By Mr. Chris Graygarcia (USACE)October 8, 2009
SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- It was 4 a.m. on a freezing morning in February 2004. Phyllis Svetich, 54-year-old paralegal, shivered through an Army physical training session at Fort Bliss, Texas, thinking, "What have I gotten myself into'"
Svetich is a paralegal specialist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Sacramento District. Nine months after she'd volunteered to work with the Corps' new Gulf Region Division in Iraq, and two weeks into her mobilization, she was spending a week at Fort Bliss completing required training in preparation to deploy to Baghdad.
When she received the mobilization call, she says, "It was really exciting. I was excited to go over and support the mission, but it was also an adventure."
Then came Fort Bliss. "We were really treated like we were military," she explains. "I was a 54-year-old woman and I was being treated like an 18-year-old soldier, and it was pretty rough."
It was a necessary first step of what would prove to be a grueling tour, one that left her thinking she'd never deploy again. But this month, she will: as a paralegal specialist to the Corps' Afghanistan Engineer District.
The Iraq deployment was her first, though she'd worked for the Corps off and on since the 1970s. Starting as a file clerk in the Sacramento District's office of counsel, Svetich moved up quickly to paralegal specialist. When the call went out for volunteers to deploy to Iraq with the Corps' newly-formed Gulf Region Division, "This was a chance," she told herself, "I'm never going to get again."
"I'm a pretty patriotic person, and I wanted to support our troops over there," she explains. "I just wanted to go support the mission without much idea - I'd never deployed before, never served in the military - of what it would involve."
Her husband, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, understood her need to help, she says. Equally important was the support of her boss, Carl Korman, Sacramento District's chief of counsel, and the rest of the office of counsel staff. "This isn't an easy thing to ask an office of 10 people," Svetich says. "When one person leaves, a tenth of (Korman's) staff leaves. And everyone else has to absorb what I'm doing now."
Buoyed by their encouragement, Svetich was off. The workload was enormous, she says, requiring staff there to take on whatever they could. She wound up managing payments for Iraq's State Oil Marketing Organization and running transports to and from Baghdad airport as she "was one of the people to volunteer to go into the red zone to do that," she says, referring to areas outside of American bases in Iraq.
"I went out into the red zone two or three times a week, because that was where the work was. And I think if I hadn't been willing to do that, it wouldn't have been as fruitful, because that is where I feel I was able to do the most good."
Svetich fought stress by staying busy, she says, working up to 18-hour days, seven days a week. "It was extremely difficult, in that you've left your family - your support group," she says, of the hardships of the work environment. "I'd never been away from my husband, and it was hard. The shoulder to cry on wasn't there."
Over the months, it wore her down. Then, just weeks before she was to return home, she narrowly avoided a mortar attack.
"I was pretty depressed, because I had lived with that (war environment) for this length of time," she explains. "This was at the height of the war... It affected me. I lost a ton of weight. A lot of it was stress."
Returning to Sacramento, Svetich threw herself back into her work until she could no longer put off taking required post-deployment leave. She was ready for the rest, she says, but reluctant to face her deployment experiences.
"When I came back, I said no way (would I go again). And if people had asked me if they should go, I'd have said, 'don't do it'," she says. "But then you get some rest. As time goes on, the bad fades, and the good stays in your memory. You begin to remember the good parts of it, the friends you made, the moments you shared with fellow Corps employees. We still keep in touch, clear across the country. And pretty soon, what was a depressing experience, becomes a happy experience; one that you hold dear."
By 2005, she was ready to deploy again. When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, she was among the first Corps employees into New Orleans, supervising debris removal.
"It was the most satisfying mission I've ever had," she says, "because I was working for the American people. I could see immediate results. When we went in, people couldn't get to their homes. They had animals in there, and you'd find them crying in the streets, saying 'I need to get to my animals, and I can't get through the streets.' So I'd go to my contractor and say, 'Clean this street. Get her to her home.' And they would do it. You knew you were making a difference, right there at that moment."
For Svetich, it was a reminder of the importance of the Corps' mission. Not long after she returned, Svetich decided she wanted to deploy again in support of Overseas Contingency Operations. In the summer of 2009, she received her chance. A colleague in Afghanistan e-mailed her about an opening for a paralegal specialist. She checked with her husband, checked with her boss. Both said, "Go." She departs for Afghanistan this month, for a six-month tour.
"I expect things will be different this time. I'll be going into the same job I work here, so it'll be nice to go in my own field for a change, so I can hit the ground running."
As she prepares to deploy again, she looks forward to the rewards of contributing again to the Corps mission overseas, and seeing familiar faces. She credits her deployments with helping build her professional confidence. "(Deploying) has helped my satisfaction with my job, because it's given me the confidence to say, 'I can do anything you want me to do'," she says. "It opened up my job to newer, exciting duties. And that's been wonderful.
If someone from a different part of our organization came to me and said, 'I want you to take over my job today, now go ahead and start it,' I'd say, 'You're completely out of your mind!' But (in Iraq), you didn't think anything about it. You said, let's sit down and show me what I need to do. That's wonderful, that you really are challenged to be so much more than you ever thought you could be."
While she doesn't believe this deployment will be easy, either, she does feel better prepared to go this time, she says.
"The hard part is leaving the people you love. I missed my husband terribly. But it helps knowing he's 100 percent behind me," she says. "I think when I go back this time, it'll be easier because I already understand (the challenges of deployment). Yes, there'll be some sad times, but the happy times are what you'll take back with you. So, I'm really looking forward to going. You run into the same people who deploy again and again, and we keep seeing each other...so you get to see people you've formed close relationships with again. I just feel excited to go."