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Part two: Student veteran recounts war

By Kate Hoit
On November 18, 2009

Editor's note: This is the second in a two-part series by Kate Hoit, a UAlbany student who served in Iraq while in the U.S. Army. To read part one, click below.

The editor of The Anaconda Times, the base newspaper, told me I'd be covering a grand opening of a water treatment facility the Army had installed in a nearby village.
 

To get there I rode in the "Batmobile" with a sergeant. This wasn't a high-speed vehicle that could ward off improvised explosive devices and rocket-propelled grenades. It was a naked humvee -- it wasn't armored. It didn't even have real windows or a roof. It's top was built almost entirely out of canvas. If we hit an IED, it would've blown us up into a million pieces.
 

I refused to get into the humvee. I realized that I was just a warm body to the Army and apparently one that was replaceable. I thought about staying back and sitting at my desk the whole day but I decided to go.
  

Before I got in, I figured one good thing might come out of it if I died: People back home would know we still didn't have proper equipment.
 

When we got to the control point to leave our base, we locked and loaded our M16s. I pulled my feet up and scrunched my head down. The driver asked me what I was doing. I told him I didn't want my head to get shot at and I didn't want to lose my legs if we hit an IED. I knew this wouldn't really save me, but it made me feel better.

I thought about those e-mails I hadn't responded to. I started to feel like I should have.

• • •
 

One night I called my mom and asked her to talk to my dad. She fumbled a few words before telling me that he was in the hospital.
  

Before I had left for Iraq, my then 71-year-old dad relapsed from 10 years of sobriety. I went to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings with him and he managed to stop drinking for the last few weeks I was home. My mom told me he had stopped working and eating, locked himself in his room for three months, and started to drink again.
  

One day he wandered downstairs, sat on our living room floor and uttered a few things about his dead mother. When he was admitted to the hospital, the doctors told my mom that if he hadn't come out of his room, he would've died from dehydration and starvation.
  

Sometimes I wish he had.
  

I asked her why she hadn't told me any of this. She said she didn't want to add any additional stress to my life. Her voice was shaky and I could tell she needed someone. I knew it was my deployment that put him over the edge. I hated myself for leaving him. I hated him for leaving my mom like this. I hated him for leaving me.
  

I was scheduled for my mid-tour leave from Iraq, and by the end of the week I was on a plane headed to Albany. Right when my plane landed, my mom and I drove to the nursing home my dad now lived in.
  

He had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's.
  

I got off the elevator and walked into my dad's room. He was asleep. He was always sleeping. I woke him up and he grabbed me. I wanted to cry but I couldn't. He asked how Germany was. I told him it was fine -- and then he pissed his pants.
  

I looked at my mom and then at my dad. How the hell did we end up like this?
  

My mom looked relieved that someone was finally there to experience her war. My dad's eyes were light and free. I just kept asking myself what hell I had just walked into.

• • •

After my two weeks of rest and relaxation, I arrived back in Iraq. I was assigned to cover a story on a unit that was going to hand out soccer balls, jerseys and shoes at a local school. As we pulled up to the school, a father walked up to me with his son. His son was about six, with thick blonde hair and huge brown eyes.

"Shoes for my son? Shoes!" he said. I told him we could get him shoes and then out of nowhere he had a daughter who needed shoes as well. He put his son's hand in mine, all while telling me his son was American because he had blonde hair and that I should bring him back to the states with me.
 

I started to walk to the back of the school where soldiers were handing out the shoes but I only made it a few steps before the father put his daughter's hand in my other hand. I felt her pull away from me and run back to her father. He pushed her towards me and yelled something in Arabic. I grabbed her hand and bent down. Her eyes were bright green and skeptical. Her face was covered with dried snot, and her hair was wild. I smiled and said hello.
  

She wanted nothing to do with me and I had no idea how to convince her I didn't want to hurt her. She finally started to walk with me. I held onto their hands tight like an overprotective babysitter. I fell in love with the kids immediately and dragged them around with me for the rest of the afternoon.

• • •

My commanding officer told me I'd be covering a memorial service. The memorial was to be held for a female soldier named Katherine Bell-Johnson. She had been killed Feb. 16, 2005, in a vehicle accident while driving in a convoy. 
 

Hundreds of soldiers gathered at the memorial service. I wandered up to the front row and took a seat. A pair of Bell-Johnson's worn-in, tan boots and her M16 were the only things on the stage.
  

When soldiers spoke of Bell-Johnson, I learned she was a wife and a mother of three. I thought about her husband. I thought of her kids. My eyes filled up with tears. I stopped them from rolling down my face by biting the inside of my cheek. The more I thought, the sicker I felt.
  

Her husband will never get the chance to tell her he loves her again. Her children will be motherless.
  

The ceremony came to an end when the First Sergeant stood up and did a roll call. He called out the soldiers' names in his unit, to which they replied, "Here, First Sergeant."
  

When he got to hers, he repeated her name three times. The room was silent. You could hear soldiers weeping. Outside the theater soldiers fired their weapons and Taps began to play.   
  

Years later, I went to the Women In Military Service For America Memorial in Washington, D.C. I found a binder of all the women who had been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. I flipped through the pages wondering if I was going to see anyone I knew.
  

I read each woman's bio. I always made sure to look at their age. Some were eighteen, some were my age, and some were in their forties.
  

I finally came across a picture of Katherine Bell-Johnson. She was smiling and 33 at the time of her death. I stared at her for a while. I flipped the page and began to cry.

 • • •
  

At the age of 21, I had come back to Albany having seen the best and worst in people, while most see it in small dosages throughout their lifetime. All the thoughts I had about the world and others seemed to naturally fade away.
  

It's been four years since I have served in Iraq and I am now 25. The transition to being a student, a daughter and a friend again has taken time.
  

My dad still lives in a nursing home. On his good days, he'll remember supporting my decision to join the Army. We share war stories and talk about how we both trained at Ft. Dix, New Jersey. Whenever I walk out of the nursing home, I can't help but think of how life might have been if I never deployed to Iraq. But that's a game I've learned not to play with myself anymore.
  

This past weekend I attended my second-to-last drill. Everyone encouraged me to reenlist. I told them "thank you," but I was going to take a break. Truth be told, I felt guilty about not reenlisting.
  

"What are you going to do? You know the economy is bad right now," said my Vietnam veteran platoon sergeant, "Gonna get married? Get pregnant?"
  

"No," I said, annoyed he assumed those were my only options. "I'm going to finish school, find a job, see what else is out there."
  

"What did the Army ever do to you?" another soldier chimed in.
  

I thought about it for a minute. The Army did nothing but expose me to opportunities, a world and situations I had been sheltered from.
  

He walked away leaving me to contemplate: Was it worth it?
  

Yes — only after you accept everything that comes along with putting on the uniform.

Click here for the first part of Kate Hoit's story.

Hoit writes a blog called My American-Iraq Life. Visit it at www.gikate.com


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