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, Part 1: Mobilization Orders
- Preparing for Deployment, Part 2: Family Ties
- Preparing for Deployment, Part 3: Game Face
- Preparing for Deployment, Part 4: Weapons Training
- AFGHANISTAN Part 1: IED Alley
- AFGHANISTAN Part #2: The Wait
- AFGHANISTAN Part #3: Tower Duty
- AFGHANISTAN Part #4: The Friendliest Soldiers
- AFGHANISTAN Part #5: Smoke and Dust
- AFGHANISTAN Part #6: Blue Force Tracker
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.
Paktika Province, Afghanistan, 2008
Three soldiers travel in each humvee: the driver, the gunner, and the vehicle’s convoy commander. For Angelina’s first three months in country, the convoy commander for her humvee is her squad leader, Sgt. Leon Guerrero.
Sgt. Leon Guerrero is seven years younger than Angelina, and when they share stories, he treats her like an older sister. But on a mission, in the passenger seat of the humvee, he is strict, serious, mission-focused. He’s a stickler for little mistakes that other soldiers pass off as nothing to worry about. He critiques Angelina’s driving, asks her why her neck protector isn’t strapped on, and tells her that the nozzle of her weapon should point down and not up. He reviews every mission the night before with his squad, and he expects his squad members to rise earlier than the other soldiers to inspect their vehicles and double check their PPE’s—personal protective equipment—before departure. They need to take the time to prepare extra food rations. Extra water. Extra ammunition. Extra charging batteries. They need to check and recheck their equipment. They need to be ready.
The critiques often get on Angelina’s nerves, and at first she doesn’t understand why they’re always up so early re-checking everything. Then one day, on a mission to familiarize themselves with the area east of FOB Kushamond, their convoy comes across a 20 ft. shipping container on the side of the road.
The shipping container doesn’t belong there. From what the soldiers can tell, it’s been robbed and left behind.
Insurgents are reported to be in the area, and the container is a potential site for an IED. The soldiers need to pull over, call an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) team, and wait for them to arrive to inspect the container.
The wait for EOD can sometimes take hours, or as Angelina comes to learn, can take days. The EOD teams use an armored vehicle that travels at 15 miles per hour, and they’re often needed at multiple sites at the same time. The wait depends on how far away a team is and how busy they are responding to other units. The convoy is in the middle of nowhere, and the soldiers can’t leave anytime soon. They don’t know how long they will be staying.
They need the extra food they had taken time to prepare. The extra water. The extra charging batteries. They may need the extra ammunition.
For Angelina, the mission is a life-saving lesson.
Sgt. Leon Guerrero’s preparations are a way of looking out for them, for the squad. He cares because he knows what can happen, she thinks. She doesn’t take it for granted anymore.
Paktika Province, Afghanistan, 2008
Soldiers on tower duty keep watch at one of the two towers on either side of FOB Kushamond. Scanning the FOB and the area beyond, they’re looking for people walking near the base, or for possible insurgents planting IEDs in the ground.
One evening, Angelina and Sgt. Leon Guerrero have tower duty together. Wearing heavy battle gear, they hike up the twenty steps to the top of the tower, and settle in for the watch.
It is so quiet. It is incredibly dark. And worst of all, it is cold, so cold, a sharp desert cold that Angelina hates. She’s miserable.
Sgt. L.G.’s been Angelina’s squad leader since pre-mobilization, and he knows her well enough to know that she hates the cold. To distract her from it, he starts to tell her about the first time he met his wife Emely. Angelina had met Emely at a family day at the Guam Army National Guard Readiness Center in Barrigada. She still remembers the way Sgt. L.G.’s face lit up when she told him later that day that Emely was beautiful.
At the tower, keeping watch for insurgents with night vision goggles, thousands of miles from home, it’s Angelina’s turn to tell a story. She tells Sgt. L.G. about how she met her husband, Tony. Angelina likes to crack jokes when telling stories about her relationship, but Sgt. L.G. is always serious when talking about his marriage and family. He wants to be the best dad and husband he can be. Emely is pregnant, and the time away from his family makes him more serious about life.
They share stories like this when they are stuck on the road waiting for EOD, or when they have tower duty—long conversations about their lives back home. The plans they’re making for when they get back to Guam. The stories make the time go by more quickly, and it’s one of the ways that camaraderie grows among the soldiers of their platoon, how they come to know each other well.
