Forming a Warrior
|by Christylee Sparrow (Hawk) Vickers |
Christylee was 19 years old when she enlisted for active duty in the U.S. Army on May 30, 2002, eight months after 9/11. As a 63B10-Light Wheel Vehicle Mechanic, she was first stationed at the 21st TSC in Kaiserslautern, Germany. She then served with the 101st Airborne Division 3BDG, 3STB, HHC. She deployed to Iraq From September 2005 to March 2006. She served her initial enlistment of 4 years and because of the needs of the Army, she served an additional 10 months after her initial enlistment contract ended with the Rank of SPC and up for a promotion. Her poem collection can be found here.
Learning My Job
Learning to be a 63B-Light Wheel Vehicle Mechanic was truly an experience I shall never forget. I chose this job skill based on my ASVAB (Armed Services Vocational Assessment Battery) score as well as the cash bonus I would receive for learning said job and the assurance that it would send me to Europe for my first Duty Assignment.
In AIT (Advanced Individual Training) I was one of six females in our class of 60 from Alpha Company. I was also as green and new to the maintenance program as the BDU uniform I wore. I had no idea how anything mechanical worked. Fortunately, the TMs (Technical Manuals) were written at an 8th grade reading level, with detailed diagrams, flowcharts, and step-by- step instruction.
Each week we learned about a specific system in the vehicle family: engine, transmission, electrical, brakes, suspension, etc. On Monday through Thursday, after classroom time, we received three hours of hands-on troubleshooting, diagnosis, and repair instruction. If you failed Friday’s test on that block of instruction, you could retake it once before being recycled and put into another class. Some people did fail, but it was because of their own pride or laziness. We were allowed to use the TMs for our testing, but we had to know which one we needed and go to the front of the room to ask for it. We could also use all the notes that could fit on a 5×7 index card. We could even ask the instructor three yes or no questions.
Unlike the guys, I didn’t have any problem with pride. The instructors liked that I was willing to ask questions or find the answers in a book. They didn’t mind if I asked what might sound like a stupid question. When our instructor presumed we knew how to fill a battery with water, I asked how to do that. None of my classmates knew the answer either, but they hadn’t the nerve to ask. The instructor’s respectful response to my battery question gave me confidence to keep asking questions. Our instructors said it was easier to teach a female soldier to do the job the right way once than to break the guys of their bad habits.
My friendship with the guys—my brothers in arms—is worth mentioning. A group of us, about ten, would pitch in for hotel rooms during our Off Post Pass weekends. When I was in a drunken state, they’d chase off anyone flirting with me and safely deposit me into the hotel bed. I would wake up with the guys sleeping along the bed edge or on the floor by the bed to make sure no one bothered me. These brothers had my back.
When I read my journal from that time, I realize how lucky I was to have a group of friends like these. And, yes, I took care of them, too. I played the role of mother hen. I’d bring up as much of the continental breakfast as I could carry. I would write reminder notes for them on what to study and what TMs to look at. It helped that these guys saw me as an equal and that when they looked at me, they saw their sisters or mother back home.
Home Is Where the Army Sends You
When it was time to find out where our first duty stations would be, I stood in formation certain of where I was headed. I chose “Duty Station of Choice, Europe” when I enlisted, which meant just one thing, Germany. So when the drill sergeant handed out our Orders by name, while telling us how vital this sheet of paper was, I was aghast. KOREA. But there it was alongside my name and SSN. It was impossible to get the drill sergeant’s attention; he was too busy talking about the virtues of being chosen to go to Air Assault and Airborne School and details from his favorite duty stations.
“Drill Sergeant, I’m not supposed to go to Korea! Drill Sgt.” I sounded off when a moment opened up for questions.
“What do you mean? You go where the Army sends you,” he said, slightly put off that I didn’t want to be “queen for a year,” which is what women serving in Korea were called. I wanted to go to Germany because that’s where my dad had served and in school I had studied German language, history, and culture.
“But, Drill Sergeant, I enlisted for Europe, for Germany, and I can prove it. I have my contract,” I mustered, knowing full well that my outburst might mean push-ups. Yet standing there at Parade Rest, sharp elbows V-ed out, and my palms moist with South Carolina heat, I sensed his interest in my last statement. I brought my contract because my dad told me to. I brought my contract because I heard one too many horror stories of “breach of contract” and “if only.” I knew that if you can prove something legally, you have a leg to stand on.
