The Long Road Home
The living room has three couches, a big-screen TV, and a Dallas Cowboys poster on the wall. Vikki's bedroom is so tumbled about with cast-off clothes that there are no sharp angles anymore. Her laptop, sitting on the bedside table, is covered with stickers, signs written in both Arabic and English saying "Danger! Stay back, passing is not allowed, American convoy ahead, no civilian traffic beyond this point, stop and turn around", and a smiley face with a bullet hole in its forehead, a splat of blood, and the words "Have a nice day...Someplace else". An IV bag hangs from the wall from when Barnaby was deathly ill with parvovirus. Vikki gave him fluids subcutaneously four times a day, fed him antibiotics, held him and said, "Don't leave me, Daddy, I need you," which brought him back around.
Vikki's house is her fortress and hideaway. When the migraines come, she lies on her belly on the living room floor, her face on an ice pack, and the two dogs clamber onto her back and roost there until the headache eases. When she's agitated and cannot bear to think, she plays the latest Resident Evil. She can sit there hunched in her chair killing zombies for hours—all day if that's how long it takes for her mind to clear and for calm to descend. The central air is set at a chilly 65 degrees to stave off migraines and night terrors. A nine-millimeter pistol is tucked under the pillow on her bed.
Pre-Iraq Vikki was always jumping up and going somewhere—the movies, a restaurant, a bar. Post-Iraq Vikki hardly ever wants to leave the house. Although being transferred to Fort Sam was "the best thing that ever happened to me," she says, because it meant getting medical care and being home with family and friends, it's hard to be on a base where "the wounded are a dime a dozen"; every missing leg and shiny skin graft brings the whole war home—a visceral memory of the blast, its physical shock wave and deafening roar, the blood, the shouts. "I hate hearing about something bad happening to another soldier," she says. "To look into the eyes of someone who's probably been over there is actually frightening. It's like a whole other experience of pain for me."
Vikki shares her house with Karen and Raquel. Karen is a civilian paramedic; Vikki met her while both were working for the ambulance company. They trade insults with abandon and seem to enjoy shouting at each other, yet their friendship is solid and deep. Raquel, younger than the other two by ten years, is "the sensitive one," as both Vikki and Raquel herself say, and Vikki has to remember not to be gruff with her. Raquel makes sure Vikki doesn't forget to take her meds or take them twice.
None of her friends ask Vikki any questions about Iraq, and when she has nightmares and Raquel and Karen hear her yelling from the bedroom, they never try to wake her. Sometimes, frankly, Raquel is a little scared of her. She can't forget the day Vikki sat up from the couch, looked straight at her and said, "Okay, staff sergeant. Olmo's going to go and replenish the ammo." Raquel left the house and wouldn't return until she found a friend to go in with her. Vikki remembers none of it.
Out in the carport, Vikki shows me her scars: moon white, puckery lines that run vertically along her spine and horizontally along the top of her right buttocks. The box that lies right underneath the skin is the size of a BlackBerry. She's gained about 50 pounds since her injury, which makes her unhappy. "I can't wear my uniform and be proud of myself and hold my head up high because I feel like I don't deserve it," she says. "The way I look, I have no business wearing the uniform."
As a kid she was always getting into fights, always climbing trees. The two-inch scar under her ribs came from falling out of an Arizona ash in her parents' front yard. All through high school, she swam and played water polo and softball. When she joined the reserves at 19, basic training was a breeze. She hated to run, but she was in the army, so she did—three miles, six, whatever they ordered up for the day. "I could keep up with anybody. Sure enough, buddy. Keep up with the longest-legged girl there. I could do it because I was light, just bing! bing! bing! and I was gone." She lifted weights, she bicycled, she ran with her dogs. Now she's been told she won't ever run or play hoops again. She can't lift heavy things because she might tear the wires out of her spinal column.
"There are things I can't do anymore, and I don't know how to fix it, how to function this way. It's hard for me to accept," she says. "And I'm not trying to sound unappreciative of the things that I can do. I can breathe. I can walk. I can see, I can hear. I can communicate. I'm very, very blessed. But you miss those things."
Because of her physical limitations, she has been deemed nondeployable. When she was given the news, "it just ripped my heart out of my chest," she says. "It's like having your heart broken by a lover."
Some afternoons Vikki comes home from the base and rides her stationary bike, but she feels she isn't putting her all into it, not gung ho like she used to be. When I ask her why that is, she says, "Because I'm upset, I'm in pain, I'm mad, I'm disappointed, angry. I feel like I've been given up on...." Tears slip from under her sunglasses and slide down her face. "Like they just gave up on me. Said the hell with it, go fend for yourself."
Camp Victory, she says, "was like a little city. Little trailer parks, little buildings made out of aluminum siding...and some palaces." The latter include Saddam Hussein's colonnaded, marbled, and chandeliered Al Faw Palace, now headquarters to the U.S. military in Iraq, and many smaller palaces surrounded by man-made lakes, only a few miles from the Baghdad airport. The area where Vikki was housed—a section called Dodge City North—was nothing but rows of dirty white aluminum trailers set behind concrete barriers.
After she returned from the hospital in the Green Zone, she started therapy, but it hurt—more than it should, Vikki was sure. As an athlete and a soldier, she had experienced the various aches and pains that come from pulled and strained muscles, and this was different. The knee had swollen to the size of a grapefruit. The Motrin didn't touch the pain, even when she tripled the dose. The pills might as well have been M&Ms. She went to the base clinic and was told, "Well, it's a sprain; it's gonna hurt," and advised to ice it and keep taking Motrin. As days and then weeks went by, the pain blossomed. She couldn't sit down or get back up again without pain, and then it hurt even to walk, like someone had driven a nail under her kneecap and with every step she took, that nail was hit with a hammer. The sensation made her face clench and her eyes water. She went back a third time to the clinic, a fourth, a fifth, and with every visit her command grew more and more impatient with her. "They thought I was a pussy and that I needed to just shut up and toughen up and take it."