Guam Army National Guard
The Decision to Join: Yo’ña, 2006
Angelina first taught second grade in 2000 at Juan M. Guerrero Elementary School. It’s a grade she loves to teach. She is a dedicated teacher, and she takes pride in the work she is doing. She jumps in on her second graders’ conversations with jokes, and she sorts through stacks of paperwork, checking on the work of her students. She also makes sure her students get the extra help they need. It’s a very demanding job, one in which she mentally drives herself forward through challenge after challenge, and it is exhausting by the end of the day. But she enjoys it. She loves it.
“FUN,” Angelina says, “I mean, just a lot of fun. I always wanted to teach since I was little, because I was such a good reader and I had really interesting teachers.” Angelina began college at the age of 32, late compared to her other peers, but she was determined to get that degree and she did, two of them: a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree.
After nine years of teaching second grade, Angelina finds out about a new curriculum being implemented in the Guam Public Schools, a program called Direct Instruction. Angelina is fascinated with the new curriculum because she feels it’s one program that is going to help the many second language learners that enter the Guam public school system. One of the main challenges teachers face is teaching English to non-English speakers. Direct Instruction is implemented and Angelina goes on to become a reading coordinator for the Direct Instruction Program.
When Angelina turned forty years old, her own children are getting ready to leave the nest—one of her kids has already moved out of the family home. She’s not physically fit, and she feels dissatisfied with her fitness. As the paperwork for Direct Instruction piles on, she finds herself growing more disinterested in data-driven teaching and re-analyzes her career field.
“I always felt there was something more,” Angelina says.
In the Pacific Daily News, Angelina learns the Army has raised the maximum enlistment age for persons with no prior service, from 40 to 42. She decides to take the ASVAB—the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery Test—with the Guam Army National Guard, just to see what her chances are, and she passes.
She thinks, this could be beneficial to me in so many ways.
She thinks, if there’s anything that will keep me in shape, it’ll be joining the military.
She thinks, this will make me a different person, or I can stay the status quo.
“I said, ‘You know, if there’s an opportunity for me to take,” Angelina remembers, “‘I’m going to take it, no matter what it is.’”
Boot Camp: The System
Fort Jackson, South Carolina, 2007
As soon as Angelina enters Basic Combat Training at Fort Jackson, she discovers how fearful she is of not being able to think for herself or make decisions for herself; she didn’t anticipate this.
She finds in boot camp that every behavior is set in a system. The way you move, the way you breathe, the way you form up in a line, the way you hold your food tray: so much of what you do is set in a system that you need to follow. If you don’t follow the system, there are consequences.
Angelina is forty years old, and she expects to be with teenagers at boot camp, she expects noise. She expects to have to prove to everyone else that she is worthy of being there. But the main challenge for her at boot camp turns out to be a mental one: how to operate in a strict, systematized environment, and how to stay grounded in a place that is, every minute, chaotic and challenging.
“I couldn’t think for myself,” Angelina says, “and I didn’t cope with it that well.”
As Basic Combat Training continues, Angelina finds herself becoming more and more withdrawn. Her motivation to be an Army soldier weakens as the days go by. Standing in formation at 4 a.m. in shorts and a t-shirt, exposed to miserable February wind chill, Angelina finds herself internally melting down, thinking of the 80 degree weather she’s lived with most of her life. What she begins to look forward to most is being released for the day and heading back to the Bay. There, the recruits have some down time before lights out. She is able to take her uniform off, take a shower, get squared away in case of an inspection, and have a little peace. It feels like a 180 degree turn from her life in Guam, her career teaching, her time with her family.
“I was really sad, so sad,” Angelina remembers. “All I kept saying was, you know, what did I get myself into and am I going to survive it?”
She tries to remain positive and she’s grateful for her battle buddy, an African American recruit from Arizona in her late teens who had just finished school. They learn about the other recruits, some of whom were homeless before joining, or who wanted to get away from where they came from. They share stories about their lives, their families, and the places they are from.
