Audrey Hsieh wrote “Homecoming and Identity: A Short Story” as part of the 2014 Humanity in Action Diplomacy and Diversity Fellowship.
Introduction and Acknowledgements
Home. One would imagine the word “home” to elicit feelings of excitement, spur the adrenaline. But as she looked at her teammates sitting to her left and right, she observed only exhaustion collected across each face, her own undoubtedly included.
This story blends my experiences in the U.S. Army with the Arab-American experience to assist in narrating the story of Staff Sergeant Leila Al-Juneid, a Lebanese-American Civil Affairs soldier returning from Iraq. SSG Al-Juneid believes in American patriotism but returns to the United States deeply conflicted by her experience overseas. This story examines the intersection of identity and public service and dissects the complicated notion of “homecoming” – returning to a country that perpetually views the main character as an “outsider,” particularly when returning from a combat environment where war is often delineated via racial lines.
I am deeply indebted to my friends who provided input into this piece, particularly Louay S., an Iraqi-American who witnessed firsthand many of the turning points of the war from 2005-2013, including the 2006 Battle of Fallujah, an episode of which is loosely documented here. The main character herself is fictional, a composite of experiences that I, as well as other female soldiers, faced in deployment. Throughout the piece, vernacular military jargon is used. In these instances, attempts are made to clarify through the use of endnotes for clarification purposes without interrupting the flow of the short story.
This short story is not meant to serve as political commentary and any remarks on policy, whether explicit or inferred, are designed to serve as background into the character’s mindset only.
Baghdad, Iraq 2004
Most times, she preferred her mobility and fluid freedom. However, there were occasions even within the secure confines of the Camp Greene, the Special Operations Camp Compound, that she was grateful for her hardened shell.
As the C-17 aircraft cleared Iraqi air space, Leila heaved her Individual Ballistic Armor vest over her head and slowly rubbed the indents on both shoulders. At over 30 pounds, the vest – a systematic arrangement of Kevlar protection, rifle magazines filled with ammunition and other gear – had duly served as both protection and ultimately grown to be an inseparable extension of her body. As a result, no matter how often Leila donned her vest, each time she took it off, she felt petite. Most times, she preferred her mobility and fluid freedom. However, there were occasions even within the secure confines of the Camp Greene, the Special Operations Camp Compound, that she was grateful for her hardened shell. It provided the convenient, albeit deceptive, semblance of mass – almost akin to an owl or a cat that puffs itself up immediately after perceiving a threat. In Leila’s situation, her vest ensconced a perpetual bundle of nerves and aggression. She was not unsorry to remove the heavy vest’s weight for the final time during this tour, but she also felt a bizarre sense of loss as the aircraft began its journey home. When she walked around “kitted up” with her vest, rifle, helmet and eye specs, she felt powerful as hell. She felt herself exuding this aura of strength in missions outside the wire when she interfaced with the local Iraqis. Even when she removed her helmet, the locals perceived her as a “tough” soldier, not quite a woman, and certainly not an Arab. Removing the vest reminded her that in spite of all her hardened battle equipment that she was, indeed, just a human. And at 5’3” and 120 lbs., a small one at that.
Right now, “home” was a collection of inanimate objects.
Home. One would imagine the word “home” to elicit feelings of excitement, spur the adrenaline. But as she looked at her teammates sitting to her left and right, she observed only exhaustion collected across each face, her own undoubtedly included. Even now, roughly half an hour into the flight with the persistent loud roaring of the military cargo aircraft, she realized that she was one of the few passengers still conscious.
Leila recalled her last telephone conversation with her family. Her mom, nearly skipping in place from excitement, had asked Leila how excited she was to come home. Naturally Leila quickly relayed her excitement to return home, but she also realized with a discomfiting start that she was more excited by the imminent creature comforts of home – a private shower with as much blisteringly hot or polar cold water as she wanted, a soft bed without lumps, a solid eight hours of sleep without blaring air horns warning of incoming artillery and mortars, walking on the ground without stepping perpetually onto small pernicious grains of sand. The last bit sounded mundanely trivial but underscored how Iraqi sand infiltrated everywhere, particularly during the brutal summer sandstorms. To most Americans, to include those in this story’s aircraft, home was the doting and faithful wife, cooing kids, yappy dog. Leila didn’t know what her version of home was. Her parents lived five states away from her current duty station, equating a roughly 10-hour drive, and she had no significant other to speak of. Right now, “home” was a collection of inanimate objects. And that suited her quite fine.