Another night when Angelina and St. L.G. pull tower duty, they find a wooden bench to sit on, made by soldiers from the Polish Battle Group. It’s three feet high, tall enough for the soldiers to be able to sit on and look out on from the tower. Sgt. L.G. is using his night vision goggles and he keeps getting up from the bench to look out into the desert. The battle gear they’re wearing adds an extra 50 pounds of weight to the bench. When Sgt. L.G. gets up again, the bench gives weight and crashes to the floor. Angelina, who is still sitting on the bench, crashes to the floor with it.
They’re both startled.
It’s pitch black. Sgt. L.G. doesn’t seem to know where she is. He keeps yelling for her, “Q, Q, where are you?”
He sounds worried, more worried than Angelina would expect, and she starts cracking up with laughter. Sgt. L.G. sees her hand reaching up from the wreck of the bench and starts to help her. It’s hard for Angelina to stand; she’s wearing heavy gear and there’s a broken bench on her legs and she keeps laughing. The more she laughs the more worried he sounds. He has to take off his battle gear to help her up, and then he radios the Tactical Operations Center to let them know Angelina’s been injured. They need to send a replacement for the tower.
The next day, Sgt. L.G. stops by Angelina’s living quarters with a form she needs to sign to acknowledge the incident. He tells her she’s flying to Bagram to get checked for injuries.
She signs the form and he stands up to leave. Suddenly he starts laughing. Laughing really hard. Tears are falling down his cheeks.
“Oh, now you think it’s funny,” Angelina says, surprised.
“You know what my first thought was when that bench collapsed,” Sgt. L.G. says, laughing, “I thought you went out the door and down the stairway!”
In the FOB, Angelina starts to recognize when Sgt. L.G. is around because he loves CHamoru music—it’s always playing from a tiny white speaker he has plugged into his phone, not too loud, outside the billet or around the base. Or he’s playing the guitar he loves, or trying his harmonica, or refusing the fried rice that Angelina makes for the soldiers, telling her he’s already eaten. It happens so often that one day Angelina asks him, “Sergeant, do you have anything against fried rice?”
“No,” he says. “Give it to the younger guys, ‘cause they don’t know when to stop eating.”
Angelina thinks that much is true; they both laugh.
Angelina will think later that this is just like him, how much he cares for the younger soldiers and worries for them all.
It’ll be something that, later, she’ll wish she could tell him: that she appreciated this about him.
Paktika Province, Afghanistan, 2008
In line at the DFAC—the dining facility—getting breakfast or lunch, soldiers from other units say to them,
You’re the friendliest soldiers I’ve ever met.
How do you all get along with each other and eat together?
There’s a strong sense of camaraderie among the soldiers of the 3rd Platoon, which persists through the exhaustion of their constant training and missions. There are forty soldiers in this platoon; eleven soldiers are women and the rest are men. They all cook together and eat together on deployment, and they get to know each other through mission after mission, watch after watch, training after training.
Sometimes it’s hard for Angelina to feel close to the others. Most of the soldiers are fifteen to twenty years younger than she is, and she’s too exhausted by the constant training to think of doing anything else. But sometimes outside the billets, where they have their living quarters, Sgt. L.G. or Kilafwakun or one of the other soldiers will start playing guitar. And the atmosphere among the soldiers will change. One of them will start singing badly with the music to make a fool of himself or herself as a joke to the others, or start dancing. In spite of the exhaustion, their moods will lift, and they’ll feel better.
Early on at FOB Kushamond, Angelina becomes close friends with Sgt. Cameron, a soldier who’s tough no matter how hard anyone tries to break her down. Sgt. Cameron has a strong spiritual belief in God that is hard to break. Angelina admires how she finds ways to rise up and conquer even the most difficult days, and she comes to think of Sgt. Cameron as her savior in the FOB.
The soldiers from Guam are the only ones who seem to walk into the FOB DFAC as a group. They sit together and talk and laugh with each other, even after they have disagreements, or yell at each other, or it seems like a couple of soldiers are beginning to hate each other. There are a couple of soldiers Angelina doesn’t particularly care for, but once they get together they can’t help but converse and laugh together. In the 3rd Platoon, the soldiers think of each other as belonging to a brotherhood, a sisterhood. They all know each other well. And it’s understood among them: even when they disagree, they still should try to get along, and look out for each other.
En Route to FOB Waza Khwa
The convoy has been on the road for hours. They are on their way to Forward Operating Base Waza Khwa, to train with the 1st Platoon. The soldiers are five months into their deployment. In the line of vehicles—a Bradley Fighting Vehicle, an MRAP, and six humvees— Angelina drives the fifth humvee from the front. Together with her are Sgt. Boonie, their vehicle’s convoy commander, and Elliott, their gunner. They travel along a long stretch of dirt and moon dust between mountains and valleys.
