FORT BRAGG, N.C. - Rosalinda Hernandez never served in the military, but she has worn an Army uniform and, like many of our nation's Soldiers, served overseas.

After working at the Fort Bragg Directorate of Public Works for five years, Hernandez volunteered to work as a construction representative in 2007 with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Iraq. The six-month assignment ended up stretching to two years.

When the she first learned about the opportunity, she spoke with her husband Pedro, a former sergeant first class who retired after 22 years of service, about the opportunity.

"When I talked to him, he said sure but he didn't think I would be selected," she said. "When they called me nine months later, off I went."

She said even though it was hard being separated from her Family, it was a wonderful experience and a chance to work in all aspects of construction instead of focusing on just one piece of a project.

Hernandez worked side-by-side with American Soldiers, Iraqis and third country nationals. She helped convert a medical clinic to a trauma hospital, move a sewer, maintain the airstrip and other projects during her tour. She said everyone over there became a part of her extended Family.

"I was a mother to some, a sister to others. We earned one another's respect," Hernandez said. "I learned so much from the Iraqis and TCNs I worked with. It was not about the ugliness of politics and war, but the blessings in life and the importance of Family. I found peace and tranquility there."

Her experiences made her realize how fortunate she was.
"It was humbling. To have someone act like you gave them a million bucks when you just gave them an aspirin. It was never really about what you gave them, though. It was that an American gave it to them and that I cared about them and their Families. You talk to someone over there and realize that they're a person, just like me," Hernandez said.

While her two years in Iraq allowed her the ability to look at her life differently, the mother of two said she went there not realizing how much her life would change.

"I went over there expecting nothing and got everything in return. I feel as though I gave so little of me, but I got so much more," she said. "When I came back it seemed like the people I knew had changed, but I realized it was me - for the better. I don't want to waste my time any more doing things that don't matter or don't mean anything to me. I want to spend my time surrounded by people who value life."

As she prepares for a simpler Christmas this year compared to ones she's celebrated in year's past, she said a place in her heart is saved for the Soldiers still in Iraq.

"I left a lot of Soldiers over there. I hope they all make it back to be with their Families again," said Hernandez. "I look on our Soldiers differently now that I've seen them over there and how young they are. We need to continue to support those who are fighting for us and remember them everyday."

Hernandez said the support of her Family and DPW was instrumental in her being able to fulfill her dream and helping rebuild Iraq.

As she prepares to celebrate her 52nd birthday, she is already looking for her next adventure.
"It was a privilege and an honor to work over there. I hope I get work there again," Hernandez said.