During the same phone conversation, when her mom had asked her what she missed most about home, Leila answered,
It was a memory they both held onto, one that solidified their shared experience of existing as an “other” in the deployment world so clearly dominated by men.
“Mehshee warak enab wkoosa.” Lebanese grape leaves.
“What? You’re in the Middle East and you miss mehshee warak enab wkoosa?? What are you eating out there?” her mom had responded. Leila didn’t quite have the heart to tell her that Camp Greene served its all-American boys and girls Western food, complete with mealy steak and rubbery lobster every other Friday, an unusual deployment perk.
There were other stories that she didn’t share with her family. For example, she remembers her first time meeting another female on the Special Operations Camp Compound, where men outnumbered women almost 50-to-one. The overwhelming odds meant that facilities like pissers couldn’t make sense with where she bunked, and her first 20-minute jaunt from her bunk to the porter john remain indelible in her memory. The first time she made the trek, she flung the plastic door open and found, to her complete shock, another woman. The other individual, a young Lieutenant Boone, had already completed her business and was just about to leave, saving them both the potential embarrassment of being caught without pants on. They both stared at each other for 15 tense seconds silently asserting, “Oh thank God I’m not the only one.” They parted ways without exchanging a word, and Lieutenant Boone quickly acquiesced the portable shitter to SSG al-Juneid.
Later on, Leila would discover that Lieutenant Sheila Boone was the Assistant S2. (1) They never shared their meeting experience, for it was irrelevant to any conversation, but it was a memory they both held onto, one that solidified their shared experience of existing as an “other” in the deployment world so clearly dominated by men.
How exactly one passes along stories like this to family at home… Leila remembers thinking after it happened, is a messy code she never bothered to unravel.
the highly probable prospect of Tellers leading Soldiers within Leila’s Civil Affairs Team (CAT) caused considerable concern
Specialist Tellers was the only fan of the DFAC’s (2) version of “Surf and Turf,” but he was dead now, and so his vote hardly mattered anymore. Tellers had his homecoming almost exactly four months prior, resting somberly in a casket flown on an aircraft just like the one Leila was on now. Specialist Alex Tellers, a bushy-eyed recruit from Connecticut, joined the military straight out of Yale University. Born into privilege, armed with a sizeable trust fund and hungry for adventure, Tellers was eager to implement all his brilliant Ivy-League book smarts learned in school. As a college graduate, Tellers had skipped the lowest rungs of the enlisted ranks and pinned on Specialist rank without knowing how to properly handle and shoot an M-16 rifle. (3) As a result, the highly probable prospect of Tellers leading Soldiers within Leila’s Civil Affairs Team (CAT) caused considerable concern from her standpoint. Throughout her four-year career in the military, Leila’s fast track through the ranks had been through merit and clenched-teeth determination alone. Joining the Army straight out of high school, her promotion rate from E-1 Private to E-6 Staff Sergeant was miles ahead of her peers. Her beginning as a humble Private, however, generated a small amount of resentment towards Soldiers fortunate to “jump” rank right at enlistment straight to E-4.
The comment had irked Leila to such a degree that she immediately ordered him to “push” and gave the explicit order prohibiting him from using words longer than three syllables for the next three days. (5)
Staff Sergeant Al-Juneid was the Team Sergeant for Civil Affairs Team 521, the senior Non-Commissioned Officer within the team and the second-in-command after the Team Leader, Captain Brett Bauer. (4) As the senior NCO, it was her job to take care of each individual Soldier’s welfare and combat readiness and to groom junior Soldiers for positions of greater responsibility. From that standpoint, Leila had found Tellers mildly insufferable, always a bit too eager to share his vast knowledge on ancient Babylon and the historical placement of Iraq within the Middle East, yet never eager enough to pull fire-guard watch late at night. It was one thing to identify Baghdad on a map, it was quite another to demonstrate leadership by example by pulling the graveyard shifts that others did not want in order to ensure that your Soldiers got adequate rest. You can’t teach that in a book.
No one speaks ill of the fallen.