“She would always try to put a smile on my face,” Angelina says, “but at the same time I was just trying to pretend things were okay when they really weren’t.”
Boot Camp: The Top Bunk
One night, Angelina is lying in bed at boot camp.
“I remember, I just couldn’t be there anymore,” Angelina says. “I kept saying, ‘This wasn’t for me, what did I do?’”
She has the top bunk, and in the dark, she thinks, I’m going to throw myself over the bed.
She breaks out into a sweat. Suddenly she’s sweating so badly, but the thought is still there: I’m going to throw myself over, and if I crack an elbow, then it’s grounds for me to go home.
She feels so desperate; boot camp is taking a toll. This is it, her breaking point.
Then she thinks, You know what? It’s going to hurt so bad, there’s no way I’m gonna do it.
“When I thought about hurting myself, and I couldn’t do it, I eventually went to sleep, I was so tired,” Angelina remembers.
“When I woke up the following morning, I said, ‘Okay, I’m not going to do that anymore, and I can’t think that way, I can’t keep pitying myself,” Angelina says.
“I said, ‘You either snap out of this and get better and deal it with, or succumb to hurting yourself,’ which I couldn’t,” Angelina says.
At boot camp, Angelina focuses more on running. It is unstated pact that she makes with herself, and she finds that her dedication to her running makes her stronger mentally and physically. She looks forward to her morning runs, and her time in boot camp becomes much more bearable. As she trains, she sees that her running time compares and even exceeds the run times of the 19-year-olds and 20-year-olds beside her.
“Running helped me focus on the training, and I didn’t feel the cold anymore,” Angelina says. “Running and I survived boot camp.”
- Preparing for Deployment: Mobilization Orders
- Preparing for Deployment: Family Ties
- Preparing for Deployment: Game Face
- Preparing for Deployment: Weapons Training
- NEW - AFGHANISTAN Part #1: IED Alley
Angelina believes in doing her duty. It is part of her teaching: duty and respect mark the beginning of every school day in her classroom, when her students say their pledges to the flags.
“I don’t even want them moving because we have to pay so much respect to what the flag represents,” Angelina says.
When Angelina’s platoon sergeant announces that their unit will deploy in a few months, Angelina thinks, If they are going to deploy me, I’m going to have to do it. Because it is part of my duty.
Later, in formation, the announcement comes: the unit will be taking names of soldiers who are interested in deploying. Angelina had been under the impression that the deployment was mandatory. She feels some uncertainty, because she doesn’t know what Afghanistan will be like. She doesn’t know what kind of environment she will be in.
“I just said, you know, ‘This is a war that everyone has to get involved with,’” Angelina remembers. “That is just the way I saw it.”
Angelina’s oldest daughter, Sherri, is married to a soldier. Sherri understands far more about a soldier’s life, a military life, than Angelina wants her to understand.
When the time comes for Angelina to tell Sherri that she is bound for Afghanistan, she wants to assure her daughter that she is in good hands. That she will be protected by the best trained personnel at her side. But her daughter understands what is at stake.
Bringing up the subject of deployment, Angelina tells Sherri that she was selected to deploy.
“You know,” Sherri says, “you’re our only mother.”
“Mom, I don’t know what midlife crisis you’re going through,” Sherri says, “but would it help if you spoke to a therapist?”
“Sher, I’ve been doing that,” Angelina says. “This is not a choice I have.”
Sherri is upset. And Angelina can see it, that her daughter can’t accept the idea of her mother going into dangerous territory. And that for Sherri, life had been as normal as could be one day, and the next day, her mother had joined the Army without telling her and her siblings about it.
“I don’t want to know what you’re doing out there,” Sherri says. “Go ahead and tell Papa, but I don’t want to know.”
Angelina can feel her own fear for herself on the deployment rising. Sherri knows that people die out there.
