I had an advantage over many new recruits when I joined the Army in 2013 because my husband, Jeremy, had served for eight years. I was an Army wife who observed and learned through him. I heard his stories about basic training, what he did on a typical day, and bits and pieces of his 16-month deployment into combat in Afghanistan. When he decided to leave the Army, I decided to join.
As I prepared to go to basic training, Jeremy told me to keep my head down and to never volunteer for anything. He taught me how to pack my ruck, how to study for boards, and tips on how to be a leader.
Yes, I had an advantage thanks to Jeremy. But I would soon learn that I also had a disadvantage.
I am a woman.
My First Duty Station
I was assigned to my first duty station in July 2013, the 518Th Tin Company at Fort Gordon, GA. My platoon consisted of 50 soldiers, less than ten of whom were females. When I arrived I was greeted constantly by every male who wanted to know who I was. The first couple weeks were overwhelming. I didn’t like the attention being sized up every time I walked into a room. After meeting a few girls, I was warned what was happening: the males were trying to sleep with me as a competition. I couldn’t believe it. I thought I would be surrounded by mature men and women who joined the Army for the same reason I did. I expected professionalism and discipline. Once I knew what was happening, I became more aware of my surroundings and of what I said.
When I met my Platoon Sergeant, he immediately told me we were going to deploy in a year. I remember this moment because I could tell he was trying to scare me or get some reaction out of me. I didn’t panic with this news because I was told early on that my job deploys a lot.
So six months before deployment we started to train and prepare. The United States had not yet begun withdrawing troops from the Middle East, and we learned that our deployment would either be to Afghanistan or Kuwait. When the list came out for who was going where, we noticed that all of the females were being sent to Kuwait. We inquired about this and learned this decision was made to reduce the likelihood of females being sexually harassed or assaulted, which had become a problem for the Army. Personally, I didn’t mind deploying to Kuwait because it was not a combat zone like Afghanistan.
A few months before deployment, I kept hearing that my name was on the Afghanistan list. I didn’t believe my friend when he told me. I thought he was just kidding around. Eventually I asked my Sergeant, and she assured me I was on the Kuwait list. As deployment grew closer, my friend became agitated because I still did not believe him. So one day he dragged me to our Platoon Sergeant
“You’re for sure on the list to deploy to Kuwait,” he said.
So even my friend had to admit this was settled.
But then two weeks before our ship out date, I had just climbed into my car when my company commander signaled from the next car over to roll down my window.
“I cannot be seen talking directly to you, so act natural,” he said in a low voice. “You’re on the list to go to Afghanistan and I need to have a talk with you before you go.”
The frustrating part is that he never had the time to talk with me. I told my Sergeant and she did nothing, so then I went to my Platoon Sergeant and he was still insisting that I was on the Kuwait list.
At this point I was panicking. I couldn’t get any of my superiors to communicate. It was ridiculous that neither my leader nor my platoon sergeant couldn’t take ten minutes to set up a time to talk to my commander. If they had, everything would have been cleared up. I wanted to drag them to his office, but as a private first class that was not my place and I had to follow what they said.
I wasn’t sure how to pack because the packing lists for both locations were different. For Kuwait, you didn’t need to bring multi-cam uniforms because they are only worn in combat zones, so we were told to bring only the standard issue Army Combat Uniform. I ended up packing both. I was angry about this because I looked like a typical girl who couldn’t decide what to bring and over packed.
All of the platoon flew to Kuwait where we were briefed, including those who would fly on into Afghanistan. Once in Kuwait, we were split up for our briefings. The Kuwait briefing was inside a building and the Afghanistan briefing was outside. I was 30 minutes into the Kuwait briefing when I heard my name called out. I was being yelled at by my Platoon Sergeant for being in the wrong briefing. It turned out I was on the list for Afghanistan. The confusion had occurred because another soldier also had the last name of Taylor. He was male, but our names were mixed up. My company did this with another female, too, named Rodriguez. This was a relief to me because it meant I wasn’t going to be the only female on the team to Afghanistan.
Before we left on the plane to Bagram Air Base, Rodriguez and I were told that our chain of command wanted to speak with us. They spoke to us about the importance of sticking together while we were there. We were told we couldn’t go anywhere without the other and that we had a curfew of 8 p.m. We were warned about how males like to target women walking alone, that they will drag you into bunker to assault you, and we were told to avoid groups of men because that’s usually how it happens.