“If you really do have your enlistment contract with you, bring it to my office when we get back to the barracks,” the sergeant said before we marched onward toward the physicals and shots some of us would need to go overseas.
Later that evening, after mail call when we were to prep our uniforms for the next day, I went with my battle buddy down the hall to the drill sergeant’s office. I never before noticed the darkness of this hallway, but the gloom seemed to intensify my resolve to not back down. I would get what I signed up for.
“Never put your name on it, unless you really know what you’re getting yourself into,” I could hear Grandpa remind me whenever I’d ask why he was writing another letter to the editor, a company who didn’t follow through, or the State Attorney General. I remember Grandpa writing a lot of letters about integrity and keeping your word. I silently offered up thanks to my grandpa for making me promise to read every word of my contract before I signed it.
When I handed over my enlistment contract and snapped back to Parade Rest, I feared the drill sergeant would laugh and rip it up. So only when he made a copy of the pages signed and initialed “Duty Station of Choice/Europe” could I relax.
This was my first experience of standing up against a system that could exploit my lack of knowledge if I didn’t learn how to educate myself on the workings of its cluster-fuck of moving pieces. Others might have just accepted defeat, but I said, “No, you can’t deny me my right.” I had information at hand and resources at the ready just like I had been taught while learning how to fix military vehicles. To troubleshoot a problem, you need to find the best approach. You need to be willing to ask for help and not hang back in fear of defeat.
Ripples of War
With half my enlistment completed, I departed Germany 2 years exactly from the day I arrived. Upon arrival to Ft. Campbell, I was suddenly caught up in the Pre-mobilization tempo of the unit. In nine short months, I went from Germany where we supported the war, to deployment to Iraq, with the 101st Airborne Division, where I was in the war. Iraq is where I learn what it’s like to face hours of mortar shells that shake the walls. Iraq is where my life changed in more ways than one.
We are standing in formation when we are told we won’t be at Forward Operating Base Speicher until New Year, 2006. That means two more weeks at FOB Summerall. Unable to keep it together anymore, I break ranks and run to the room set aside for females. It is already empty of belongings since they have been sent ahead to Speicher. I cry loud and hard, so hard my body shakes. My sobs echo through the warehouse we use as a multipurpose building. My wails must reach the laundry, showers, sleeping quarters, motor pool, and my Company HQ.
No one comes in until I am a spent shell. Then Chica arrives to see if I need water. The staff sergeant and sergeant first class come to tell me they are disappointed that I have lost my military bearing. They say I need to “embrace the suck” of deployments just like everyone else.
I have truly done it. After a year with the Rakkassans and my unit, I have proven the prejudice against women in uniform correct. I’m not made for war. December’s monthly counseling statement states that I don’t act as I did when we first arrived. I am depressed, but they don’t agree that I need to be sent to Mental Health just yet. It is noted that my mood appeared noticeably depressed after our most recent mortaring that took two lives—Jimmie L. Shelton and Thomas C. Skiekert.
Their deaths and the rattling of buildings, the dust, and blood-splattered walls haunt me. I have been using so much energy to keep myself together and now the one light on the horizon—getting to Speicher—is gone. Getting to Speicher is everything. It is the reason I keep moving forward, why I push through. Speicher is where my fiancée is, where his unit is, where my few friends are. More than anything, I want to not feel so empty and alone. I want to be connected to someone who values me. I want to feel like a person again and not a walking liability.
My unit will drive from FOB Summerall to FOB Speicher near Tikrit, Iraq. I drive a five-ton that won’t shift out of 3rd gear, stuck at 30 mph. We lose sight of the convoy that is going 55 mph. The sound of mortar rounds has plagued my deployment, as well as the thunder of IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) detonated by EOD squads or triggered by vehicles. I am expected to put damaged vehicles back together again within 24 hours or maybe a week if the damage is bad. I am scared on this drive. My fear stems from the damage I’ve seen.
Once we reach Speicher I find the nearest MWR (Morale, Welfare and Recreation program), where I wait for a computer to send an email to Amos, my fiancée. Then I go back to my new quarters and wait. Four hours later I hear a knock, but it is just someone wanting to know if one of the other women wants to go to chow. I wait longer and write more letters. At 8 p.m., six hours after arriving, I am about to go to bed or find something to eat. As much as I want Amos to find me, just knowing we are on the same base is reassuring. When I hear another knock, I opened the door, ready to relay a message to an adjoining room.
