire stacked on top of each other to make a rudimentary fence. We were in the southern part of Iraq, what we considered the safer part. But that was driving; sleeping was another story altogether. It was the first time I slept holding onto my weapon.
Before I could finish asking if I'd remembered it correctly, one of the guys yelled hell, yeah, and a bunch of people started laughing. It's not that it was funny, although his enthusiasm was a little comical; apparently, I wasn't the only one who used this story to try to explain to people just what it was like driving a truck in Iraq in 2004.
The experiences I had were not solely my own. They are shared by a group of men and women I served more than a year with, driving all over the country, sleeping in tents set up for people in transit, and sleeping outside when the tents were full. We celebrated holidays, congratulated the fathers who were not home to see their babies being born, mourned the relationships that didn't make it through the deployment, and we kept each other alive.
And now, at the reunion, we were there for each other again. I wasn't the only nervous one. Almost everyone I talked to expressed concerns about not knowing what to expect. For many of them, like me, this was the first time they were seeing each other. The wounds we carry around don't fully heal, and it had been over a decade since some of them had ripped off the Band-Aid and opened up about their time in Iraq. It hurts to admit that events that happened almost 15 years ago still affect you.
But these wounds needed air to heal, as the night drove on, we all began to open up. I heard stories I'd never heard before. I learned about things that happened while I was on a different mission, and I was reminded of things I'd almost forgotten. We all took turns asking the table, do you remember when, and what followed brought laughter and sometimes tears. We opened up to each other about what we still carried around, what stuck with us, and how we felt about it all.
We came to a consensus that none of us would ever be the same, but that was OK. Sitting around those tables telling stories was therapeutic. I felt less crazy, I felt like I belonged, and honestly, I didn't feel that way during the deployment. Most of the Soldiers in my unit were older, and they were men. I always made a conscious effort to hold my own, carry my own gear, open my own doors, be one of the guys, and I never knew if it worked.
I often hear veterans from different generations talking about the feeling of not belonging. They get home to a different world, a world full of people they can't relate to. One Soldier from my unit said it best when he told our table that his own family would never fully understand what we went through, but you guys do. And as he said that to our table, and to me, I realized I had belonged, and I still do.
I'm lucky that I still have a career in the National Guard. Although I don't regularly get to talk to the Soldiers who were deployed with me in 2004, there is something about the shared but separate experiences of Soldiers, however, that makes it a comforting group to be around. For the most part a fellow Soldier, even one who hasn't deployed to the same place, still understands what it's about.
Many of the Soldiers I sat with had long left the Guard. They needed this night more than I did. I have never been hugged the way I was that night. All of us are part of a story we relive, and for some of them, it's daily. They don't have the luxury I do, to work around people who can somewhat relate.
Walking into that American Legion and seeing all those faces again hit me like a truck. Many of us had added a few pounds and new lines crawled across their faces. The 15 years showed in the graying of hair and fathers who were now grandfathers, but at the same time, I still see them as they looked in the desert, tan uniforms, sweat stains, green bulletproof vests. They were my brothers and sisters, my mothers and fathers. They were, and always will be, my family.
I was overwhelmed with fear and doubt, and I wasn't sure if I could handle reliving all of those memories, it's what had almost kept me from coming. But as I went around the room that night, there was so much joy. Even being in the bathroom led to a story. We stood around the sinks laughing about the time some of us were in the shower at one of the forward bases and we had to run to the bunker in our towels because there were incoming mortars.
There were tears too, but I think that's part of the healing process. I've been holding onto all of it for too long, letting it control me. The reunion felt like a release. Everyone seemed to step a little lighter as the night wore on. Shoulders relaxed and I could feel my tension ease; it felt like being home.
In the days since the reunion, I feel different. Not like a new person, I'll never thoroughly shake off those experiences, and the way they've shaped my life hasn't been all bad. But I feel like I belong somewhere now. There's an enormous amount of confidence that comes from knowing you belong. I think as veterans, we want to be in control, but we need to let go for that to happen. Being able to relive the traumatic events of my deployment, in a space filled with people who were right beside me when they happened, was better than any therapy I've ever been to.
I learned that night just how strong I am. There is strength in a group of people so connected, and there is strength in admitting you need help, and there is strength in building a life after living through what we did. Now, I'll do that thing I do and say that there are so many who have had it much worse. There are those who don't make it home, or they do but not all in one piece. There are physical and mental wounds that are beyond what I brought back with me, but strength doesn't come from dealing with the worst, it comes from dealing, pushing through, and not letting it control you, and at the reunion, I found my strength.