It’s about noon. The sun’s blaring down on them. It’s hot outside and it’s warmer by ten degrees inside the vehicle. They need to keep the windows of the humvee shut; if they don’t, the moon dust will cover every single thing in the vehicle. Even with the windows closed, their faces are white with dust. Elliott doesn’t look well. He drank moonshine with the Polish Battle Group the night before, thinking they wouldn’t be called out on a mission today. His eyes are red and he’s been thirsty and dehydrated in the humvee since the sun came up. He’s been throwing up the liquid he’s been drinking since 10 a.m., and now he’s sitting in the back seat, becoming more nauseous as the drive goes on.
The convoy carries half of the third platoon, over a road that is empty except for the dead wild turtles that their humvees and other convoys have run over.
They are in the middle of nowhere when an IED explodes.
At first, all Angelina sees ahead is a huge puff of smoke and dust. I hope it’s the Bradley, she thinks. An explosion wouldn’t damage the Bradley as much as one of their humvees; the soldiers inside might still be okay. Then she sees the Bradley: it’s tilted to the side at an angle.
It’s quiet. Everything is quiet.
Then she hears the platoon leader over the intercom, asking if everyone’s okay and telling the convoy to get in formation. The convoy commanders are calling in, confirming the hit on the Bradley. They’re saying to watch for secondary hits. Their convoy is vulnerable now that they’ve been stopped, and they have to anticipate insurgents coming in for a secondary hit with mortars or gunfire.
Angelina and the other drivers move to reposition their vehicles. They’ve trained for this; they need to provide coverage and concealment for the wounded, and they need to make sure the gunners are in position to produce gunfire. They need to respond to the situation without knowing how the soldiers in the Bradley are doing. The humvee carrying their medic drives in close to the Bradley, but no one can leave their vehicles until the all clear is given. Adrenaline is coursing through Angelina: she’s scared, not so much for herself but for everyone in the convoy. Face death, or fight.
The gunners fire. They fire at every mountain top and open space in the valley they’re in.
The three soldiers from the Bradley report in: they say they’re fine, no serious bodily injuries. Angelina hears this and suddenly she feels the need to cry so badly, but nothing comes. She’s numb and exhausted from the grueling drive and the fear and the adrenaline and the weight of battle gear on her body, and she can’t feel anything more. The gunners continue firing, to clear the area of any insurgents planning a secondary attack.
Elliott, lying down in the back seat, throws up. Angelina goes to check on him and sees that his vomit is red. It looks like there’s blood in his vomit.
“Okay Q,” Elliott says, joking, “if I die here, tell my mom—her name is Maria—that I love her.”
“Elliott, you’re not going to die!” Angelina says.
She can’t help but think to herself, By the time somebody comes for us, or by the time we help Elliott, he will die.
After fifteen minutes, the gunners stop firing. There’s no secondary hit.
Song, the medic, leaves his humvee to check on the soldiers. In the Bradley, Ananich and Mondia have major headaches, ringing in their ears after the explosion. They’re stable, so they’ll need to wait until the convoy gets back to FOB Kushamond to be transported to the Bagram hospital to be checked out. Elliott needs an IV. Angelina finds out he’d been drinking red Kool-Aid that he made and packed for the mission.
The convoy can’t leave. They need to wait for the Army’s Explosive Ordnance Disposal technicians to get to them, to inspect the attacked humvee and the site of the explosion. They know they’re not leaving any time soon.
The soldiers in the convoy pull security. There are some hills nearby but no manmade structures; they are in the middle of nowhere, out in the open. Because only Angelina and Sgt. Boonie are in their humvee, they take turns sitting on the turret, keeping watch over the convoy and looking out for insurgents: three hours for Angelina, three hours for Sgt. Boonie.
They can’t leave their vehicle, they can’t stretch, except when they call a code yellow—a call that means they need to step outside to urinate. Each time someone calls a code yellow, it requires coordinated effort. A few other soldiers need to dismantle and, wearing fifty pounds of battle gear, lift themselves out of their humvees and provide protection as they walk away from the vehicles. Nobody complains; it’s something they do for each other.
Day turns into night.
Night turns into day.
The EOD team arrives and it’s clear that they’ve been on the road for much longer than the convoy has. The team needs time to inspect the Bradley and the site of explosion, so the soldiers continue to pull security.
Angelina calls more code yellows, to stretch her legs and get some air. Three hours on watch, three hours off.
