My Indelible Military Career
By Katherine Iwatiw, Army
Writing Type: Prose
I enlisted in the Army as an older, non-traditional recruit. The Army offered me a two-year contract, the rank of private first class, and money for school. With the intimate details saved for another day, the following is a brief description of my journey as a U.S. Army soldier.
I took basic training at Ft. Dix, N.J., during the summer of ‘84. My company was all-female with coed cadre. I held a leadership position for one week and received extra duty more than a few times. I learned the important difference between floor wax and rifle cleaner, broke a sink when I sat on it to soak my feet and made it through the "gas chamber" with a minimum of pain and embarrassment. I passed the PT test and shot sharp shooter but wasn’t allowed to throw a live grenade since I "threw like a girl." Following lights out, I wrote in my journal with the aid of a flashlight. Long days, short nights, and eight weeks later, I graduated. Hoo’rah! I was a soldier in Uncle Sam’s Army.
Advanced Individual Training
Following graduation, the Army put me on a plane to Ft. Sam Houston, Texas, for combat medic training. My company was coed. I wasn’t the shortest or oldest soldier, and I had fallen in love with the Army. My cadre liked to run, so every morning long before sunrise, my platoon ran through the fort. By 9 a.m. we had showered, cleaned our area, and had breakfast. We marched everywhere -- to class, to the dining hall, back to class. After dinner, along with most soldiers, I studied at the PX. I smoked the final PT tests, scored high on the final exams, and graduated. Hoo’rah! I was a 91A Combat Field Medic with orders to Germany.
Active Duty -- Fuerth Germany
My stuffed duffel bag and I landed in Germany as autumn began in my new world. I was assigned to Charlie Company, 47th Medical Battalion, 1st Armored Division with barracks in Fuerth while command was stationed in Erlangen. My unit was four to one male to female with coed barracks.
One evening in November, a male soldier invited me and a female roommate out on the economy for dinner. This soldier invited himself back to our room to listen to music. He offered me a beer. The next thing I remember was touching the head of a soldier who was lying on top of me. The soldier ran out when he discovered I was waking up. I had been given a drug and raped. Welcome to this man’s Army.
I traversed through unhinged emotions and consequential reactions which led to a mishandling of the assault in the worst of ways. I saw a male Army therapist twice, and not that I didn’t want to continue our sessions, our schedules didn’t sync. My command wanted me or the situation to go away, but I stayed because my future depended upon "sucking it up."
With 18 months left on my contract, I put the assault in a bitter "lesson learned" category and refocused my energies on surviving in the Army. I became a "field rat" with duty at ranges and rail heads in Grafenwoehr and Hohenfels, living in decades-old ambulances, sleeping in cold barracks, or in tents or buildings in local villages. For the ’86 Reforger exercise, I repurposed a five-gallon vegetable can into a toilet, so instead of searching for bushes that provided questionable privacy, I peed in the can in the back of the ambulance. For Sports Day at the post, I photographed the events and competitors with a camera I had bought before leaving Ft. Sam. I competed in the Expert Field Medical Badge exercise and came within four points of taking the badge home.
My last CQ duty with Charlie Company sucked my breath away. I was ordered to pull duty with the rapist. My Command decided since I didn’t press charges against the coward, I wouldn’t mind spending the night with him. My faith in Uncle Sam shattered into a thousand-piece puzzle, but I survived the night and headed to South Carolina for out-processing.
Army Reserves -- Florida
I moved to Miami for a job. I joined up with the 437th Medical Detachment in Fort Lauderdale when they offered me a Preventative Medicine Specialist course, a 91S. I signed my second enlistment contract. After one year, I moved to a small town near Orlando and enrolled at the University of Central Florida. I joined ROTC as a cadet and practiced leadership skills, but after I failed chemistry, I withdrew from ROTC to focus on my studies.
In August 1988, I traveled back to Ft Sam Houston to take the final exams for the 91S MOS. Two weeks packed with training, exams and brief moments of amusement. On our last night, we celebrated at the PX. My platoon sergeant challenged me to a dance-off. I’m five feet tall, and while not a fast runner, I danced rings around him.