Were also told that foreign military people were dangerous and to stay away from them; apparently there were reports of Bulgarian soldiers raping women. At first we didn’t mind this rule because we thought it would pertain to everyone going to Afghanistan. I also think we didn’t think anything of it because we were scared. After the first day we realized that our male colleagues didn’t have to follow the same rules: they were walking around by themselves and staying out past curfew. Rodriguez and I ended up going to our leader and complaining, but we were told nothing could be done and it was for our protection.
Then, less than a week later, we received the upsetting news that we were being separated. I was being sent to Camp Phoenix. Rodriguez and I were so upset that we were close to tears. Our command scared us so much that we were not sure how to handle being in Afghanistan without each other. How could they stress the importance of us sticking together, and then suddenly tell us they needed to separate us so a certain number of people were at each location? I felt like I didn’t have my protection anymore. To make matters worse, they did not know if there were any females at Camp Phoenix.
Fortunately, when I arrived, two other females were also stationed there. But now I did not have a designated job at Camp Phoenix. My MOS (military occupational specialty) was 25L, a cable system installer and maintainer. Our deployments consisted of teams being sent to different areas of Afghanistan to do cable missions. The team there was full, so I was instructed to hang around until they found a place for me. Eventually I was put in the operations area. I was just helping whoever needed the help. After a couple of days I found out the cable team needed one more person for the job, and I asked if I could be placed there. I was told I couldn’t because it was an all-male team. Instead, they selected someone in maintenance who was not qualified to do the job of a 25L.
The company we were replacing was getting ready to leave country, so they were training my company on how things were run in their office. They had a drive team coordinator and a flight coordinator. Their jobs were to make flights for military personnel to get around Afghanistan and the drive team coordinator scheduled out a team of three vehicles with two personnel in each vehicle. I ended up doing both of these jobs; it was supposed to be a temporary job for me. I was just a private first class and this job is slotted for sergeants and higher ranks. The sergeant slotted for this spot didn’t have a secret clearance and was trying to obtain one from Bagram. I was told I had to learn everything and train the sergeant who would be coming to replace me. Well, that never happened. I was never replaced.
Doing the Work of a Sergeant
It was very stressful for me as a young soldier to do this job. As a PFC you’re not supposed to make strategic decisions. You’re given tasks and you carry them out. All the heavy thinking is left up to the leaders, people who were in for more years than I had been. For my job I had to relay the mission plans to the convoy commander who was a Staff Sergeant. This was an unusual situation. I was a PFC telling a Staff Sergeant what he had to complete every day. So basically I was his boss. In the beginning it worked out. I was respectful of his rank and I knew my place. I never tried to boss him around and I would work with his suggestions he gave me. I trusted his advice and we slowly became good working partners. This did not last long.
But before I recount what happened next in this relationship, I want to share about the type of work I was doing in Kuwait.
I learned how to coordinate a drive team. I planned routes for teams of soldiers who patrolled roads in military vehicles. I mapped out what roads to take and what time they had to be at each destination. We couldn’t use real street names because we didn’t want the enemy to know our location or where we were going. Each street name was coded by colors. The maps I prepared would say something like “left on orange then orange to right on black and black to end point.” I designed a chart to make it easier for me to plan. I had to make sure I got my colors right to the corresponding roads because I couldn’t simply say turn left on main street over the radio because that would give away our location. I also had to plan routes differently every day so the enemy couldn’t see a pattern with our movements. My day always started before everyone else’s in my company; I would have to get up around 0430 to read all the Intel reports before the drive team was ready to roll out. I had to make sure the roads were clear for them to drive safely. In addition, while they were out, I had to monitor Intel reports to make sure they were not coming into danger.
I will always remember the two times the drive team came close to danger and there was nothing I could do. One of those times I was credited by the drive team for saving their lives, even though I don’t see it that way. It was just luck on my part. Here’s what happened: As I said earlier, I always came in before the drive team and scheduled when they had to leave. One morning I scheduled them to leave later than usual so they could get a little more sleep; I also didn’t mind the extra sleep. I contacted their convoy commander the night before and let him know I pushed the start time an hour forward from the original time. Little did I know the life-and-death results of this extra hour of sleep: this adjustment caused them to miss an IED planted along their route. They missed it by 10 minutes. In fact, a vehicle ahead of them rolled up on it, which killed a couple of locals standing nearby.
