John Witmer: The Book: Sisters in Arms - A Father Remembers
Raising five children has been the greatest adventure of my life, yet, when I started this journey, I never dreamed it would bring me to a day where I would say goodbye to all three of my daughters as they marched off to war—not as part of a women’s auxiliary, but as part of a fully-trained, fully-equipped fighting force. There was no fanfare to mark this change in the way the U.S. military operated; it came quietly, born of necessity. As America’s military struggles to recruit the soldiers it needs, America’s daughters have stepped in to the gap, training alongside our sons and taking their place among the troops. Yes, women are still barred from the infantry and other “frontline” roles, but these rules have little effect in wars without frontlines, like those we are, at the time of this writing, fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Just like their male counterparts our women are frequently under enemy attack and like their male counterparts they return fire with their M-16s or their turret-mounted machine guns.
In 2005, the House Armed Services Committee held hearings on the role of women in the Military. It was prompted by rising female casualties. At that time over 35 women had been killed in action in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and another 260 had been wounded. There was some brief grandstanding on the part of some committee members expressing their concern and proposing legislation designed to make sure female soldiers would be removed from harm’s way. But the controversy quickly dropped out of the news. I suspect it was the result of some five-star general giving the Representatives this simple math lesson: one in seven of the 150,000 troops stationed in Iraq at the time were female. Removing all of them from hostile fire zones would have crippled Operation Iraqi Freedom.
This book is not a political statement; it is simply my story, a father’s story about sending children off to war and waiting for them to come home and what it’s like if they don’t come home.
Chapter 1 – Up on My Roof
Baghdad, Iraq, 2003
Rachel and her squad took their positions on the roof of the battered concrete building that served as the neighborhood police station. In recent weeks, insurgents had focused their assaults on these fragile beacons of law and order. In this war without frontlines, the 32nd MPs were given the task of providing security for the Iraqi Police, so attacks on police stations were both an attack on the post-Saddam regime and the U.S. government. Police stations were a convenient and efficient target.
The sun was low and the day-shift convoy had just pulled out heading back to Camp Victory after their twelve-hour watch. The police station, in Al Adamia, was just large enough to house a few cells and some dingy offices. It was far from inviting, and Rachel never completely trusted the IPs (Iraqi Police) she worked with; if she found herself in the unfortunate circumstance of needing to use the dilapidated commode, she kept her sidearm ready.
She began her routine, setting up her M-16 and scanning the streets below in slow, rhythmic sweeps, watching for anything that seemed out of place: a truck moving a little too slowly, a pedestrian moving a little too quickly, or a moment that was just a little too quiet. In the months that preceded this one, Rachel and her team had taken small arms fire and mortar fire and had dealt with their share of grenades. She was just a few minutes into her watch when she heard it, a sound she couldn’t place. It was like the sound of the surf in the distance.
Rachel struggled to understand where the sound was coming from. Her apprehension grew as she attempted to find an explanation. Her eyes carefully traced the streets below until she saw it—a wave of humanity, off in the distance, making its way toward the station. Not the roar of the ocean, the roar of the crowd, an angry, roiling, gun-waving mob.
Now she could make out the voice of the mullah (a religious leader) crackling over a loudspeaker. The rapid-fire words seemed to be urging the crowd on. Rachel could only imagine what was being said, but the words erupted from the primitive speaker with anger. The streets of Iraq traded in rumor and conspiracy, and this uprising could have been sparked by any one of the wild stories that routinely circulated about American soldiers: that they desecrated mosques, molested children, or spread pornography. It was clear that the gun-waving mob was heading their direction, hell-bent on taking revenge on this handful of soldiers, the most visible manifestation of the American military. The sergeant radioed the day shift and told them to double-time it back to the police station. Rachel was grateful for the reinforcements, but still, there was no way they could fend off an armed mob of this size. As Rachel took her stand on the roof, time began to expand, seconds passing like minutes, altered by the adrenaline that now pumped into her bloodstream. In that heightened state of awareness, in a moment of clarity, Rachel accepted the fact that it might end here, that this might be her last stand, her last day on Earth. As she prepared herself, she was suddenly calm. Peace came over her as she reflected on the people she cared about, bringing their faces to mind, one-by-one, as the pounding of her heart subsided.
Her sisters came to mind first. Michelle served with her in the 32nd MPs. Michelle’s platoon was pulling the same kind of duty in a different part of Baghdad. Then Charity: she was a medic with the Company B 118th Medical Battalion, stationed at BIAP, Baghdad International Airport, on the other side of town. She brought her brothers’ faces to mind, little brother Tim, just two years younger, and baby brother Mark, now a senior in high school. Then she thought about Mom and Dad and aunts and uncles and dozens of cousins. She wondered what it would be like for them if it all came to an end, here, on this rooftop in Baghdad.
This was not the first time Rachel had experienced this: time standing still, recalling the faces of those she loved, making peace with death, bracing herself. There had been a mortar attack on her barracks, in the middle of the night, that had shaken her awake. As she lay on the floor calculating how long it would take the insurgents to dial in the next strike, which would likely be dead-on target, this same sensation came over her. Fear left her; she was resolute, ready to accept her fate. Then the choppers came in and she heard the report of a big gun and she knew the insurgents would not fire another round. The threat had been neutralized. The chopper hovered, standing watch over the barracks, and the sound of helicopter blades sang Rachel to sleep that night.
A new noise pulled her back into real time: the unmistakable thudding of helicopter blades. The Blackhawk hovered above the crowd, and all forward motion stopped as its guns were trained on the crowd. The mob continued to shout and wave their weapons, but now tanks were rolling up the side streets, blocking the way to the police station. The standoff continued as the sun inched toward the horizon. But slowly and steadily the crowd thinned, melting into the twilight.