Someone says, “Hi . . . it’s me.”
The overhang shadows his face and most of his body. I freeze. I know this voice. It is as if this voice awakens the part of me that’s been hiding deep inside—the part I want to survive.
It’s Amos. And I just hug him and cry. This is the worst and best Christmas Eve I have ever experienced.
We spend the rest of the evening together. I walk with him to my NCO’s building and wait to ask for permission to spend Christmas with Amos and his unit. When he agrees, we go to each person on my chain of command and get further permissions. It is decided that on Christmas Day I will be signed out by Amos’ lieutenant like a piece of equipment. I will be allowed to be out for the day and returned on Christmas evening.
Facing the Unknown
Six weeks later I stand in our building’s bathroom. It is for pee-ONLY. In the middle of the night, I can go there without needing to wake someone up to walk with me to the closest porta potty. As a woman in the military, the chance of me being raped or assaulted is one in five. Taking a buddy with me to the outdoor potty is a safety precaution. Going alone to this bathroom is a luxury I didn’t know I have missed.
I follow the directions and wait. The moment the lines cross, my heart drops, my mind races. I am awash with emotion. It is as if the world is muted. Questions of how this result will change my life overtake me.
I curse my unit’s belief that birth control is only for those who are sluts to begin with. We female soldiers are not supposed to have sex, so why would we need it? Pregnancy is a scarlet letter in the military’s book. Multi-National Iraqi forces have something called General Order Number 1, a five-page list of prohibited activities for soldiers. Before deployment we were all given copies, briefed, and quizzed. Among other things, the Order says anyone pregnant will be redeployed and single soldiers of the opposite sex are prohibited from spending the night together in any building.
The colonel who addressed my Brigade a few weeks before we deployed to Iraq went over General Order Number 1 with us. He warned that females would open their legs and tie a mattress to their backs to get out of deployment. Some, he said, want to be used like wheelbarrows.
A deployment dodger, I knew I wouldn’t be that, and yet here I am, pregnant. I worry this is something else my unit will use to prove a point: females aren’t cut out for deployments. Though I am Pro-Choice, I feel like I have no choices. I am a woman in Iraq where there are no abortions and my unit doesn’t believe in providing birth control. Telling my commanding officer about my pregnancy may get me kicked out of the Army, with no honorable discharge, no veteran benefits.
Reality sets in with a loud knocking on the door. Someone else needs to use the bathroom. I go into my room and skip breakfast. I hide the test in my pocket. It feels like a lead weight. I feel like a traitor. But with each step I prepare myself for the fight I will be undertaking.
First, I will need to tell Amos. After that, I’ll have to tell my unit. That will mean a trip to the medic to get the official results. I’m facing the unknown. Until now, I have never felt on the wrong side of the rules.
* * *
Amos was thrilled with my news. Our friends were happy. I was scared. I was going to wait one more day to tell my unit. Once I received a Pregnancy Profile I would be legally required to inform my unit of my condition, so they could get me out of the country within two weeks.
When I informed my NCO, it was right before he was to go on his two-week mid-tour leave, his R & R. He said two other NCOs wanted to help me. But he didn’t know they were the same two sergeants who told me I was a disappointment to the unit when I had my breakdown at Summeral.
I was summoned to my Unit’s HQ, a small, dingy building where additional weapons were locked away. Here we had a TV that was always on AFN-News, which was really CNN, and a radio tuned to the same frequency as other radios on the base. I had to present an official reporting to the commander and first sergeant. Our motor sergeant, who accompanied me to the Unit HQ, went in first to talk with the officers.
When the door opened, one of the officers motioned for me to go in. When they started by reading me my Miranda Rights, I knew. . . .
They saw me as a deployment dodger.
* * *
My new worksite was in the HQ, under the watchful eye of the senior command. I heard men talk about how soft the army had gotten, how women of other cultures will work until they go into the tree line and come out with a baby. They said DDs (Deployment Dodgers) got special treatment and made more work for everyone.
A day later I was called to report to the HQ Brigade, to the colonel. This time a different NCO from my motor pool accompanied me. This time first sergeants and captains from all units that were of mixed gender were in the room. I reported as I had done before. With formalities in place, I was once again read my Rights.
No, I was not raped.
Yes, I am pregnant, and I let my unit know after I went to the clinic.
Yes, I am aware of General Order Number 1.
No, I will not tell you the name of the father.