“I just don’t understand. You’re our only mother, we don’t have another one,” Sherri says. “It’s not like we could just replace you.”
Angelina wants to dispel her daughter’s fear. To lessen her worry. But she knows what Sherri knows, that what is ahead is dangerous.
“I understand,” Angelina says.
Later, on a forward operating base in Afghanistan, Angelina is on a call with her husband.
Training in Barrigada, Angelina is preparing for deployment. She and the other soldiers who have never been deployed hear from others who have already deployed to Iraq:
“You gotta put your game face on.”
“Stop fooling around.”
“You gotta take this seriously, because one of you standing right here will die.”
Angelina thinks, I don’t think you should be putting that into our heads.
At the same time, she thinks, These are the guys who came back and survived, right?
She says to herself, You know Ang, this is the reality of a war zone, you gotta take this seriously. This is them—soldiers. They’re telling you, you might die, so you might really die.The thought begins to scare her. She goes to bed on training days and she thinks, they’re not just talking about this because it’s a “what if” scenario. They’re saying it because we’re going to a place where it’s inevitable. People go there, and they do die.
Everyone is talking about it: you’re gonna die out there.
The conversation repeats itself in every formation, every weapons training, in the showers, on short meal breaks. Angelina begins to own the thought of dying. It’s something that she can sense in the soldiers around her—it’s easier to accept her fate because they all together are accepting their fates, that they are a distinguished group bound for a dangerous place, for missions where they might kill or be killed.
“If you’re not gonna kill,” Angelina’s platoon sergeant says, frustrated as he corrects the way a soldier is holding his weapon, “keep that muzzle where it belongs.”
There is a change happening in Angelina’s mind: she is shifting from peacetime to wartime, from a civilian’s mindset to a soldier’s mindset. She internalizes what she hears in training, thinks about it again and again:
If you feel like you cannot kill another human being, think about this: your brother and sister in arms are depending on you to protect them. Your children and spouses are depending on you to come home safely. So get that thought out of your mind and leave it here, gone, erased!
The combat training on Guam is intensive and physically challenging, and lasts for months. Preparing for deployment, Angelina’s no longer a mother, a wife, a grandparent. She is a person trained to look for enemies. Enemies who could be mothers or wives themselves—ordinary people doing ordinary things. She is a person trained to be mission-focused, to never let her guard down. With all the physical training that they are doing, she continues to lose weight no matter how much she eats; she feels like she’s already in a war zone.
When she comes home at night, and her husband asks her to go to dinner or a birthday party, she can’t enjoy the evening without thinking: will I have enough sleep? Is my gear ready to leave in the morning? What is the mission tomorrow?
During combat training, Angelina rehearses scenarios, practices seeking out cover and concealment, trains herself to anticipate being fired upon.
She is most focused on absolute accuracy in firing her weapon—zeroing her rifle, hitting her targets dead on.
She passes her weapons qualification, but continues to train. She completes the course again, to have more time on the firing range to practice shooting.
She doesn’t want to miss a shot.
She hears from her fellow soldiers, “Q, Q, aren’t you tired of being out there?”
But she doesn’t stop. She trains until she has open wounds on her knees and elbows.“I wanted to make sure that even if it was hurting me on the ground,” Angelina says, “my weapon was going to do what it was supposed to do.”
Paktika Province, Afghanistan, 2008
Sometimes travel in Afghanistan is by Chinook—a twin-engine heavy-lift helicopter delivering small groups of soldiers from their forward operating bases (FOBs) to others or to Bagram Air Base and back. But most often for the soldiers of the third platoon, Guam Army National Guard (GUARNG) Element, Joint Force Headquarters, travel is by convoy, along roads made of dirt and moon dust.