She remembered his most grating experience during deployment train-up. That day, Captain Bauer had asked the team to “police the training site” sweep the ground and pick up the litter. It had been an exhausting day – beginning with an airborne operation that dropped the team onto the site, leading to a key leader engagement and ending with a live fire exercise. Tellers, always the stickler for time, responded to Leila’s transmittal of the Captain’s order that garrison policy was to release all Soldiers no later than 1700 two weeks before deployment and that her order was “incongruent” with standing policy. The comment had irked Leila to such a degree that she immediately ordered him to “push” and gave the explicit order prohibiting him from using words longer than three syllables for the next three days. (5)
Now, of course, no one speaks ill of the fallen. Tellers had the misfortune of augmenting a Special Forces team on a mission – a raid of a suspected weapons cache. Captain Bauer had finally given Tellers the exciting mission he had hankered for since arriving in the country. Previous to that mission, the team had several rather positive meetings with local Iraqis outside the wire; however, none of them had experienced enemy contact up to that point. This served as a point of relief for Leila and a point of chagrin for Tellers. And so, when one of the Special Forces team members went home on emergency leave, Tellers jumped at the chance to finally experience action.
Action, however, found him first. About 15 kilometers from the FOB, along Route COBRA, a roadside Improvised Explosive Device exploded square beneath his seat, blowing him up instantly. (6) Leila remembers hearing the MEDEVAC request over the radio net while sitting at the Tactical Operations Center (TOC) and feeling her blood run cold. (7) While no identities were given, somehow she intuited then that Tellers had died. And when the radio traffic finally confirmed that Tellers, Alex was indeed the KIA she felt her insides harden in anticipation for the long night ahead.
When one of the Special Forces team members went home on emergency leave, Tellers jumped at the chance to finally experience action.
“You’ll help with the ramp ceremony, won’t you SSG Juneid?” Captain Bauer asked. Like her, the Captain was in a state of shock trying valiantly to guard himself from releasing emotions such as grief or guilt, emotions that would obstruct efficiently checking off the list of tasks catalyzed by the death of a Soldier. Logistics in sending the body (and it felt much too premature to start referring to Tellers as “the body”) home, notification of next of kin, operational reports – all matters that required swift handling. Captain Bauer had felt marginally successful in maintaining composure while ticking though these tasks, and yet Leila distinctly remembered how restrained terror flickered intermittently across Captain Bauer’s eyes.
Captain Bauer recognized that he was, in fact, not OK.
After all, real casualties did not act like training casualties, where the training evaluator yells “ENDEX!” (“End of Exercise”) and everyone pops back to life. Tellers was gone for good, and if Captain Bauer had one weakness – it was a pronounced inability to deal with setback. He was driven by the momentum of successful accomplishments, meaning that smaller failures had the adverse effect of disproportionately holding him back, keeping him from rediscovering the spark necessary to get back on the success train. Right at that exact moment, as the Battalion Commander both pressed for status updates while simultaneously barking (albeit kindly) “ARE YOU OK? Are you OK, Brett?” Captain Bauer recognized that he was, in fact, not OK. The young junior officer was struggling with an impending sense of guilt at losing his first Soldier, wrestling in hindsight with his decision to send the Specialist that could barely qualify on his assigned weapon on a mission with the Special Forces. Even if he had been spared the IED, could he really have held his own in a firefight? How had he given in to the fanciful desires of his Soldier so easily without regard to the Soldier’s combat readiness and capability? How much blood stained his own hands?
A West Point graduate, Brett Bauer had graduated in the top 20% of his class back in 1999 and had an impressive start in his Army career as an Infantry Officer. Three years into his career, he wanted to transition into the Special Forces branch, but was not picked up as a candidate during the Selections and Assessment process. The committee never told him why, though he suspected it was the angry Hispanic Sergeant First Class on the Committee that seemed to have it out for him. He would never be able to substantiate it, of course. Knowing that he couldn’t go back to the Infantry with this failure, he accepted a slot in the Civil Affairs Officer Qualification Course – still part of the Special Operations community – and wistfully thought of himself as an operator, a coveted title almost akin to “bad ass.” At that moment in the TOC, however, he realized how distinctly different the various parties within the Special Operations Community are. The Special Forces would never have accepted Tellers, even with all his goddamned book smarts. He couldn’t shoot the broad side of a barn. The Navy SEALs community wouldn’t have accepted SSG Al-Junied either. These facts made him feel, yet again, like he had received the short end of the karmic stick. Leila brought him back to reality.
To the rest of the team, they appeared unified in command and as a result, they were able to coexist but not thrive.
“Sir, the team wants to know when rehearsal will be.”
“Tell them 1630. Bring berets. Get the right regs too. We’re disastrous with drill and ceremony. Today is not the day to make a professional embarrassment out of ourselves.”
