“In 2003, I was a teacher at Columbia Middle School teaching special education students, when I received the call at the end of the day that I had to report to Grayling, the next day!” Lieutenant, as she will be referred to in this article, said she had no idea what was about to happen next.
“I just thought I was being called up because we were on alert. So, I go home, don’t even know where to start. Shut and lock my door, and go to my parents’ house. I told them I got called and needed to get a hold of the commander or someone. I don’t know what’s going on. I need some answers. Well, my Dad, who had served in Kuwait in 1990, says, “You better look at the paper, I don’t think you’re on alert.”
I said, “Where’s the paper?” I look at it and there’s a picture of the Guard (Michigan National Guard) on the front cover and it says, “They’ve Been Activated.” That’s when my Mom started crying and said, “They can’t do this.” My Dad is in the rocking chair saying, “Yes, they can.”
And that was the start of a very long journey for Lieutenant, a female officer for the Michigan National Guard. A journey that started with a one day notice of deployment, which led to meeting her future husband, Hollywood (His nickname in the service that will also be used for today’s interview.) A combined three deployments later, life threatening situations, and now having four children, Lieutenant and Hollywood sit down with me to share with the public what a real life deployment looked like, being on the front lines, and some of the first to enter Iraq to topple the Saddam regime.
As we sit down for the interview, I am suddenly struck with the thought that, the random stranger’s we may bump into on any given day, like this unassuming couple, could have performed extraordinary and selfless acts of bravery to protect us, and we don’t even know it. That’s why it’s important to tell their stories, and just as important, readers take the time to listen or read. They gave years of their lives for us, we can give them minutes of ours.
Jamie Hope (JH): So, you got the call a day before Lieutenant (LT) got hers?
Hollywood: Yeah. I was working in Corrections in the yard and my boss said, “You need to report to the control center ASAP,” I thought, “Oh crap, did I do something wrong?”
Lieutenant (LT): But he had raised his hand. He had volunteered (put his name of the list to go voluntarily if needed,) so he knew it was a possibility.
Hollywood: The unit that deployed, I had been in about two years. About 2000/2001, before the towers fell. So Gabe, a guy from my unit says, “Let’s volunteer.” Later on, I found out he was a family friend of LT’s, even though I hadn’t met her yet. But, it was his idea and I said, “All right, sounds good to me. I’m ready to go.”
JH: So, they will basically take those who volunteer first? I mean, obviously unless they don’t have someone who will fit that billet or slot that can’t be filled, but they will try to fill those first?
Hollywood: Yeah, pretty much.
LT: They are much better at it now. Back in ’03, they didn’t handle it well. Now, they usually tell you a year before, and you have to do all this training, and you get all the best people to fill those slots and it works much better than trying to do it like this. Like, “We only have 150 people and we need 172, how are we going to do it?” So, they would just start calling and drop kicking people and say we need you here now, back then.
Hollywood: So when I get there, I’m looking for Gabe. What I didn’t know was, sometime between when we had signed up to volunteer together, and I got called, he had taken his name off of the list and didn’t tell me.
JH: (Laughing) Are you serious? You must’ve been furious.
Hollywood: What’s even crazier is a lot of time had passed and I was at her house (LT)—
JH: Post deployment?
Hollywood: Yeah. He’s like, “Hey, what’s going on?” I’m like, “What’s going on? Where’ve you been? I’ve been waiting for you to show up now for a couple of years.”
JH: That’s crazy. So he never deployed?
JH: LT, you said your Mom was crying, how did your Dad take it, since he was military?
LT: He was calm. I originally signed up in 1990, just before Saddam invaded Kuwait. My Dad went and missed my senior year, but because I was still in high school I didn’t deploy. I mean, before we deployed he told me he loved me, gave me a hug, told me to do my best, and keep your head on straight.
Hollywood: Even when I’m talking to him today (LT’s Dad) when we’re hanging out in the woodshop, he’ll talk and I think sometimes he doesn’t realize the difference between when he went there, and when we went there.
JH: So, he was probably thinking you were safer than what you were, because it was a safer environment when he deployed in 1990?
LT: Yeah, I mean, we supported the main push to go in there.
JH: So, how long were you there before they found Saddam?
LT: We got dropped into Kuwait around April 1st (2003).
Hollywood: They found him around Christmas of that year.
JH: So, since you were the first, you really had no idea what you were walking into then?
LT: We didn’t even have a map. We were laughing—
Hollywood: We’d go out on convoys, well, she has it all written down from the time we got there, these books.
LT pulls out several journals, meticulously detailed.
JH: Really? That’s great you kept all of that information.
She pulls out maps that show how difficult their navigation would be.
LT: They would show us, you need to go here. But there are no roads to know where you’re going. You just know which direction, like north.