Yes, I do know who the father is.
NO, there is ONLY one.
No, birth control was not offered to me or any female in my unit.
Yes, I had a valid birth control prescription when I left for Iraq.
Yes, I did pack it.
Yes, I was at the pre-deployment briefing.
No, I am not under distress of retaliation from the father.
I want a lawyer.
I want a lawyer.
I WILL NOT ACCEPT OR SIGN THIS FIELD GRADE ARTICLE 15 (non-judicial punishment).
I WANT TO BE COURT MARTIALLED.
I WANT A LAWYER.
* * *
At night I would place my hands on my belly and talk to this small cluster of cells.
I would feel the immense pressure others must feel when an unexpected pregnancy comes.
Now I knew how a choice could change your life.
A Pebble in Their Boots
I left Iraq to enter a new kind of battle. No mortars from the sky. No vehicles hit by improvised explosives. Back in my Rear Detachment Brigade at Ft. Campbell, adversaries who saw me as a deployment dodger confronted me.
Within the first week, someone from my Brigade tried to go with me to my initial OB/GYN appointment, actually tried to sit in the examining room. Some of the other pregnant women didn’t know they could say no like I did. I understood it went against HIPPA.
I was given odd hours to report to my unit, sometimes three hours before everyone else came for the same formation. After they called me a liar when I complained, I started signing-in on the Brigade’s 24-hour guard roster.
In Iraq, I had lost 60 pounds within one five-month period. Still losing weight, I was labeled a Mild to High-Risk Pregnancy at 14 weeks. The stress I was under plus severe morning sickness was taking its toll, not only physically but psychologically as well. I was put on a Special Pregnancy Profile that limited my activity further. When my doctor said I could not lift more than 20 lbs., the guys started weighing the boxes they wanted me to carry from one building to the next, to ensure they were at the maximum limit.
At 16 weeks, I was hospitalized for spotting and bleeding. I had a partial placental abruption and spent three days in the hospital. While I was there, my unit commander and acting first sergeant came to accuse me of malingering. They said I was working with the doctors to draw out the process of not getting kicked out.
Upon my release, I was put on ten-day bed rest. After that I was to fulfill my daily fitness requirement by swimming rather than walking. Now I was bumped into HIGH Risk and was on a limited workday that began with swimming and didn’t end for eight hours.
With all the pressure I was under and harassment, I was usually close to crying and turning into a puddle of mush. I felt depressed and wished my closest family support wasn’t six hours away in Indiana. I began to see a mental health counsellor and to make friends with other pregnant women in my fitness program.
* * *
June finally came around, and I picked up Amos at the Nashville airport on the 10th. He would be home for two weeks. I was relieved. My OB had me on six-hour workdays starting with swimming at 6:30 a.m. I could be home with Amos by one o’clock each afternoon. Even now I can’t find the words to explain how it felt to be with someone who cherished me after weeks of enduring psychological torment and verbal disdain.
At 10 a.m. on June 17, I stood in Indiana, at the edge of a garden. Grandpa O’Neal escorted me down the aisle. I was happy for the first time since Christmas Eve. Once Amos and I were married I could loudly and proudly proclaim my husband was the father of the child in my womb.
My bliss was short-lived since Amos had to go back to Iraq. But now he carried a copy of our marriage license and wedding pictures. For the first time, he could say he was going to be a dad and not face persecution from his command. Unknown to me until this point, was that my unit was working with his to try to bully him into a confession of sorts. Just as they read me my rights, they did that to him. While I was labeled by pregnancy, those who knew our relationship, knew our story. And the plan against me would only work, if they could get his Confession of sorts, of Carnal Knowledge.
* * *
It didn’t take long for my unit to get back into the swing of things—their attempt to force me to my limits. I was again carrying boxes at my max weight. Once again I started bleeding and returned to the hospital. My placenta had started to tear again, so I was put back on bed rest for a week. Yet during that week I was escorted to a mental health appointment to see whether I was mentally sound enough to undergo Chapter 14—discharge from duty for misconduct proceedings. They wanted to charge me with Article 92: dereliction of duty, of willfully incapacitating myself by getting pregnant. I was deemed mentally sound and able to comprehend the charges against me as well as my legal rights. My paperwork also mentioned that, if the Chapter 14 didn’t work, they recommended chaptering me out of the army for “depression and other mental health issues.” I only received this paperwork later in my struggle.