“Got it. I need to help pack his belongings… unless you need me?”
“No, go,” he said with a small degree of impatience. “I’ll see you later. Thanks.”
Leila felt that Captain Bauer’s original question demonstrated vulnerability – he had asked, not ordered her assistance – and Leila felt a fleeting sort of affection towards him. Their relationship – him as Team Leader, her as Team Sergeant – had been strained more times than not, but they struggled together to find workable compromises. To the rest of the team, they appeared unified in command and as a result, they were able to coexist but not thrive. Leila maintained a keen awareness that the “brotherhood of arms” was originally designed to be a gentleman’s club. Captain Bauer’s swift dismissal served as testament to that.
It all seemed a tad contrived; it was just too perfect a story.
After the ramp ceremony sent Tellers on his journey home, Captain Bauer’s mission mindset changed. Tellers’ death had galvanized him, galvanized the entire team, in fact, for vengeance. Kindly engagements with Sunni tribal leaders would not satisfy a newfound thirst for bloodshed. About four days after Tellers was blown to bits, a timid Private First Class knocked on Leila’s door at three that morning and alerted her that she was needed at the TOC. An Iraqi had directly approached the gate and it appeared from his elementary English skills that he had intelligence on the IED attack. They needed her translation skills. His name was Wisam, and he looked disheveled and hungry – one the consequence of a rough pat down, both perhaps a consequence of war.
“Ask him what exactly he saw the day Tellers died,” Lieutenant Boone asked, her own voice cracked by fatigue. Leila did so.
“I saw men with a shovel late at night. They were digging right here,” Wisam pointed emphatically at a crudely drawn map depicting the IED site and the surrounding houses on the street. “I saw wires.”
“Ask him if he heard the men saying anything. Were there radios?” Wisam wasn’t close enough to hear the conversation, but he saw radios.
From Leila’s standpoint, it all seemed a tad contrived; it was just too perfect a story. She told this to Lieutenant Boone, but her and the rest of the intelligence analysts were hurriedly attempting to piece a target packet together for approval. For his service, Wisam left with a few thousand dinars. (8)
Before the sun could announce the beginning of a new day, the unit’s Battalion Commander had a sophisticated Operations Order proposing a raid on the two residential houses Wisam had pointed out. The palpable human intelligence ensured that the Commander would quickly approve the mission.
“We’re all going,” Captain Bauer announced with an air of heightened confidence later that morning in front of the team. Surely, this was the mission he needed to get back to success. His deployment wouldn’t be a failure after all. The team, with the exception of Leila, whooped in collective lusty excitement. Leila tried in vain to dissent, stating that combat raids were outside their mission scope, that they weren’t properly trained for this type of task.
Any suspicious materials would warrant the detention of the adults in the house.
“It’ll be all right, SSG Al-Juneid,” Captain Bauer responded with a noted amount of condescension. “This was meant to be. Tellers wants this to happen. We’ll have gun support from the team guys.” (9) Leila wanted to feel the same way as her team, but she couldn’t shake the feeling that Wisam’s actions seemed far too calculated, insincere almost. The mission looked simple on paper. EOD (10) would sweep the route for mines right before the team departed. An “all-clear” report would prompt Captain Bauer’s Civil Affairs team with additional gun support to depart. Once they arrived on site, they’d arrange the vehicles in a herringbone formation, the lead and trail vehicle canted to the right, the center vehicle canted to the left. A small fire team element would secure the site, checking for and suppressing any hostile enemy presence. The advance element would enter the homes (using force if required) and search for any materiel that pointed to explosives assembly. Once they completed their initial sweep, the main element would join them to conduct full site exploitation. Leila, naturally, was part of this main element to provide translation support as necessary. Any suspicious materials would warrant the detention of the adults in the house. Time on target was estimated at approximately 15 minutes. With luck, they would return back to Camp in time for an evening workout.
“CLEAR. No one’s home. House is almost empty,”
After a day of rehearsals and gear prep, Civil Affairs Team 521 and select team members from 2nd Battalion, 10th Special Forces Group lined up in preparation to depart the FOB. It was a cool November night and Leila felt positively subdued in contrast to her teammates bobbing and gyrating in excited anticipation to “Bombs over Baghdad” blaring on Sergeant Price’s iPod. Leila couldn’t help but wonder if that night was her own fated night to die. Deployments to a war zone are peculiar, she thought. Once you get past the “Oh shit!” factor that the potential for death is everywhere – you gain a certain level of acceptance. The Grim Reaper is no longer a boogeyman, but a party with whom one might negotiate. On her part, Leila was unsure if she was quite ready to die, and she recognized at that moment with alarming clarity that she does not want to leave Earth in a figurative blaze of glory wearing honor and patriotism like a fashion accessory. Hey, Grimmy, she thought. No CNN headlines for me, OK? That’s all I ask. Shukran Jazelan. Thank you.