The other incident almost made me sick because I was worrying so much. I got Intel that a woman was wearing a suicide vest outside our gate and was waiting for a vehicle to roll up so she could try to run in and bomb our gate. As this was happening, my vehicles were scheduled to arrive back. Yet I couldn’t get a hold of them on their radio to warn them. For some reason the signal would not pick up. I remember pacing and my stomach was turning. I couldn’t focus on anything because I was so panicked. Luckily they didn’t leave their location because they couldn’t reach me to see if they were okay to drive back. The woman with the suicide vest decided not to attack and eventually left. So once again it was luck that saved them.
Deterioration of My Working Relationship
As I noted earlier, my relationship with my Staff Sergeant was initially very good. But three months into our deployment, he started to change. He became too friendly and would joke around and say I was his work wife and he would try to hug me all the time. He told me I belonged to him and had to listen to whatever he told me. I didn’t think anything of this at first; I thought it was innocent fun. I started to notice that every time I talked to another person he would get upset with me. For some reason he didn’t want me to make friends with other people. I eventually confronted him about it. I walked into his office:
“Hey Staff Sergeant, are you mad at me about something? I’ve noticed that you have been acting different lately.”
“Yes,” he responded. “I’m not happy that you’re making new friends.”
I laughed and said, “Are you serious?”
“Yes I am.”
“You can’t expect me to only have one friend,” I said. “We’re here for nine months. We can’t keep within ourselves or we will go crazy!”
I left the room.
I talked to another member of the drive team and he said my staff sergeant was upset with me because he had developed feelings for me and didn’t know how to show it. I was very shocked by this because the staff sergeant and I were both married. He had been married for 13 years and had three children, and he knew I was in a loving relationship with my husband.
Once I found this out, I made the mistake of going back and confronting the staff sergeant: “This is only a professional relationship and I am sorry if I came off differently,” I said. This upset him and he responded that if I didn’t reciprocate his feelings, he was going to make the rest of my deployment “hell.”
He said he would make sure I was on every detail possible so I could get no rest and to keep me working at all times. He said if I didn’t do everything he said or gave him attitude or looked at him wrong he was going to give an Article 15. As I stood in front of him listening to what he was saying, I could feel my nails cutting my palm because I was clenching my fists so tight. I wanted to yell at him. My mind was racing with everything I wanted to say. I wanted to swear at him. I’m the kind of person who says what’s on my mind, so it was hard for me not to tell him he was a piece of shit.
As I spoke to him, I realized I was not standing in the right position, so I switched from standing casually to parade rest, and I told him, “If you feel like that’s the right thing for you to do to me then fine because I don’t have feelings for you.”
I went to my commander and reported what had taken place. He said he couldn’t do anything about it because he couldn’t replace me or the staff sergeant. I cried and was shaking because I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t do anything…I was helpless.
My Staff Sergeant Keeps his Promise
As he had threatened, the staff sergeant did everything he said he would: I never had a day off; I worked from 5 am to 11 pm every day. I had to work on Thanksgiving and even on Christmas. Everyone else was enjoying their time off from work and I was sitting alone at my desk, working. The stress from this experience began to affect my health. I went from weighing 125 pounds to 110 pounds. I always looked tired.
But I made the best of what I had been dealt. Since I was at work all the time I was able network better with other flight coordinators to make my job easier to schedule what I needed. This enabled me to get flights that were impossible and I could get helicopters to take routes that weren’t normal. I could get the pilots to wait for my passengers or cargo if the timing went wrong. Passengers I scheduled flights for appreciated this so they would bring me stuff I couldn’t get at my base like pizza and energy drinks. One person even gave me a refrigerator and television for my room.
At the end of my deployment what I was going through became normal for me. I stopped stressing because I perfected my job and it showed. By the end of my deployment I completed 300 drive team missions and over 700 flight missions. I received an award that reflected my hard work; I was awarded the Army Commendation Medal which is usually not given to someone with my rank. I learned that even though I got treated unfairly and didn’t get to do the job I was trained for, I did something more important: I made sure that everyone I scheduled made it safely to their destination.
What I learned during my deployment is that I can do anything I set my mind to and that I have a strong personality that won’t let people or things get me down. I don’t regret anything that happened to me on my deployment because even though in many ways being a woman is a disadvantage in the military, I am stronger for all I experienced.