On July 18 my lawyer filed Article 138 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. This article gives any member of the armed forces who believes himself or herself wronged by a commanding officer to request redress. My lawyer had me obtain letters from all of my doctors to establish that I was under distress and needed to stay in the army for continuity of care.
* * *
My Rear Command now understood how serious I was about not letting them push me around and force me out. They responded to my Article 138, but not in the manner my lawyer and I had expected. Point by point, they explained why they did this or that and added sworn statements against me. There were statements from women who had bunked with me in Iraq and from soldiers I knew through the motor pool. Meaningless chit-chat was stretched out of context to paint me as a guilty party. Didn’t most soldiers want to go home and forget what the Iraqi War had done to them? Didn’t they also look forward to starting a family and finding happiness? When I responded to slanderous statements, my rebuttals were attacked.
I went to seek legal counsel to not only get my own copies of the files but to also seek my own character references. I filed another series of requests for Congressional inquiries as well as UCMJ (United States Code of Military Justice) complaints against my command.
On July 31 I knew the case my unit was trying to build against me was a sandcastle with high tide approaching. Trial Defense sent me a memorandum asserting it was unconstitutional for the military to ban sex between two single consenting adults. Trial Defense said my unit had no grounds for prosecution, and it would not process any such action if my unit tried to push the case further.
I was vindicated. I did nothing wrong. Now my battle was to get back on the promotion list so I might get E-5 benefits before I had my baby. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen, but at least the pressure was off. All the pending actions against me were falling to the side. On August 29 I dropped my Article 138.
* * *
Throughout this time I also suffered from what I now know was PTSD, a condition caused by an experience in Iraq—a day of intense mortaring, when walls shook and two soldiers died. On July 4, 2006, I curled up on my bathroom floor as firecrackers exploded outside. I couldn’t tell anyone, not even my doctors. I was in denial about what happened that day in Iraq and still can only speak of it obliquely.
My daughter was born on September 30 by emergency C-section due to fetal distress from all the placental abruptions during pregnancy. I had a few seizures on the table, causing me to lose about four pints of blood. My mother was there with me in the Operating Room, She cut the cord. She held my daughter the first four hours when I couldn’t.
Five days after our daughter was born, Amos arrived home. My daughter and I were at his welcome home ceremony where he won a coin for having the youngest child there. Maternity leave went well, and our family was blissful.
I wish this was the end of the story. Sadly, I still had to gather my resources. I refused to sell my leave time and be pushed out. IG, Legal Defense, and my lawyer helped me to receive all the leave I had earned. I ended up Out Processing from the Army and the 101st. My daughter was with me every step of the way. After all, she was with me as I fought the battle for Honorable Discharge and for my record to be cleared.
*For the Record:*
*To this day, only three people who I deployed with have talked to me. I have kept every piece of paperwork about this ordeal. *
Transitioning from Service Member to Spouse, and Seeking the acknowledgment as a Veterans.
It has been like trying to wear boots broken in by someone else.
This amputation of identity, and with it my voice. Like my boots, we became scattered and separated, growing dusty, hardened and forgotten.
We shared the identity that became unacknowledged in the same moment it wasn’t associated with a current term of service;
Becoming a Silent Monument to the other.
Our value lay within us still relevant yet, discarded for newer models
Lost in the strange delusion of societal stigmas that women can’t be a Veteran the way a man can. Misplaced information mixed with lies holding more power over truth.
I clung to them, my boots, the way a small children cling to safety blankets.
My soul expanding surge, coming together as we matched back and once again became a pair. The way air fills lungs, burning from holding breath.
I put them on my feet lacing them up.
A testament to our service, they formed to my feet again.
Side by side our service ended, and our Duty was Honorable.
Motivating me when my inner battles are hard to overcome and the light is dimly visible. We journey towards it, injustice becomes my personal motivation, to give me the strength I had yet to find.
I wear them, to remind me of this new purpose.
The purpose we had, and the purpose we have now
My boots carry me, growing more creased with wear and more comfortable.
I don’t want to forget the lessons hard won.
Ripples to Shore
Few moments in life are ingrained on psyche, and soul.
And for me it means that That Day will forever be there, as well as the next 15 months in the Army. But writing this helped me see again what good things I gained from my time. And even with the baggage of the emotional, physical, and psychological wounds I will forever carry. I am a Warrior who has been a force of change, and will be. I can advocate and be the voice other didn’t have. I will fall, but I will learn from it and stand up again.