Angelina had trained to drive armored vehicles for the Army. This is her job on deployment: driving humvees in convoys through the country’s mountains and valleys and wadis—riverbeds or stream beds that are dry in the absence of rain. Angelina is a driver in the third platoon, one of four GUARNG Element platoons deployed as a company to Afghanistan. Each platoon was sent to a different FOB down range; the third platoon is based at Forward Operating Base Kushamond. From FOB Kushamond, she and her fellow soldiers drive in convoys to conduct security patrols in the nearby province, search for insurgents, bring back supplies, and travel to other FOBs for training, all along roads of earth and sand and silt.
They drive, knowing improvised explosive devices, IEDs, may be buried beneath or ahead, hidden beneath the moon dust.
Outside the wire—outside the boundaries of FOB Kushamond—is a road the soldiers call IED Alley. The third platoon trains on IED Alley, getting to know the terrain, and they use the road to conduct many of their missions. To travel ten miles down the road can take as long as three hours. One of their convoys—usually a mine-resistant ambush protected (MRAP) vehicle and a line of humvees—travels at 25 miles per hour, sometimes slower. The drivers need to slow even more and put their brakes on when crossing a wadi. The soft ground of a river bed is prime ground to bury an IED. Angelina cringes every time she crosses a wadi; she never knows if a bomb will detonate right then, beneath her. The convoy also needs to stop whenever one of the gunners calls out about an object ahead—a piece of trash on the side of the road that could be potential ordnance. When this happens the drivers shift their vehicles into a defensive formation and the entire convoy pulls security: all eyes on possible attacks, scanning the area for insurgents, gunners at the ready. The soldiers in the closest humvee need to confirm that the object is trash and not an IED before the convoy can move on, continuing further down IED Alley.
Sometimes they pass a few Afghan citizens on bicycles, but when the men see the convoy they usually move automatically—they know to stay at least five hundred feet away from a convoy. The men who don’t move out of the way quickly enough sometimes throw their hands up in frustration as the convoy passes, and look sternly at the soldiers as they go by. On patrol, their convoy is alone on the road, for the most part. And there are many times, on missions crossing this wadi or that wadi, when IEDs detonate near them. Three hundred feet away. Further on. Closer by. Usually at a wadi, but sometimes on the main road, having been buried deep into the ground.
The buried IEDs can be as large as fifty-gallon drums filled with explosives. When IEDs this size explode beneath the road, they can blow open a crater the size of a twin bed. Sometimes the holes in the road aren’t as big, meaning the IED was smaller, or a fifty-gallon drum was used but was only partially filled, or the IED hadn’t detonated in its entirety. When Angelina is driving and she can see that an IED took out a part of the road ahead, she can’t help but think to herself, We’re headed straight to the same road. What are the chances another IED has been placed beside it or near it?
These IEDs, the fifty-gallon drum IEDs, can destroy an armored humvee. Humvees that are hit are placed at the center of their FOBs. They are mostly burnt, charred up. The tires are gone, some of the metal doors are gone, or an entire side of the humvee is missing. It’s frightening for Angelina to look at: standing by the exploded humvees, she knows that the vehicle that is supposed to protect her, that she drives and will continue to drive, won’t be able to save her. The humvees are there as a reminder: Be vigilant. Stay at the ready. It can happen to any one of us.
The images stay with her, and they’re especially on her mind when she’s driving through IED Alley, following the tire tracks of the vehicle ahead of her in the convoy. The moon dust of the desert is everywhere, hampering her view of the road. The dust is kicked up in clouds by the humvees ahead of her. The tires of her own humvee, hitting potholes and small wadis layered in the dust, send up blasts of the fine, fine silt; the entire convoy is covered with it. Angelina needs to follow the tire tracks because they mean that section of road ahead is clear—nothing detonated when the vehicle ahead of her passed over it. When she occasionally loses sight of the tracks, her heart races—she can’t be off track. She just keeps pushing through, because they can’t stop the convoy.
The journey continues. Check back on Guam Women Warrior Wednesdays ChST for new posts.