JH: Can I take a picture of these maps to include for our readers?
Hollywood: Yes, because those places don’t exist anymore.
LT: This is Mosul. (You’re talking about two different countries – Mosul is in Iraq and Camp Virginia, Pennsylvania are both in Kuwait… We emptied the port of Kuwait first and then pushed out the units in Kuwait into camps in Iraq)
JH: Camp Virginia? (The map says Camp Virginia)
LT: That’s gone now. But when we got there we didn’t even have these maps. Not even for the lead truck.
Hollywood: We’d drive and knew we were heading in that direction (He points his finger in a random direction.)
LT: Go there, and then do this. Those were our directions.
JH: That is insane. So what were you doing? What was your main objective?
LT: So, units would get dropped and we’d basically have to go find them and bring supplies.
JH: It’s so interesting listening to you referring to all of these places as Camp Virginia, Pennsylvania etc. because we are used to hearing the names like Mosul and such. But I guess these are the names you guys gave your camps when you were there.
LT points at the map.
LT: So that was in Kuwait still.
JH: This was obviously a quick activation. Did they have plans going in? Or was it just ad hoc and we are going to drop you there, go in, and figure it out as we go?
LT: There was no plan, it was the Wild West cowboy show going in. If you could think it, you could pretty much do it. I mean, there were over 100,000 troops dropped in Kuwait so it was really crazy and unorganized and trying to find your equipment and stuff.
JH: But you were operating under the –
Hollywood: We were operating under ‘Rules of Engagement.’ But back then, it still was a lot different than now.
LT: I was there in the very beginning when we went in under Bush in ‘03, and I was also there in ’11 in the end when Obama wanted us out, and it was just drag and drop, and get out of there. We did retrograde operations in Kuwait, and also in Afghanistan. At Bagram Airbase, so I got to see all of the crappiest in the beginning and at the tail end.
JH: That is a very unique position to be in, just from a historical standpoint. I cannot even begin to imagine what that was like, and what the two of you must’ve seen.
Hollywood: Yeah, I worked a lot with these guys (Iraqi’s) and talked one on one with them. Regardless of what people think of going in, of what people think of the war, I broke bread with these guys. And some of the stories they told me—one of the guys that was over there was a nuclear engineer and he was a school teacher on top of that, under Saddam. He said, “I would have to face every day with, when I get home, my family might not be there. You just never knew. Come back, walk in, and your family is no longer there.”
LT: And I think he made just as much money working for us as he did when he was an engineer for Saddam if I remember right.
JH: So you saw firsthand what these people went through under Hussein.
The compassionate look on Hollywood’s face says it all.
JH: Okay, you said you did transportation operations. What did that entail?
LT pulls out a detailed journal to use as an example.
LT: So, when you look at something, we’d write out who’s on each mission. So, on April the 4th we had 9 PLS’s from SPOD to here. Sometimes, we’d bring water, unit equipment, ammunition or other supplies.
Hollywood: Initially, we’d transport supplies and equipment from Kuwait into Iraq.
JH: What was that like going into a place like that? What was the danger level at this point? I feel like there are a generation of Americans that need to hear this story, because, we are stuck in the post Saddam era, and people don’t realize what it was like when he was still in power. Iraq is a mess now, I mean, we are the best military in the world, but Saddam was still in power, so what was the danger level since they still had an intact military?
LT: For each convoy we had an intelligence briefing so we knew what the threat level was, what had went on recently, so then you took it and applied it to where you were going and took it back and shared it with the rest of your group. We talked about what the enemy was doing, like trying to string wires high above the road to try and behead the gunners.
JH: Geez…at this point would you say, not that it was safer, but with the IED’s and all that, were they a lot less in the beginning because they weren’t prepared for us to be there?
Hollywood: They weren’t as prevalent in the beginning as they became. They kind of ran and scattered at first.
LT: But by end of summer, late fall, it really kicked up.
JH: So, they got their act together and started going more on the offense?
LT: Yes. Then, right around then, we actually did a whole unit move from Anaconda where we were staying, and our unit was told at the end of August, yup, you guys are going home. Then, a couple of months later, they told us that they were sending us back to Anaconda and told us, nope, you guys are staying.
JH: I cannot even imagine what that felt like, to think you’re going home and then be told that.
Hollywood: It was horrible. A bad day.
LT: Then we heard about the trans unit that got to home and they hadn’t been there as long as us, and they were active duty.
JH: So, was it almost like they said, “They’ve been here so long and have done such a good job and know more, we’ll just keep them here and send the newer unit home?”
Hollywood: Everyone looked at active duty like, big bad active duty. But, at the time the Guard was the one doing all of the work. The Guard is full of mechanics, electricians, skilled labor and people like that.
