Iraq veteran: Was it worth it?
Editor's note: This is the first in a two-part series written by Kate Hoit, a UAlbany student who served time in Iraq while in the U.S. Army.
On Dec. 26, I will officially be out of the Army. It has been eight years since I enlisted and I'm torn: Was it worth it?
The simple answer is yes. The more I dissect the question, the more I have no idea how to answer it. The Army has taught me more about myself than any job, schooling, or relationship that I've ever had.
So, what's my problem then?
I knew nothing at the age of seventeen besides I wanted to join the Army Reserves. I thought of the Army as a starting point for the rest of my life. I wanted an adventure and the Army promised that. I wanted a career in the FBI.
My father and both my grandfathers had served and I wanted to be the first woman in the family to follow in their footsteps.
I was a virgin. I'd been drunk twice in my life. I grew up in Bethlehem, a suburb outside of Albany. I was a cheerleader and a shitty math student. I was supposed to go to a four-year college like my friends, work some bullshit job the rest of my life, have a few kids, grow old and die.
Sometimes I wish I chose the suburban version of The American Dream.
• • •
In the summer of 2004, I got a phone call while waiting tables at the Fountain Restaurant on New Scotland Ave. It was a sergeant from my unit in Schenectady telling me I was being deployed.
I hung up the phone and stood there for a minute. I should've known this was coming.
I picked up the phone and called my parents.
"Hi Mom," I said.
"Katie, your sergeant just called here," my mom said.
"I know, I just talked to him," I said "I'm being deployed to Iraq."
There was an awkward moment of silence. There was nothing she could've said that would've made me feel better. I was a soldier. This shouldn't have fazed me — but it did.
"You've got to be kidding me," she said through her tears.
"I wish mom. I gotta get back to work."
"Okay, I love you."
I hung up the phone and walked outside. My eyes started to fill with tears as I wondered if I was going to be killed over there.
I remembered the couple that had just come into the restaurant. I walked back in and took their order.
• • •
The Army Reserve life up to this point was easy for me.
I was used to the one-weekend-a-month drills. I was used to taking a physical fitness test twice a year. I was used to qualifying on my M-16 every six months. I was used to going away two weeks in the summer for training. I was used to the over-educated officers who thought they knew everything. I learned to appreciate the variety of individuals the Army attracts.
I had the whole Army thing figured out. Then I shook hands with war.
It was night when I flew into Camp Anaconda in Balad, Iraq. I was rushed off the C-130. I was too scared to actually be scared. War was supposed to be bombs going off, people screaming, shots being fired. After a few seconds I realized it was just dark and silent.
• • •
A few days later, I walked into the Public Affairs building and was told by the commanding officer, "Specialist Hoit, you are going to be writing for the base newspaper, The Anaconda Times."
I had lied about taking a writing class in high school because I really couldn't picture myself doing paperwork for a year. I blurted out "OK" when she told me the news. The editor of the newspaper, a staff sergeant, just stared at me. I smiled thinking, "Oh shit, I have to pull this off one way or another."
The Army had me; a warm body to do with what they pleased and they handed me a camera. For a second, Iraq didn't seem so bad. My Nikon acted as my eyes -- a piece of plastic that separated my reality with the reality of those I was photographing.
A month into my deployment I was in my first Iraq village. Children were running around. Some were naked. Some wanted water. Some gave me the middle finger. Some gave me the thumbs up. Some wanted my approval. Some women were standoffish. Some men didn't want to acknowledge me.
I wanted to remember everything I saw. I snapped hundreds of pictures. When I lowered the camera from my face, there was no divider. My world had clashed with their world and we could barely communicate with one another. I must have had a confused, what-the-hell-is-going-on look on my face the entire trip.
But I realized there was no hate in my heart. There was no sense of fear. Whatever this was, we were all in it together whether we liked it or not.
• • •
Over time, Iraq became tolerable while home grew distant. I never imagined getting used to carrying around an M-16 or that I'd ever consider going to the bathroom in a porta-potty a luxury.
My friends back home wrote the same emails; everyone had the same questions: Is Iraq really hot? Yes. Does it get cold? Yes, and in some parts it snows.
My Army friends didn't seem to ever ask a ridiculous question. Instead, they'd wake me up in the middle of the night when we were being mortared. They'd go room to room and collect ammunition for me when I needed it.
There was an unspoken understanding: We knew we were all each other had. We didn't think about the worst that could happen to us. We knew the answer.
• • •
I found myself at the Camp Anaconda base hospital on an assignment. I covered some big-shot General handing out awards and Purple Hearts to injured soldiers. A heavyset, middle-aged burned Iraqi was lying in a bed, wrapped in a blanket and screaming for his family. I couldn't take my eyes off of him.
He was a product of war: burned, pissed off, uncomfortable, and longing to go home. He kept screaming, desperate to call his wife to tell her he was alive. The General listened to his story and promised him a phone call.
I don't know if he ever made the call, but he stopped screaming.
There was a lot of commotion in the hallway, and we were informed there was a fire-fight. Two soldiers had just been medevaced in.
The blood on the floor stopped us at the entrance of the emergency room. Some drops of blood were small, while others had been walked through and smeared across the floor.
A trail of blood led to the injured soldiers. I was told to follow the General into the room. I looked at my editor like he was out of his mind, but he told me to go in. Two soldiers were lying on stretchers; one was unconscious, the other laid still. I wondered if he was going to make it.
The General shook the hand of the soldier who was conscious. The soldier told him about the firefight. He looked at me. I had never felt so small in my life.
I stood in front of him with a clean uniform, camera in hand, and the only thing I could do was smile. The General looked at me to take a picture, but I wouldn‘t. The situation was bigger than some General looking for a photo-op.
I respected the injured soldiers — not the General.
The blood on the floor and the soldiers' faces are burned into my mind. I can't help but think of them and wonder if they made it. A few years ago, I remember being at a dive bar in Albany; my friends starting chanting, "USA, USA," and a girl booed.
The image of these injured soldiers and blood everywhere ran through my mind. They wore American flags on their right shoulders. I wanted to cry while this girl laughed. She had no recognition of the sacrifices people her age were making.
I picked up a beer and threw it in her face.
Click here for Part Two of Kate Hoit's story.
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