She began to see a difference in the way her peers treated her, too. Nothing direct, she says, but "you can tell when someone's had a change of heart about you." Friends became less friendly, a certain respect was quietly withdrawn. Many of the officers in her command were openly dismissive, as though—with months left to go on their tour— they'd already labeled and boxed her up and shunted her aside. The pain, however, remained Vikki's steady companion. It kept her from sleeping, but she still had to do her job. She ploughed through each day, so tired she felt as if she were hung over. She got into fistfights with other soldiers and one day cussed out her sergeant, who sent her to the Combat Stress clinic, where they told her she was...stressed. Gave her an antidepressant and sleep medication and sent her on her way.
"Nobody would listen to me, and I had no control over what was going on," she says, her voice twisted between tears and anger. "Nothing I said or did—unless I shot myself—was anybody going to listen to. What would you do if you were trapped in a box with your feet on fire and you couldn't move them and you would scream and yell and you would beat the walls and you had a gun? You have a gun! You can fix it. You don't have to be in any more pain. You can be fine. And you're just trapped in there and there's people walking around kicking the box and laughing at you."
But she wasn't going to shoot herself. She wouldn't do that to her family. So she marched on, stopped complaining about the pain, stopped visiting the clinic, stopped struggling and hoping altogether. The light went out of her eyes. "I've seen some ugly, ugly things," Vikki says. "Dead bodies. People blown up. Things that give me nightmares, things I didn't want to see. But nothing has messed me up the way that other people can emotionally tear you apart. I compare it to being raped—something that was precious to me was taken away." When I ask her what the precious thing was, thinking she's going to say her ability to trust, she says, "My integrity—just ripped out of me, because the whole time I was there, nobody believed me. They thought I was being lazy. They thought I didn't want to do the job. They thought I couldn't take it, that I was weak. But I tried so goddamn hard! Anybody else that had been there with that kind of pain couldn't have done what I did and fought as hard as I did to take that for so long."
After she was injured, Vikki had nearly a year of deployment left, but by the spring of 2007 she was soldiering from within a well of loneliness. There was no longer the buffer of camaraderie, being one in a family of soldiers, nor the supporting sense of being valuable to her command. She moved through Iraq without skin, without anything to cushion the blows.
When the 89th returned to Fort Hood, Vikki's parents were there to greet her. Her mother cried because her daughter was safe and because she looked so sad.
Vikki was sent to a civilian hospital for an MRI. Her injury had gone untreated for so long that in addition to everything else, she had developed osteoarthritis in both knees. Vikki says one radiologist asked the Fort Hood doctor, "Is this patient still walking?" That doctor told Vikki, "You should have been sent home the day you were injured."
During her time in Iraq, Vikki made videos, and on one of my last days in San Antonio she shows me two of them on her laptop as we sit in her living room. In the first, she's helicoptering over Baghdad as she's being transported from Camp Victory to the combat support hospital in the Green Zone. The noise is deafening, an unceasing clatter accompanied by a kind of metallic screeching. The camera continually pans from one door gunner to the other and then to the city rolling by below. Vikki is injured, but at this point she's still thinking they're going to fix her, and so the expression on her face as she turns the camera to herself is unabashedly delighted. She soundlessly mouths a word to the camera: Baghdad. Her eyebrows lift; the curl of her smile suggests someone not only pleased with life but pleased with herself.
The next video was taken seven to eight months after her injury. She is standing at the edge of a man-made lake behind one of Saddam's palaces, filming a turtle while she feeds it pieces of chicken. The turtle, surrounded by aggressive fish, has to stretch its neck to reach the food. Vikki and the turtle work in concert to keep the food away from the fish. "You're a little fatty," she says softly. "Mister Pig. You're not a turtle, you're a piggy." The video goes on for minutes. There is no one there, just she and the turtle. There is something inexpressibly lonely about it.
"The sad thing is I would do it all over again a million times if I had to because I didn't do it for the military. I got into the army for my family, for my country, and because it was the right thing to do," Vikki tells me. We are talking about her future. Although she is no longer deployable, she can stay in the army if she wishes. But she didn't sign up to be a desk jockey, a pencil pusher. She wants to be essential. So now that the army doctors have done what they can, she's waiting to be medically retired from the service. The process can take a year.
Her experience in Iraq has caused her to lose trust in authority, which has led her to the decision to start her own business: no bosses. She wants to combine her two great passions—animals and emergency medicine—and operate an animal ambulance service in San Antonio. She and Karen will be partners in the venture, and she's figuring out what resources and money she will need. "I don't care if I'm living in a shack—I want my business. I know that once I get it on its feet, I can be successful. I can. I know it. There's no doubt in my mind I can make this work." The warm rush of her voice seems to excite Barnaby and Betty, who begin to yap and chase each other around the lawn.
She tells me she knows she will never be the same person she was before Iraq. A sadness enters her voice. For a long time, she thought she might be able to recover what she'd lost, but the past kept drifting further away. She has seen too much cruelty, she says, and then with her face as still as a stone, she begins to describe coming across dead Iraqi civilians while escorting the sergeant major. "You would see men with their penises chopped off, lying there naked in the middle of the street," she says. The MPs she was traveling with would stop and photograph the scene for intelligence purposes and then notify the Iraqi police so they could retrieve the bodies. "You would see dead kids, dead women, dead boys, dead girls, mutilated. A girl would get raped, and they would kill her because she was dirty. I saw females who were killed; they said one of them was pregnant." When I ask Vikki how they killed that woman, the pregnant one, she sighs. "I think they shot her," she says quietly.
There is a long pause, and when she speaks again, barely above a whisper, her voice sounds clotted with suppressed tears. "It's just so ugly, so horrible, the things people do to each other." And still there are sights she won't describe to me, secrets, she says, she will take to her grave. She is protective that way. She doesn't want people to share her knowledge, afraid they'll lose faith in humanity. "For a while I was like: There is no God. There can't be a God. And then I thought, You know what? There is a God. He gave us the sense to make choices. Yes, evil exists. Yes, we can get as evil as we want, but we have to learn to love him. We have to choose to love him."
This new morality, built not on a vision of a benevolent world but a cruel one where we can still choose to be good, seems to have given her a foothold. And days of dredging up her memories, detailing them, examining them, sometimes crying, sometimes shutting everything down again and going off to kill zombies, have given her some peace of mind. "I feel like it's not gripping me as hard, it's letting go a little," she says. I ask if she sees herself getting stronger and happier as the months and years go by.
"I am. I will," she says firmly, like she's giving one of us a pep talk. "As much as I've been beaten down and torn up emotionally, my soul is still alive. A little beat up, but..." Then she smiles. She's wearing her sunglasses, so I can't see if the smile has made it to her eyes.
Next: One woman's story of friendship, love, and war