In June 1990, I attended a two-week basic NCO course at Ft. McCoy, Wisc. I started the cycle with 40 other soldiers, four to one male to female. While we trained together, we slept apart. On day two, I wore the wrong socks which caused my feet to blister from heel to toe. I didn’t want to quit or to be recycled, so I continued on my sore feet. Soldiers dropped out and our ranks decreased. During the compass course, I was put in charge of my squad. I kept us going in the right direction, completing the course ahead of time. The male soldiers weren’t hostile, but they weren’t pleased with my success; some rooted for my failure. In the end, I graduated as the one remaining female in the platoon.
On reserve weekends, I drove south from central Florida to the Fort Lauderdale compound. I attended the unit’s Sunday morning church service, practiced leadership skills, studied environmental hygiene at the beach and parks and helped to train soldiers in basic first aid. My university grades had improved, and I worked part-time in the Student Veterans Affairs (SVA) office. Life was a routine until Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait.
The First Gulf War – Desert Storm
In January 1991, I watched the war's opening scenes with friends from SVA. Once the mobilization call came, I traveled with my unit to our headquarters in Ft. Gordon, Ga., to await further orders. Nervous, distracted soldiers were crammed into every available room. At night I ran laps on the open track to keep my anxiety under control. In February, I received orders to Fitzsimons Medical Center in Aurora, Colo. Further orders sent me to the Dugway Proving Grounds/Tooele Army Depot in Utah for industrial hygiene duty.
My military command was headquartered in Dugway, but for the daily work, I fell under the command of the civilian industrial hygienists in Tooele. I measured and monitored air quality and work conditions at work stations, inventoried and inspected bio-chemical canisters, played racquet ball in the gym and drove around the high mountain desert. The war ended, but I remained activated until I had reached the six-month limit for mobilized soldiers. I begged my Command to release me from active duty in time to start the summer semester in Florida.
Before my release from active duty, I was honored with a Meritorious Service Medal. I was an “excellent, highly motivated and capable NCO who performed all duties outstandingly; served in an outstanding manner as an Industrial Hygiene Technician in the absence of 4 Industrial Hygiene Technicians; conducted complex Industrial Hygiene program elements in a thorough and professional manner.” The citation concluded, “(My) ability to significantly contribute to mission accomplishment in a new and challenging position resulted in a notable impact upon the mission of the Preventative Medicine Service and Fitzsimons Army Medical Center.” Hoo’rah!
Back at the university, I pulled my credits together, enrolled in three classes and six weeks later, I graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Studies degree. Antsy for an immediate challenge, I left the Sunshine State and returned to the high mountain desert in Utah.
Army National Guard – Salt Lake City
I hooked up with the 144th Medical Evacuation Hospital, a National Guard unit in Salt Lake City that had been mobilized to the Gulf. The hospital experienced a shortage of 91C’s or LPNs. Once home, the doctors and nurses created a two-and-a-half year-long LPN program with training and classes held at the armory. I was an ideal candidate, so I signed my third enlistment contract. The cycle began with 40 student-soldiers. On drill weekends, we met at the armory for classes or at the Veterans Administration and surrounding hospitals for clinical rotations. I worked full time and in the evenings attended school for the further science classes. Each month, from the original roster, another soldier or two dropped out of the program.
If you want the Divine to laugh, make a plan.
My plan was to finish the 91C program followed by an accelerated Registered Nurse (RN) program, apply for a commission and return to active duty. With six months remaining before graduation, I became pregnant with my only child. In March 1994, five male soldiers and I finished the program. I took the honor graduate position, much to the displeasure of my male Command. I aced the LPN boards and passed two of five preliminary RN exams.
In April, I checked into the hospital for an emergency cesarean. My baby was born two pounds, 11 ounces at 29 weeks. My body shut down, and I went into kidney failure. The next decision I made was not without great deliberation with the Almighty Divine. I needed to heal, and my baby needed a mom. After 10 amazing transformative years, my career as a U.S. Army soldier had reached its finale. I said good-bye to Uncle Sam and hung up my uniforms.
These past 27 years have not been without challenges, along with a few heartaches, but there has been an abundance of adventures and blessings. I am grateful to the Veterans Administration for giving me a life-line, for helping me keep my head on straight and my body healthy. And I am, without any doubt, thankful the Army gave me the opportunity to be "all that I can be." Hoo-rah!