Day turns into night.
The plan is to travel back with EOD and the damaged vehicle. Traveling at night is risky, and they’ll be going at a slow pace with EOD, but it’s even riskier to stay. Staying would give insurgents in the area more time to plan and coordinate, to gather into larger numbers and potentially outnumber the convoy’s soldiers in an attack. They need to leave. They just need to finish loading up the damaged Bradley.
As the minutes crawl by, it’s harder and harder for Angelina to stay awake on the turret. Suddenly, Sgt. Boonie, sitting below in the passenger seat of the humvee, hits Angelina’s leg.
“Ey, I’m up, I’m up!”Angelina says.
“Q,” she hears through her headphones, “I can tell you’re sleeping up there because, you know, you’re very quiet.”
Sgt. Boonie continues to say things he knows will piss her off. He tells her he loves her. He wonders out loud what it would be like if they dated when they got back home.
Angelina says,“Yeah, and if this weapon was loaded, like really loaded, I would just shoot you right now so don’t be the enemy.”
He’s trying to keep her awake, Angelina realizes. And she needs to stay awake, to keep watch over the convoy.
Paktika Province, Afghanistan, 2008
Soldiers from GUARNG Element’s 2nd Platoon, based in FOB Ghazni, are on their way to FOB Kushamond. Some have arrived already by Chinook, but most are heading down in humvees and MRAPs, a two-day journey for the soldiers. They’re going to be training in FOB Kushamond’s IED Alley for the first time and conducting missions with the 3rd Platoon.
The 3rd Platoon’s planning a big feast for the soldiers from up north. Some of the soldiers have gone around the FOB to collect the wooden pallets that their water bottles and supplies arrive in, to burn for the barbecue. Some are barbecuing, and others are cooking food from home. They’re doing what they can to make the 2nd platoon feel welcome.
Angelina arrives that evening from Bagram. She’d been on R&R in Guam for two weeks, and stopped in Bagram before catching a Chinook to FOB Kushamond. The soldiers are all gathered around outside their billets; she can smell the barbecue, and food is everywhere. Offloading her things in her billet, she comes across the care package from Sgt. L.G.’s wife, Emely. Angelina had talked with Emely at a Family Readiness Group meeting, and told her if she wanted to send anything back for Sgt. L.G., to give her a call. Emely had shown up at the airport with homemade cookies for him.
Leaving her things behind, Angelina heads over to Sgt. L.G.’s hooch. He looks tired, but happy.
“Hey Sergeant, I have your stuff,” she says, handing over the package.
“How is she?” Sgt. L.G. asks. Emely’s pregnant and he’s worried for her.
“Oh, she’s good, still as pretty as ever,” Angelina says, smiling.
Sgt. L.G. smiles and takes the package. He’s excited for the homemade cookies. He lets Angelina know she’s on the trip ticket for the mission tomorrow morning—they’ll be on a convoy headed for Kent, together with soldiers from the 2nd Platoon. She’ll need to prepare and pack her gear.
That evening, the GUARNG soldiers at FOB Kushamond welcome the 2nd Platoon with a feast. Whenever soldiers from the 3rd Platoon visit one of the other three platoons deployed from Guam, or whenever those soldiers come to FOB Kushamond, there is a swell of warmth and good feeling in the reunion, in their hugs and handshakes and big smiles on their faces. It’s a collective sigh of relief that they all made it safely, that they’re all still alive and together. It’s comforting for Angelina to see more Chamorro soldiers; she feels safer, more able to put her guard down. The soldiers can all recognize in each other that they are all willing to risk their lives; it’s how they are all here, in this part of the world that isn’t safe. They know what it means, and what it feels like, to be here in Afghanistan, and it’s comforting to suddenly be around other soldiers from home who share in that.
During the dinner, Angelina catches up with Spc. Santos from the 2nd Platoon. They know each other well; his wife and Angelina work as teachers at the same school in Guam. Spc. Santos will be on the mission tomorrow. They’ll be taking seven humvees through IED Alley on the way to Kent. Angelina and the other soldiers enjoy the reunion; it’s a nice get together.
The next morning, the soldiers rise at 4 a.m., to be in formation by 5 a.m.; when Angelina sees Sgt. L.G. there, he tells her, “You know, Q, go ahead and unpack because you’re not going. They’re taking you off the trip ticket.”