Hollywood: We were going through those books of hers last night and started remembering things we’d forgot. And I’m like, you don’t have my name in here hardly anywhere. So then I spotted it and –
JH: Let me guess, you were in the discipline section, right? (Everyone laughs)
Hollywood: Probably. She had me under Hollywood.
JH: Knowing you guys were going to be interviewed, did this dredge up a lot of feelings from the past or is it always there?
LT: You know, there’s good stuff and there’s bad stuff. Like, I open this book up to the first page, that’s what you’ve got (She points to a name,) a medic’s name, and he died three weeks in.
LT: We were in Wisconsin before we deployed, and kids sent us letters for Valentine’s Day. They got to us late, and the squad leader handed them out. To this day I will not open a letter from a kid that they make for us, because I’m scared death of them. Because, the medic’s letter said, “Thank you for dying for our country.”
Hollywood: We all laughed when he got it and joked around because he was the only one to get a letter like that.
JH: The medic was the one who died?
LT: Yeah. He ended up dying several weeks later. The company learned a lot from that accident too.
JH: So it was an accident? You felt it could have been prevented?
LT: Oh, it could have been prevented.
Hollywood: That’s what’s hard about it. Because I was one of the first to get to him.
LT: So, they were driving in Kuwait down this road, which is really not a road, because they don’t really have many actual roads there. They were in the desert, and were facing the sun, and the Kuwaiti’s don’t really abide by any kind of laws, so they’re going on six other random roads all going from east to west and kicking up dust everywhere. So, they went over this huge hill and the lead truck had obviously slowed down for whatever reason, but nobody knew it, and the convoy was going ‘balls to the wall’, and faster than they should have. The medic was driving and hit the back end of the truck in front of him which crumpled on impact.
Hollywood: We were on a two radio, and I was trying to tell them to slow down because I was in a truck back further and we couldn’t see anybody. But, they couldn’t hear me. I was getting pretty mad at this point. And the next thing I hear over the radio is, “We’ve been hit.”
JH: So, you probably didn’t know what that meant at this point.
Hollywood: No, I didn’t know what that meant. So Ole boy told us all to pull off, and we did almost like a herring bone, the way we all pulled over, stacked. I don’t even know how, I didn’t know what the hell to expect. So, I jumped out of my truck and saw their truck sitting like, right there. When the dust cleared we were so close I didn’t even know how we didn’t hit them. When I come around the corner and seen what I seen, I guess that was the hardest part.
LT: Those trucks had no buffer zone like a lot of cars do, where you have five feet of crunch zone ahead of you. I mean, your feet are right there at the end and the only thing crunching is you. It was a flat nosed truck.
JH: Was there a passenger in the vehicle with the medic?
LT: Yeah, there was.
JH: Did he make it out okay?
Hollywood: I think he broke his arm, wrist-
LT: Back injuries the rest of his deployment.
LT: But he kicked out the windshield and jumped out, had he not done that he would’ve been in the same predicament as the driver was.
JH: Those deaths are the toughest ones. Just, so fast, and it feels like there’s no reason. I’m sorry for his loss.
LT: The air-boys were up above filming the whole thing. They didn’t film the accident but all the drama after the accident.
Hollywood: We tried to get the Blackhawks to land, finally got one to come down. We were trying to-I don’t know what we were trying to do, it was clear he wasn’t going to live. But I was trying to help. In the beginning, he was still alive, yelling at me, “Hollywood get me the F$#& out of this truck.” I don’t know how I even—
JH: So he was still conscious?
Hollywood: It was pure adrenaline. I was trying to help.
LT: It was too much of a loss of blood. He wasn’t getting immediate medical attention he would’ve needed. You needed Jaws of Life to get that truck off him and that wasn’t going to happen. He hit going about 55 mph.
JH: I can’t fathom. My heart goes out for his family, and for your unit. Again, these are the stories that especially college kids—I’m almost 40 but these are the stories the kids that are on college campuses saying they need a safe space need to here. You had no safe space, never knew what was going to happen to you day-to-day, and there really was not a solid plan in place yet for you guys. Even from basic standard living, it must have been tough. Yet, we don’t ever hear of our military complaining. They could learn a thing or two from people like you.
LT: We ended up being there for fifteen months. I remember we were driving through the desert one night and the Kuwaiti’s would dump sewer waste out in random places in the desert. My driver was driving fast, and he’s suddenly like, “There’s a mud puddle!” I’m like, “No, No, No!” And we went through it.
JH: So you drove through a pile of crap?
JH: So, it was all over your truck?
LT: Yeah, and we didn’t have the doors on, either. My driver said, “That wasn’t a good move was it? I’m washing the truck tomorrow aren’t I?” I was like, “Yup.”
JH: Please tell me you didn’t get covered in it.
LT: I don’t remember getting a lot on me.
