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.
The Warrior Transition Unit is one of 27 such facilities set up across the United States for wounded, ill, or injured soldiers who will need at least six months of rehabilitation and whose cases require complex medical management. Soldiers who are assigned to these units are told their only mission is to heal. Once they do—if they do—they are reassigned to a new unit; otherwise, they might be medically retired. It's hard for soldiers here not to feel like broken pieces of machinery: If I can be fixed, I'm still valuable. If not, I'm useless and a replacement will be found for me. And because they're soldiers, they understand. What good are they if they cannot fight? Lead platoons? Carry battle gear? Keep the others from getting their heads blown off? But understanding doesn't change the feeling of uselessness and abandonment. "Your value," Vikki says, "is completely gone."
The mission of the 89th MP Brigade was to train and offer support to Iraqi police. Vikki was assigned to headquarters company and quickly became a jack-of-all-trades, delivering chow and bottled water, loading and unloading supplies and humping them back and forth across the base, standing guard duty, or escorting the sergeant major outside the wire as part of a 12- to 14-member security squad. "Your job is whatever the army wants it to be," she says, as every grunt soon finds out. "But basically I was helping them do a lot of manual labor. I was the bitch."
Shortly after Christmas 2006, when the mess hall was still garlanded in red, green, and gold, Vikki was unloading training supplies, tables, and chairs from the back of a cargo truck when she heard the whoosh of incoming mortar directly overhead. The bed of the truck where she was standing was five feet off the ground. She was near the tailgate, facing the turret when the mortar landed with a boom. The truck shot forward, and Vikki flew back, as though someone had given her a hard shove. Her left foot was caught in a cargo strap; her body twisted as she flew. She did a flip and landed on her feet, standing straight up—but immediately, her left leg buckled backward at the knee and she collapsed. She jumped up, ready to run for her life, but her leg wouldn't hold her and she fell again. Next thing she knew, someone had grabbed her by the collar and was dragging her swiftly across the ground, her face scuffing the dirt.
Later, when she could no longer deal with the pain, Vikki was helicoptered to a combat support hospital in the Green Zone. With no MRI machine available, the doctors told her she had tendinitis and sent her on her way with Motrin and a prescription for physical therapy. No one guessed that an arthroscopy performed in Texas more than a year later would reveal one ligament flapping loose and the cartilage underneath her kneecap torn to shreds. Or that after the doctors at Brooke Army Medical Center repaired her ACL and performed a meniscus transplant, the pain in Vikki's left foot and leg would be so intense that it felt like "someone was pouring boiling water over it." The Stateside doctors would tell her she had sustained nerve damage, most likely from excessive wear and tear, and also from one of the knee surgeries. They would surgically implant a spinal cord stimulator to send electric impulses to her spine in the hopes of blocking the pain signals. A wire would be threaded into the center of her spinal cord, a pulse generator battery placed under the skin of her upper buttocks, and she would be given a remote control device to regulate the pulses. All that would come later, though. For now she had tendinitis. And supplies that still needed to be ferried across the base.
I first meet Vikki at the Warrior and Family Support Center at Fort Sam Houston, where signs announce that we're in a "no hat no salute" area. In other words, put rank and formality aside; this is "home," or at least homey. A wide front porch holds rocking chairs and planters of petunias, coneflowers, and daisies. Inside, the sunlit main room is filled with armchairs and couches. Vikki goes into the kitchen to grab some bottles of water while I wait on a cowhide-covered ottoman in front of a giant stone fireplace as soldiers walk past, some with one or two limbs missing, one with a burned head, the fleshy parts of his left ear and his nose gone.
Vikki's right hip hitches up with each step to accommodate the left leg, which cannot completely straighten. Sometimes she thinks people are looking at her, and sometimes they are. Vikki's physical therapist has told her to use a cane, but she won't. "I had four months in a wheelchair, two months on crutches, and I'm not gonna do it anymore. There's nothing wrong with the way I walk. I told them to stick their cane up their asses," she says conversationally.
Vikki gives me a tour of the center, showing me the computer room and then her favorite space, the game room, which is dark except for the glow of TV screens. Four soldiers are playing video games, and two others seem to be sleeping in the black leather armchairs; a good place to fall out, perhaps the only place they can, for there are other soldiers nearby.
On the base we visit one of the Fisher Houses, where the families of wounded soldiers can stay for free, and then go to the pharmacy to pick up one of her seven prescriptions, which include the sleep aid Lunesta; the antidepressant Celexa, prescribed for post-traumatic stress disorder; propranolol, a blood pressure drug used to prevent nightmares in cases of PTSD; and Tegretol, for pain due to nerve damage. But after two hours of being out and about, she grows tired. Her leg aches, there are too many people, the sun is too bright, she is fraying around the edges, she can feel a migraine coming on. We call it a day and she heads 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."
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