Following EOD’s “all-clear,” Captain Bauer perfunctorily completed his radio checks with the TOC and gave the command to “roll out” at exactly 1820. The convoy did so, speedily and tactfully down the fated 15 kilometers along Route COBRA like hungry predators searching for prey. Once on target, the sequence of event originally occurred as planned. The site was quiet. The advance element eased into both houses as if they were invited guests.
“CLEAR. No one’s home. House is almost empty,” Sergeant Kramer said over the radio. House #1, then, would be a quick search. Seconds later, Sergeant Price yelled:
“I got a family here! Appears to be a father, two teenage sons, one young daughter and a mom. Need interpreter assistance NOW.”
Leila hurried to the second house and felt immediate revulsion. The entire family was on their knees in the living room with their hands ingloriously settled behind their heads. This was not the way they had rehearsed. Civilians were supposed to be escorted out of the house and watched by the rear element keeping watch of the vehicles. Leila had intended to act as an intermediary, explaining the search mission, reassure the family that nothing was immediately wrong and answer questions. As Tellers would have said, the current scene was completely “incongruent” with the plan. Worse, the family looked nothing like a nefarious bomb-making insurgent cell. The little girl, who could have been no older than 10, began to howl in complete fear. The boys, who looked no older than 15, gaped with open mouths at the foreign intruders tearing through their belongings. The sound of opened cabinets and neatly arranged objects thrown on the ground was loud, inconsiderate and appalling. The father and mother were surprisingly resigned. Perhaps they were accustomed to these types of searches from Saddam’s day. Perhaps. But the U.S. military was not supposed to evoke memories of a dictator, Leila thought. This was wrong.
“It’s for protecting my family,”
Before she had a chance to express her clear discontent, though, Sergeant Price yelled from the other room “I GOT SOMETHING.” He came back into the living room with an AK-47.
“What is this?” Price yelled at the father. “Why do you have this?” By this point, Leila had enough.
“Price, stop! I’m supposed to talk to the locals, remember?”
“Ask them why he has this rifle. And how many more he has. And what he intends to do with it.”
Dissimilar to Specialist Alex Tellers, Sergeant William Price had grown up in Claiborne Parish, Louisiana, part of the American Deep South where the median household income sat at poverty levels and barely met $25,000. As a result, Price treasured the military’s ability to render results quickly, a characteristic completely different from his own upbringing in a locale where government administrative systems and social services flowed slower than molasses. This partially explained why, for example, he had hurriedly forced the family of five down on the living room floor. Waiting for the main element to arrive would have cost far too much precious time.
“As-Salaam Wahahleykum,” Leila began in greeting and noted the shock the family had when they realized that she was, indeed, Arab. “My name is Leila Al-Juneid. We are from the United States military and are investigating a bomb explosion that happened here two days ago. I am so sorry we barged in here. Can you explain why you have this rifle in your house?”
“It’s for protecting my family,” the elder senior responded. “The militias have started to come through the neighborhoods during the evenings.”
“You are the father?”
“How many more firearms do you have?”
“I understand. OK.”
Leila translated the exchange and was shocked to find both Price and the Captain enraged. Price cocked the AK-47’s butt above the father and brought it down with strong deliberate force over his head. The violent act forced the father to crumble to the ground but not lose consciousness. The little girl shrieked. The mother began to tear silently.
“He’s lying! Tell the fucking hajji to stop lying!” Price said vehemently using the Arabic term in a way that Leila hated. Hajji was meant to connote a sense of respect for a Muslim man that had completed the pilgrimage to Mecca. Throughout the deployment, however, the Soldiers began to use the term pejoratively, a catchall term for the enemy.
“Stop it!” Leila said forcefully, willing herself not to scream. A shrill would be incredibly counterproductive as she wanted to de-escalate not heighten the situation.
“Ask him why he killed Tellers,” Price demanded. Emotions most strongly resembling hatred flowed through his words, emanated from his hardened facial expression.
“I can’t do that,” Leila responded.
“Ask him where the bomb making materials are.”
