Peace & war

An Iraq veteran’s experience at war earned her an unanticipated education

Meghan had dreamed of studying abroad in Spain. But she never dreamed she would get an entirely different type of education serving two tours of duty in Iraq with the Minnesota National Guard.

And though she faced and overcame difficult challenges, she said she wouldn’t trade the experience.

“I wish I hadn’t grown up so quickly and missed out on life at home while I was deployed,” said Meghan, now 28 and a graduate student in St. Paul. “But I am glad that the military gave me the ability to lead, mentor and advocate for others, that it helped me to develop self-confidence.”

It’s also where she met her husband and made lifelong friendships, she added.

Guard money for college

Back in high school she was a strong student, a member of the marching band and a self-described “math geek.”

A difficult stepfather relationship and a lack of funds meant that college aspirations seemed out of reach. A boyfriend recommended the National Guard as a way to earn tuition benefits. So in 2003, she signed up.

After training ended in June 2004, she came back to Minnesota, with the intention of studying in Spain in the fall. But within a few months, she got the unexpected call that she was being deployed to Iraq.

“I was naive when I signed up,” she said. “I was so upset after I got that call. I thought I was going to die. I wasn’t going to Spain. I was 19, and it was a lot to handle emotionally.”

A female officer even recommended to all women that they take birth control pills in the event of rape.

A convoy in Kuwait

The day after Thanksgiving in 2004, she landed in Kuwait. She was assigned as a truck driver, part of a 3-mile-long convoy.

During five- to 10-day trips to and from the airport and seaport, she was part of a team in nonarmored vehicles that drove in new pieces of equipment and took out damaged ones. To stay in touch on unmapped roads, soldiers bought their own walkie-talkies, since the military hadn’t yet invested in heavy-duty radios for their unit.

After six months, she asked to be reassigned. Her co-driver didn’t trust her-wearing night vision goggles so he could stare at her, afraid she would fall asleep on the road. He made her do all the driving, because he believed she would never shoot anyone if they were under fire so he needed to keep watch.

Being a woman was not easy: power trips, undermining, isolation, sexual harassment. And always, the threat of attack. Meghan-thin from an eating disorder-became a binge eater and gained 40 pounds in six months.

Difficult re-entry

A year later, she returned to the States and she tried to live with her mom and stepfather, but it did not go well. So she moved in with boyfriend, who had trained her in the National Guard, and they married in October 2007.

A month after their return, a National Guard friend took his own life. Her husband faced his own issues with post-traumatic stress.

For Meghan, life became a blur of anxiety. She put in 50- to 60-hour workweeks. She had trouble sleeping. She didn’t want to be outside after dark. She thought people were hiding in trees waiting to get her. She would lose her train of thought in midsentence. She nearly lunged at a fellow classmate who equated soldiers to suicide bombers.

She was just 22 years old.

Former friends had moved on with their lives-going to graduate school, getting good jobs, having children.

National Guard duty at home began to require a more serious commitment. Weekend training lasted three or four days. Two-week summer camp turned into four. Family, work and school obligations were not a priority in the National Guard.

“We missed out on a lot of birthdays and holidays,” she said.

Another deployment

And there were deep frustrations. Though they received disability benefits while they were in the National Guard, those benefits ended when they went back to Iraq in a second deployment in 2009. They notified the Department of Veterans Affairs to suspend benefits, but returned nearly a year later to find that VA debt collection notices had piled up and ruined their credit rating.

During their second deployment, her husband’s boss, a high-ranking officer, committed suicide, and a friend of hers faced sexual requests from her supervisor.

Finally, she and her husband quit the National Guard after her young cousin was killed in Afghanistan four months into active duty.

Because they hadn’t put in a full 20 years before retiring, they lost military health insurance. Because of their pre-existing mental health conditions, they cannot afford decent private health coverage until the new Obamacare health reform rules start in 2014.

“We’re just hoping we don’t get in a serious accident,” she said.

“More empathetic”

Meghan said that dealing with the macho culture of the military-especially true during her first deployment-was difficult. It was stressful to prove that she belonged there-and that she could lead, even without a loud bark.

Deployment naturally “loosens screws” for everyone, she said. “So many people are trying to prove themselves.”

Yet she considers her military experience to have strengthened her confidence, eventually, because of all she survived.

It exposed her to other cultures, forced her to confront her body image issues, provided money she needed for education, and enabled her to become an advocate for others who deal with mental health and sexism issues.

“My experiences have made me more empathetic to individuals and their personal contexts,” she said.

She is studying occupational therapy, she said, “to help people reach their full potential and move on from whatever it is that has been holding them back or creating barriers.”

She volunteers with prisoners, she said, with a new empathy about the difficult roads people have traveled.

And with that comes some peace of mind.