ALL I COULD BE |
June 03, 2013
Name: Charlie Sherpa
Previously embedded: with former unit in Afghanistan
Hometown: Boone, Iowa
Milblog: Red Bull Rising
Like most veterans, however, she'd rather be judged on deeds, capabilities, and character, rather than appearances.
Beaverdale Books, a cozy neighborhood independent in Des Moines, Iowa. Then, reading from her recently published book, she casually drops the F-bomb. Twice. In the first 30 seconds.
The amicable audience settles in for the ride:
The view from left to right for hours was the same—camels, road, sand. Then sand, road, sand. Then sand, road, camels with herder. Road. Sand. [...]Hikiji's Iraq was the one with Desert Combat Uniforms and antiquated trucks, hillbilly armor and makeshift gun turrets. "We didn't have the stuff that you see now on TV [...]" she says. "We didn't have phones, Skype, laundry—the stuff that makes war look like a training exercise."
As we approached the first town in southern Iraq, I grabbed a small baseball bat I'd set on the seat and pointed out the driver's side window. In marker I'd inscribed it with "This means get the f--- off my truck in all languages" [...]
She and her fellow soldiers received more enemy fire than they returned, Hikiji says, but she delivers her observations with more wit than bitterness. She doesn't shy away from hard topics, including what it means to have women and men serve in the same Army. During the course of a deployment, soldiers routinely form new friendships, alliances, and even romantic relationships. Sometimes those connections bend. Sometimes they break. Hikiji, who was not married when she deployed, certainly kisses and tells. Without falling prey to salaciousness, she accurately depicts the high-school-level hypocrisies and testosterone-fueled minefields faced daily by female soldiers.
One part True Adventure, one part True Romance, then, this is a military memoir that offers something to nearly every reader: Whether soldier or spouse, leader or follower, or friend or foe to women in uniform.
Having enlisted in the U.S. Army for college benefits in 1995, Hikiji had returned to her home state of Iowa and joined the National Guard while a journalism and psychology student at Iowa State University. When Iowa's 2133rd Transportation Company (2133rd Trans. Co.) was notified for federal mobilization in 2003, she was three days away from the end of her enlistment with the guard. She chose to re-enlist for another term, she says, because "I didn't want to miss the opportunity. I wanted to do what I'd been training to do for so many years."
In addition to writing personal letters and the unit newsletter, Hikiji kept an extensive journal and mission log while on the 18-month deployment. "I had thousands of pages when I got home." Still, she didn't start actively writing a memoir until 2010–more than five years after deployment, as well as getting married to a fellow National Guard soldier.
"I only started writing after I found I was empowered, that I could help make a difference," she says. "Before that, I was just trying to figure out what [the war] meant to me."
As part of her new mission to explain soldier and veteran life, Hikiji also seeks to celebrate two 2133rd Trans. Co. soldiers who died during the unit's deployment—Spc. Aaron J. Sissel, 22, and Pfc. David M. Kirchoff, 31. Two others were seriously injured while overseas. "It is very important to remember that, in all my healthy days, they and their families had a very different experience than the rest of us," she says.
After five months of training at Fort McCoy, Wis. and in Kuwait, the Iowa unit was attached to 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in Western Iraq. While based at the former Al Asad Air Base, the unit's 2-soldier truck crews could spend hours, days, or weeks out on missions.
"When I first joined the National Guard, I didn't like it," admits Hikiji. "It didn't feel like the Army. It was too relaxed."
"Then, I found out that the truck drivers on active duty Army just drove
trucks. The truck drivers in the National Guard, however, were also
electricians, plumbers, firefighters, teachers. We were always fixing
stuff up. Vehicles, living quarters. The active-duty units eventually
figured out: If you needed something fixed, you came over to Hawkeye."
(Members of 2133rd Trans. Co. wore the Iowa National Guard's "Hawkeye" patch, the shape of which is based on the 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division's patch.)
Something of a Swiss Army knife herself, the author-mother-veteran is also an occasional actor and model. She appears on the cover of her own book—a woman contemplating a composite image of dog-tags and a female soldier. Hikiji took a professional risk and paid for the photography out of pocket, then sent the cover to her publisher for consideration. "They could have said 'no,'" she says. Better to ask forgiveness than permission.
At the book event in Beaverdale, Hikiji deftly navigates through hot-potato questions, some of which seem like they could easily cook off like grenades:
Given the backdrop sexual assaults in the military, would she recommend military service to young women and men today? "I would never tell someone they couldn't serve [...] but I'd want people do their research and know the risks. There's such a variety of experiences, and much depends on local commanders."
What was the Iraq War really all about? "I know people who were involved in the search for Weapons of Mass Destruction," she says, "but I was just a dusty specialist."
Don't all veterans have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (P.T.S.D.)? Hikiji replies that PTSD has three components: The experience of a traumatic event; stressors such as joblessness, homelessness, and social isolation; and lack of a support network. "All of you are now part of my support network," she tells the audience.
Most of all, how are friends and family going to react to the book, particularly since you openly discuss love and sex downrange?
Her own preschool-aged daughters can read the book when they're 14, she says. "Otherwise, they would never have the opportunity to know the person that I was then."
What about the people at church?
She shrugs, leans back on the desk, and smiles the big smile: The happy warrior. An everyday iconoclast. The veteran next door.
"I guess I'll find out Sunday."
"All I Could Be: The Story of a Woman Warrior in Iraq" is available in trade paperback
and Amazon Kindle formats.
An official book launch event is planned for Fri., Jun. 7, from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at the Iowa Gold Star Museum, on the Camp Dodge military installation near Johnston, Iowa. Contact the author via e-mail (m_hikiji AT yahoo.com) not later than Thurs., Jun. 6, to reserve a seat at the catered event.
For information regarding this and other "All I Could Be" events, as well as a blog written by Hikiji, click here.