“Do you have any information on the bomb that exploded two days ago? Do you know where the materials came from?” she asked. The father could only shake his head in confusion. This did not appease Price and the Captain, who heaved the father onto his feet and forced him outside. This act shook the mother, a woman just slightly older than Leila, from her quiet and composed stance.
“Please, sister. Tell them not to bring him away! We had nothing to do with the bomb, we know nothing!!” Leila passed this line to the Captain but he was not swayed.
By the time Price returned, the team had completed their search of the house. There were no explosive materials, no electronics out of the ordinary and no dangling wayward wires. In short, there was no smoking gun that pointed this house or any house within the vicinity to Tellers’ death.
As anxiety filled her soul, she could not comprehend how these men – the same men she saw a year ago on the television victoriously pulling down Saddam Hussein’s statute purportedly for Iraqi freedom’s sake – could now tear her own family’s integrity with such ferocity.
“They must be hiding something, information maybe,” Captain Bauer voiced. “Take the other men.” The teenage boys shook visibly as the team zip-tied their arms behind their backs.
“Sir, they’re not even men! Can’t you see they’re only teenagers?”
“Don’t be stupid, Sergeant. They’re old enough to fight. I’d count them as Military Aged Men.”
“You can not do this, sir. You are breaking international law. These are not enemy combatants, but civilians. Civilian children.” Captain Bauer ignored her.
As the Civil Affairs team escorted the boys outside, the mother started a scene. She plied herself against Leila, and once she recognized that Captain Bauer was the one in authority, she threw herself at his feet and without any semblance of self-consciousness or shame began to kiss his combat boots.
The boys bent over a bush retching violently.
The mother had, in fact, been through these types of searches before in Saddam Hussein’s day, but she had been fortunate. The Baathists had never taken any of her family away. As anxiety filled her soul, she could not comprehend how these men – the same men she saw a year ago on the television victoriously pulling down Saddam Hussein’s statute purportedly for Iraqi freedom’s sake – could now tear her own family’s integrity with such ferocity. She wanted to scream at them in words that they could understand “Can’t you see? We are on your side!”
“Please don’t take my family away,” she begged. “Please don’t take my boys away. I’ll do whatever you ask. Please have mercy on us.” At that moment, Leila wished for nothing more than the ability to forget her Arabic language skills entirely, to be in the similar state of convenient oblivion her team operated in. This was frankly unbearable.
The feet kissing prompted Brett Bauer to release the boys, but not the father. After relaying the requisite reports back to the TOC, the team gathered together, verified that there was nothing to collect as evidence against the family and cut the zip-ties off the two sons. As the convoy left to return back to the Compound, Leila looked back after the convoy had created some distance and observed, with no room for question, the boys bent over a bush retching violently.
These were unpleasant memories, Leila acknowledged, as she shook her thoughts back to the present. Furthermore, once the father – Jusef Aboona, an Iraqi Chaldean who wasn’t even Muslim – received a proper interrogation, the Battalion Commander reprimanded the entire team, with particular attention paid to Captain Bauer and Sergeant Price. For his troubles, Jusef Aboona was released with a few thousand dinars in paltry compensation, approximately the same amount that Wisam had received almost 36 hours prior. Leila had to wonder if there was a separate orchestrated plan by the locals behind the scenes.
When the Twin Towers in Manhattan, NY fell on September 11, 2001, she was in the Primary Leaders Development Course (PLDC), a transition course for junior enlisted Soldiers to become Non Commissioned Officers.
After that mission, Leila had no choice but to view her team and its mission in the country differently. She had joined the military six years prior with noble ideations of pubic service and duty to country, grandiose notions of Americana that were just about laughable at this point. Her parents had immigrated to Texas from Beirut before she was born, and she wore her American identity like her prized pair of converse sneakers, fiercely and jealousy, challenging anyone to call her an “outsider.” Recruiters capitalized on her gritty spirit and sold enlisting in the Army as the best option, leveraging her sense of pride in country and promising her the opportunity to see the world. She loved the Army’s disciplined order, its effects-based pragmatism, and she loved the challenges the military gave her each day. Back then, America was in a heady state of global prestige and undisputed dominance. No one could possibly imagine that America would be sucked into war, and certainly not by a transnational non-state organization, one without even a standing army. Back then, Leila reflected, the greatest challenge the Army posed was the limit of one’s own personal ambition. Who would have the audacity to take on the world’s only superpower?