Sgt. L.G. explains that the directive had come from their platoon sergeant; drivers for the trip to Kent need to have twelve hours of rest, and Angelina had just traveled in. She’ll be assigned instead to admin duty in the TOC. Another driver from the 2nd platoon will take her shift. Angelina wants to finish unpacking anyway, but she’s not too thrilled—time seems to move more slowly when she spends all day in the FOB.
The Tactical Operations Center is hot and quiet later that morning, except for the foot traffic in and out of the office—soldiers from other 294 divisions in the U.S. Army and the Polish Battle Group, looking to track information on their convoys’ whereabouts, come and go. The TOC is filled with communications equipment; a huge blanket printed with the Guam seal hangs in a corner. The office looks like a large bedroom that never had panels installed to cover its 2x4s. Fans blow but do not help the heat; moon dust collects on the plyboard floor and blows all over the place.
Angelina’s in the TOC with Sgt. Diaz. He’s a sergeant who’s always joking around; he’s never serious. On administrative duty, Angelina is monitoring the BFT, the Blue Force Tracker, which tracks the vehicles from their unit’s convoys and also picks up on other military vehicles in the area. The BFT screen displays the layout of the land and vehicles moving and stopping; if she clicks on a vehicle, its name—Ayuyu 66, for instance—will pop up if already in their FOB’s BFT database.
It’s close to 10 a.m. and the convoy Angelina was supposed to be on is preparing to leave. She can hear the chatter from the different vehicles. Once all the vehicles in the convoy let the TOC know they are good to go—ALL GREEN—the convoy rolls out. In the TOC, Angelina starts tracking the vehicles on the BFT as soon as they leave the wire.
An hour goes by.
Then on the BFT, messages begin popping up.
Be advised AYUYU 66, stopped possible IED
Need air support, attack at location *******
“Wow, where is this? Ey,” Angelina says, turning around to look for Sgt. Diaz. “There’s something popping up.”
“I don’t think this is us,” she says to herself, and sees Sgt. Diaz reenter the TOC. “Sergeant, there’s something on the message.”
Sgt. Diaz walks over to her and looks at the BFT screen. And something changes.
“Move!” He yells, loud and sudden.
She stands and he grabs the chair, sits and starts typing fast, really fast—he’s in high adrenaline mode. He’s on the radio at the same time, listening and confirming with the Polish Battle Group and other divisions for positive identification on the trackers. On the BFT, messages sent don’t come in quickly, and questions and messages are coming in from everywhere, including the main TOC in Bagram, Guam Guard Element’s headquarters in Afghanistan.
“Q,” Sgt. Diaz says, “go get Lt. Fejeran.”
“Why? Is that us?” Angelina asks. Her mind is racing. KIA. Killed in Action. Who could have gotten killed? Was it our platoon or the platoon that came to train with us? How does anyone confirm that someone is dead?
She can’t move.
“God damn it, Quinene! F*cking run!”
“Really? This is really happening?”
Sgt. Diaz is still responding and listening to other people on the radio, and Angelina can see the look on his face—fear she doesn’t normally see from him. She can’t move.
And then she runs. She finds Lt. Fejeran and brings him to the TOC. More people are there and the soldiers from the entire FOB, all the divisions, are making their way to the office. In the TOC, everyone is on their tracker.
Angelina finds herself outside the TOC office, talking to other soldiers, wondering who got hurt. She’s scared of knowing who it will be. There are too many soldiers who would be devastating to lose. She feels for the women who are mothers, but the devastation of losing any of one of them is hard to accept.
They don’t say who it is, where. They just keep saying, “Two died.”
It’s not long before the confirmation comes in on the KIAs: it’s Spc. Mora from the 2nd Platoon and Sgt. Leon Guerrero.
Sgt. L.G. and Spc. Mora were killed in an IED blast. They had been in a humvee when the IED detonated beneath them—the humvee couldn’t sustain a huge blast like that. Spc. Echang from the second platoon was their gunner; he was sitting in turret when the IED exploded, and was ejected out. Angelina learns later that the explosion set the humvee on fire and live ammunition was exploding; Sgt. L.G. and Spc. Mora were trapped in the vehicle and couldn’t get out. In such a scenario, no one could have saved them.
When Angelina hears Sgt. L.G.'s name, she drops to her knees.
All she can say is “Oh God no,” over and over again.
All she can think is that it isn’t true: Sgt. L.G. is a fighter, and of all of the soldiers, he is the best prepared.
He was so looking forward to seeing his new baby. To returning home to someone he loved and needed. He had told Angelina that for the first time in his life, things were right.
The journey continues. Check back on Guam Women Warrior Wednesdays ChST for new posts.