Photo: Julian Dufort
Victoria Olmo,a 35-year-old army specialist known to her friends as Vikki or just plain Vic, is sweating in a lounge chair on a cement slab under a carport, sheltered from the burning Texas sun but not the breezeless Texas heat. A sprinkler spritzes a patch of the backyard lawn; her two small dogs, tongues lolling, are collapsed at her feet. She's got one hand wrapped around a perspiring Corona, the other resting on her bad leg, which is slightly bent at the knee. "That's a different kind of heat over there," she says. "Nothing like this. This is vacation heat. Qatar—that was a humid, heavy heat. Imagine putting a blanket in the oven and throwing it over you. Now, Iraq, it was more a dry heat. There was always this powdery dust on the ground. You kick it and it was like kicking a keg of baby powder."
Vikki is wearing checked cargo shorts and a sleeveless black T-shirt that reads "Camp Victory", the base in Iraq where she was stationed for 15 months, from August 2006 to November 2007. Her black hair is cut short; deep brown eyes are hidden by sunglasses. Her face is small and lively with a bow-shaped upper lip, apple cheeks, and a wide nose. There is something mischievous in her expression and childlike about her voice. She's 5'3"; her arms are covered with tattoos.
When Vikki first arrived home from Iraq, a good friend told her she had changed so completely it was like "meeting someone I don't know, like being introduced to someone else with your face."
"You used to be my hero," her friend told her.
That sentence rolls around and around in Vikki's mind when she's feeling bad. "I can't forget her words: 'You used to be my hero.' I don't know what she meant by that...whatever it was about me before that I did not have anymore."
"Any ideas?" I ask as we sit in her backyard, fat black flies crawling inside empty Corona bottles, the sprinkler tinkling on the hot grass.
"My confidence. My wild spark that I always had," she says, her brow furrowed. "That kid is gone. And I don't know how to react to that, you know? Because all I ever knew was being that kid."
When she removes her sunglasses, a world of wary hurt has pooled in her eyes. She hates to cry. "I've already shed tears in front of you," she says. "And that's already enough weakness to make me feel stupid."
Until recently, the transforming and traumatizing experience of soldiering belonged almost entirely to men and boys. Though women have served officially and unofficially in every American war, it wasn't until Iraq and Afghanistan that they were exposed to combat in such vast numbers: Vikki is one of 247,000 female troops who have served in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. One tends to forget there are so many. Or remembers only when some appalling story emerges about the staggering number who have been sexually assaulted by their brothers-in-arms. But female soldiers have driven fuel trucks and ordered supplies; manned machine gun turrets; cleaned wounds; guarded prisoners; followed orders from good commanders and lousy ones; barked orders, too, some of them; listened for the whistling sound of incoming; hit the dirt; threatened the local populace with the points of their weapons; kicked down doors; scanned rooftops and bridges for snipers; sat with their backs to the wall; sweated; cursed; grumbled; joked; and soldiered on. More than 600 have been wounded in combat, more than 120 have been killed, and tens of thousands suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Yet when they come home they seem to disappear. Every female vet will tell you that she can slap an "Iraq Campaign Veteran" bumper sticker on her truck, tattoo the American flag on her right biceps, and hang military citations from the living room walls, but civilians will assume she's driving her boyfriend's vehicle, honoring her brother's service, or living with her husband's war mementos. It's not the hardest thing a female vet has to live with, but it stings.
Sixteen years ago, fresh out of high school and inspired by her oldest brother, who was a marine, Victoria Olmo joined the army reserves and was trained as a food service specialist. She was the youngest of six kids, the late-in-life, unexpected blessing, precocious, cuddled and coddled, dearly loved by her much older siblings. The teenager who took the oath of enlistment was a high-spirited, athletic girl, self-assured, even a bit cocky but with a wide-open heart and a deep streak of loyalty—to friends and family, to her hometown of San Antonio, to Texas, to her country. She and her fellow reservists spent weekends cleaning their weapons and learning how to fix generators; never once did she see the inside of a kitchen. It was not until she had finished her four-year contract and gone to a local community college to train as an emergency medical technician that Vikki found her calling. First working for an ambulance service in San Antonio, running IV lines and intubating patients, and then in the emergency room of Metropolitan Methodist Hospital, Vikki felt like she had landed feetfirst on the road she was meant to travel. She was cool and quick under pressure, unbothered by blood, happiest when she was rushing to the aid of other people. The work didn't pay much, but "it fed my soul," she says.
She reenlisted in the reserves in 2005, hoping to someday work as a medic, and then decided to go on active duty, knowing she would be sent to Iraq. She was a soldier, and soldiers go off to war. Deployment into a combat zone would help advance her military career. She would receive danger pay—which she'd give to her parents, who were struggling to cover the cost of their medications. And underneath those considerations, there was another motive. Her siblings, all married now and with kids of their own, may have adored their little sister, but they also thought she was spoiled. For Vikki, what better rebuttal than jumping into the army, sending money to her mom and dad and then heading off into the combat zone? Sure enough, in August 2006, she found herself picking up her automatic weapon, shouldering 90 pounds of battle gear, and boarding a plane with the 89th Military Police Brigade bound for Camp Victory, Iraq.