When the Twin Towers in Manhattan, NY fell on September 11, 2001, she was in the Primary Leaders Development Course (PLDC), a transition course for junior enlisted Soldiers to become Non Commissioned Officers. She remembers participating in a land navigation class. She was huddled around a military map with Specialist Judy Preston and Sergeant Suzy Davey when the TAC (Training and Advisor Counselor) came into the room and announced that America was under attack and to promptly return back to their barracks. There had been a nervous energy among the group, even before any of them saw the images of smoke, collapsing infrastructure and terrified people caked in ashes running down Manhattan’s Lower East Side, snapshots that would haunt them for the rest of their careers. The attacks had filled her with rage. Who could do this to her homeland?
“What was the greater purpose in this? What did this all mean?”
Following the raid on Jusef’s house, however, it became harder for Leila to morally reconcile her reasons for serving in uniform with the reality of U.S. military operations on the ground. Far from liberating a nation of oppressed people from a dictator’s grasp, Jusef Aboona was just one of several examples of deployment that demonstrated how often the military made lapses in judgment. For while credos are infallible, institutions and the fragile personnel within are not. Because Leila could not answer the resounding question, “What was the greater purpose in this? What did this all mean?” she left the Middle East, her ancestral birthright, feeling both confused and ashamed. She felt confused by her nation’s blundering foreign policy in Baghdad and more than a little ashamed by her role in it.
Right as Leila drifts off to sleep, she feels the pull of the C-17 descending into Ramstein Air Base to refuel. The abrupt landing jolts her and the rest of the passengers from their daze. She sees her Soldiers looking straight at her, all asking the same silent question: “Why?” They plod with heavy, tired feet off the aircraft and are given a plastic boarding pass to re-board the plane in an hour. As the group makes their way into the terminal, they are immediately assaulted with celebratory shouts, bright posters and applause.
“WELCOME HOME!” the crowd screams. It is an all-volunteer group from the USO, a group that had tracked their flight and was ready to receive them when they landed. The group is a motley assortment, mostly comprised of Veterans from World War II, Vietnam and Korea. One particular gentleman with a VFW cap stops each Soldier as he passes with a handshake and a pat on the back.
Miss… Miss nothing. She is Staff Sergeant Al-Juneid and Miss is nowhere in her lexicon at the moment.
“Welcome home, boys! Welcome home,” he says with a hearty slap and a large smile. He stops at Leila and the smile turns into a restrained grin.
“Miss, thank you for your service. Welcome home,” he says with considerable less gusto than before. Leila returns the grin with a small degree of discomfort. Miss? Is that what her deployment would boil down to? She shakes off the slight and sits down in a chair, counting down the minutes before she can board the bird again and receive a real nap. As she reaches into her duffel bag for a bag of Skittles, she feels a gentle tap on the shoulder. It’s the gentleman from before.
“What’s your name?” He asks kindly.
“Staff Sergeant Al-Juneid,” Leila responds. “Sir.” She adds the last title to amplify the forced decorum and in a concededly desperate attempt to garner respect. Miss… Miss nothing. She is Staff Sergeant Al-Juneid and Miss is nowhere in her lexicon at the moment. Not when others are receiving the archetypal “good ole boy” pat on the back. She refuses to accept “Miss.”
But today, right at that moment, she has had enough.
“All right, Staff Sergeant. My name is Chuck. Listen, I apologize for that… that… eh… glitch back there. See, my grand daughter – her name is Shirley – just signed up for the Army yesterday. I suppose that… I suppose I’m having trouble with that fact. The fact that she might get sent to the sandbox.”
“I’m not your granddaughter,” Leila responds quickly and petulantly. She was worn-out and in no mood to handle senior citizen frailties and emotions. She had enough on her plate already. Furthermore, she was tired of always serving as a general reference point for service members of the perceived genteel gender. Upon meeting her, far too many of her bosses had said without prompting “Y’know… I had a female Soldier/Squad Leader/Platoon Sergeant once. And she was great/amazing/horrible/disastrous.” It was always the same blend of awkward mad libs, and there was never any space to carve out her own path, create a unique first impression. Most days, she resigned herself to the simple fact that she would have to demonstrate her own merits, her own personality, in her own time. But today, right at that moment, she has had enough. She stares at Chuck, wondering how her response would be received. He remains apologetic.
“I know. I’m sorry. It’s certainly a different Army now, isn’t it?” Chuck asks.
“Sir, I just left a war zone. I’m exhausted.”