JH: A lot? Most civilians would get a drop of someone else’s crap on them and want to throw up.
Hollywood laughs and nods in agreement.
LT: Back then we didn’t even have showers. So the girls had to make a makeshift shower. We pulled out our ponchos and made a makeshift shower in a circle with the girls, and grabbed a couple of big bottles of water, and said, “Here ya go. You done? Or need another?”
JH: It was probably easier for the guys.
Hollywood: Yeah, I’d just go wash up behind a truck. I didn’t care.
LT: The first time we showered in the makeshift shower it was often in the middle of a sandstorm, so really how clean are you getting?
JH: How long would it be before you actually got to have a real shower?
LT: When you went out on a mission you wouldn’t see a shower for a week. If we had enough water, we’d do it on a mission, but sometimes we didn’t, so we wouldn’t shower for a week.
Hollywood: And we generally just slept on the truck.
LT: You wouldn’t want to sleep on the ground with all the creepy crawlies.
JH: See, this is all second nature to you now. These are things you probably wouldn’t think to share with me and others had I not asked. These are the things people need to hear about, that our military has had to endure just even outside of the constant mental game of being in danger. Military is getting more support now from civilians, so many don’t know how harsh it was for you guys back then in the beginning. Not that it is a cake walk now.
Hollywood: When we first started over there we went for a long time, or it seemed like a long time, that you had to wake up early in the morning just to drink two or three bottles of water because, come noontime, you couldn’t—because we didn’t have ice, or coolers.
LT: Nobody wanted to drink hot water. Or we’d do a science experiment. We’d take a sock and hang the bottle of water on the outside of the truck mirror and wet it. So as you drove down the road it might cool the water enough so you could drink it.
Hollywood: But if you did that, sometimes the kids would run by, and anything they saw on your truck they’d want to grab it. Or something like a piece of paper would blow out the window and they’d chase it.
JH: They were just desperate to have anything of a material nature or to have something from America? I mean, not to sound arrogant as an American. It just must’ve been different to see you guys there.
Hollywood: I think it was more of, it could be of something of value I can sell. Anything. I remember one time I bought a soccer shirt a kid was wearing for five dollars.
JH: That must have been a pretty penny to him over there.
LT: Isn’t that what we paid the Iraqi’s to come in and work for us for a day when we were at Anaconda?
Hollywood: Yeah, I think so.
LT: And hauling water into Iraq from Kuwait was a disaster. It really was. Because that water, even though you had it strapped down, it was so bumpy, roads were uneven and the tarp would even loosen the straps on the water. Then the bottles would start leaking and falling. Then the kids are running to get the water.
JH: That sounds awful.
LT: It was a nightmare, because just to do that it was a two day trip.
Hollywood: Even before anything, before all that shit started, we were in Kuwait when the scud missiles were still going off. So, I screwed up one time, and it took me only one time to learn that they had these bunkers set up, and when you heard the siren go off, you’d put your gas mask on and go run to these things, these bunkers.
LT: Oh I forgot about that.
Hollywood: Well, I was a pretty quick runner so I take off for one of these, and it’s—the bunker is a Connex box—those steel ones that have doors on the front you see on ships. That was it. So I run into this damn bunker and I’m one of the first ones to reach it. It’s a twenty footer and I am in the back of this thing and it’s already about 130 degrees. So, here I am, all these people were in there and I am in my gas mask. I will never forget this guy’s face. He was looking right at me right through his gas mask. He couldn’t move. He was just sweating and he finally lost it. He started getting crazy. I finally said, “You gotta get this guy out of here.” I mean, he lost it.
But what’s funny is, I was in there and I didn’t see nobody I knew, nobody. And what’s crazy is, after the fact, people would just scatter like rats after you’d hear, “All clear—all clear,” Remember that?
LT nods her head in agreement, clearly recalling the situation.
Hollywood: You’d go back to your tent and see people and be like oh yeah, which one did you run to?
JH: What caught my attention in that story, was that LT said, “Oh yeah, I forgot about that.” It seems like you two have forgotten more life threatening situations than most of us will ever even encounter.
They both humbly appear as if the thought had never occurred to them.
JH: So, you two are married now, and met during deployment. What’s funny to me is, she was your boss.
Hollywood smiles at LT.
Hollywood: Yeah, after our first meeting, I said, “Her and I are not going to get along at all.”
How does a corrections officer/E5 Sergeant go from strongly disliking his female superior during deployment, to marrying and having children with her?
The story they tell about how they met, and the interactions they had with one another before and after, are quite entertaining. However, to read how these two went from challenging each other, to married with children, stay tuned for the follow-up article.
A special thank you to Tony M’s restaurant in Lansing, Michigan for accommodating our privacy by giving us a private room for this interview and for such a caring staff.