Women Serving in the Armed Forces
Sgt. First Class Juanita Wilson knows the personal sacrifice of fighting a war all too well. Seven months into her tour, the mother of two became the first American mother to lose a limb in Iraq. "Right outside of Baghdad, my convoy was hit by an improvised explosive device," she says. "I looked down and realized that there was no left hand there."
Juanita didn't realize the limitations of her injury until a month later—her daughter Kenyah had simply asked for a sandwich. "For the first time I had to say to my kid that, 'No, Kenyah, I can't fix you a sandwich,'" she says. "I don't think I'll ever forget that day because it was the most painful day to me"
Part of that, Juanita says, was putting on a brave face for everyone around her. "As soon as I came home, immediately it was, 'Don't worry about me.' Get to my role as a mother. I didn't want my kids to worry about me. [People would ask,] 'How are you today, Juanita?' [I'd say,] 'I'm wonderful.' And that's just how I go through the day."
But, in reality, Juanita says she is still haunted by her experience. "Four years later, [the explosion feels] just like yesterday. I have nightmares. I have flashbacks my truck's going to blow up," Juanita says.
"Almost everything seems like it's going to end in disaster. And anxiety, how I'm just going to lose it. My soul is going to be gone, it's going to be obliterated, it's going to blow up."
No matter what, Juanita says she's trying to see the good in her situation and uses a passage in scripture to help cope. "It says that 'All things work together for the good of them that love the Lord,'" she says. And Juanita says she does feel fortunate—especially when she hears stories of what other soldiers have experienced. "I don't even feel worthy to complain, because I feel like I was one of the lucky ones."
So what's next for Juanita? Despite losing a limb, Juanita has reenlisted for two very important reasons—her daughters. "I want my two girls to know that there is no limit in life. I want them to see me as a strong mother who's stood for things that are right, who has worked hard, who's led a life that they can look back on and say: 'You know what? My mother wanted the best for me. My mother served her country,'" Juanita says. "Because my daughter, 10 years old, tells me, 'Mommy, I'm going to be an Army doctor,' because she feels like I received wonderful care. I love the military."
See what a typical day is like for Takila.
Takila is serving her second tour in Iraq—but it's her first time as a single mother. "I left my daughter. She's 2. I keep [pictures of her] on my person right here in my pocket at all times," Takila says. "So when I just need to look at something and cheer myself up, I just pull them out."
Her personal living quarters aren't large, but they're big enough to hold a bed, a dresser with two drawers and a wall locker. There are also thick walls around where the soldiers sleeping quarters to protect against things like mortar rounds and rockets. "I am thankful that we are actually inside of a building now," she says. "The first time I deployed to Iraq, we were living in tents and there was up to 20, 30 females. So this is a big improvement."
When Ty first arrived in Iraq, she says she was concerned with her own safety. Now, on her third deployment, Ty says she sees big improvments. "People are out in the market buying food, kids are playing, kids are going to school," Ty says.
For the most part, Yursala says the challenges facing men and women in Iraq are the same, but she says she has to work a little harder because of her stature. "Being 4'11" and I don't weigh as much—I only weigh 94 pounds—so I mostly struggle with carrying all the gear."
After becoming so used to Army life, Takila says it takes some time to adjust to civilian life after a tour. "When we're home after leave, you have to find different ways besides a ponytail for your hair," she says. "We're constantly in combat boots most of the time, and once I'm home, I have to learn how to walk in heels again, and your makeup, jewelry—going from dog tags to actual real jewelry—so you have to get a little dressy."
We've all seen the news reports, but what to do these women really want us to know about life in Iraq? "I'd like America to know that regardless of the political situation back home or any policies that we're experiencing, the men and women in the Armed Forces around the world are serving the country every day trying to do our best and trying to represent the country in a dignified and the best way possible," Katy says. "I know a lot of times the news tends to show the negative stories, but there is great progress being made over here."
Takila agrees. "We are doing great things—providing fresh water, electricity, better homes and better security," she says. "So there's a lot of great things happening while we're over here."
© U.S. Air Force photo
Recalling her days on active duty, Stacy says she had to be prepared at all times. "You never know when situations are going to go bad," Stacy says. "And there have been several times where I had to put down the camera and put up the gun."
Although her job isn't to fight in combat, Stacy says she's been forever changed by what she's seen through her lens. "I'm still dealing with the issues of the possibility of having taken somebody's life or seeing other lives taken," she says. "It changes you, and you become somebody else when you're there. It's a defense mechanism."
Returning to regular life hasn't been easy, Stacy says. Even though her husband is also in the military, she finds it difficult to share her experiences with him. "It's still hard to articulate the things that you've been through, especially things that are so complicated," she says. "There's so many things he doesn't know that happened out there yet that I'm still working through to be able to share with him."
Stacy says no one who goes into battle comes back the same and urges the families of returning soldiers to be patient. "Like myself, I'm sure it's the same for other soldiers, just to have that support and that guidance and maybe a step in the right direction, whether it's counseling or just, 'Hey, whenever you want to talk, I'm here,'" she says.
See Stacy's photos from the front lines in Iraq.