As the plane touches down at Pope Air Force Base’s Green Ramp, adjacent to Fort Bragg, Leila finally feels tendrils of elation in returning home. She is in American air space, landing on American ground. She is home. For the first time in what feels like ages, she feels completely unified with everyone in the aircraft, her brothers and sisters in arms. When the C-130 finishes taxiing on the runway, First Sergeant Brighi, the Rear Detachment leader comes on board.
“Welcome home, guys!” The group yelps in joy. “All right, listen up, listen up! Shandra Tellers, Sergeant Tellers’ mom, is going to meet you when you get off the plane. Standing to her left is Private First Class Edkins holding a basket of white roses. You will pick up exactly one white rose from Edkins and drop it in the basket held by Mrs. Tellers and express your deepest sympathies in whatever way you feel is appropriate. One team, one fight. Have I made myself clear?”
Eyes already streaked from tears cause her mascara to scurry down her cheeks
The drunken elation quickly sobers. The group exits the plane slowly and somberly, each Soldier carrying a duffle bag on the left shoulder and keeping the right shoulder free to conduct this rather peculiar ritual.
The June North Carolina air feels sticky, already saturated with voracious mosquitos. Humidity had become an unfamiliar acquaintance by this point. In the far distance, as Leila starts walking down the staircase, she can see the crowd of happy family members and friends eager to finally reconnect with their loved ones. She squints her eyes but is not sure if her friends Shavonne and Suzanna are meeting her here. She needs a ride back to her apartment.
Leila reaches into the basket and plucks a perky white rose from PFC Edkins. She’s not sure how much money her unit spent for this dramatic gesture, but she is certain that it is far too much. She takes two steps and sees Shandra Tellers, pale with dyed brown locks, eyes already streaked from tears causing her mascara to scurry down her cheeks.
“I am sorry for your loss,” Leila says with heartfelt sincerity. Shandra is dressed in all black, as if attending a funeral. Leila drops the rose, and it gently hits but does not fall into Shandra’s basket. They both watch the rose tumble on the ground haphazardly out of line. Leila scampers to pick it up and attempts to return and correct the situation, but by the time she returns to Shandra, she is already engaged with Sergeant Kramer and receiving his emotional condolences for her loss. Leila tucks the flower into her cargo pocket and starts walking towards the crowd, wondering how she’ll get home.
• • •
Hsieh, Audrey. “Homecoming and Identity: A Short Story.” Article, “Knowledge & Action,” Humanity in Action, 2015. Humanity in Action, Inc.
- An S2 is the Intelligence Staff Officer for a military unit. For larger units, an S2 Officer in charge may also have other intelligence analysts within his/her shop to provide robust intelligence support. In this story’s example, Lieutenant Boone is the Assistant Intelligence Officer directly reporting to a senior Intelligence Officer, likely a Captain, who reports directly to the unit commander.
- DFAC = Dining Facility. This abbreviation is commonly used in military bases as well as posts overseas.
- An Army Specialist is an E-4, or three pay grades higher than the most junior Private. Army Specialists are traditionally expected to be technical experts within their Specialty in imminent preparation for their promotion to the Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) Corps, a promotion that will place them in direct supervision of Junior Soldiers.
- Civil Affairs soldiers serve as the link between U.S. military forces and the civil populace, and their missions vary from engagements with host-nation civil leadership to leading development projects within an area of operations to boost rapport between the U.S. Forces and the local population.
- As the Senior NCO, Leila has the responsibility for ensuring good order and discipline within her own ranks. This allows her a wide breadth of options for discipline, from administrative counseling to point disciplinary reprimands like asking a junior Soldier to “push” – execute push-ups.
- FOB = Forward Operating Base. A FOB is where a unit headquarters establishes itself during its tenure within a deployed environment (commonly referred to as “forward”).
- MEDEVAC = Medical Evacuation request.
- A few thousand dinars would equal approximately a few U.S. dollars, especially at the 2006 rate.
- In this reference, “team guys” refers to team members from Special Forces Operational Detachment Alpha (ODA), members of the elite Green Beret Special Forces. The ODA is the base component of a Special Forces Battalion, the unit Leila and Captain Bauer’s Civil Affairs Team supported. As the parent unit, the Special Forces Battalion would serve as the Operational Command for CAT 521, providing authority for select missions.
- EOD = Explosives Ordnance Team. EOD service members are responsible for mitigating the risks of explosive hazards within a predetermined area.