Liz was motivated to join the Marine Corps by the actions of Medal of Honor awardee Jason Dunham. After an injury in boot camp that kept her in Parris Island for a number of months, she went on to work in Supply Administration. During her deployment to Afghanistan in 2010, she volunteered at a hospital and was injured in a car accident in Kabul. After leaving active duty, she founded the non-profit We Give a D.A.M. which helps veterans prepare for job interviews. The website can be found at www.wegiveadam.org.
Interview conducted over the phone on April 24, 2016
Present: Richard Hayden and Liz Medina
Transcribed by Richard Hayden
Richard Hayden: What is your full name?
Liz Medina: Liz Katherine Medina.
RH: What branch of the military did you serve in and what years?
LM: United States Marine Corps. I did active duty from 2006 to 2011 and I am currently still in the Reserves.
RH: What was your rank when you got out of active duty?
RH: What is your MOS?
LM: 3043, Supply Administration.
RH: What are some of the units that you served in?
LM: I was with Headquarters, Marine Corps, Henderson Hall in Arlington, Virginia. I deployed with MARCENT. I was with 6th Motors in New Jersey and then my most current was with Anacostia in DC.
RH: Alright. Good to go. What motivated you to join the military?
LM: When I was in high school I was part of the Navy ROTC program. As an immigrant I came here to the United States when I was three from Peru. Since I was a very young child, my parents raised me with this sense of patriotism towards this country for everything that it has done for us. So then when I joined the ROTC program in high school it really enforced that I wanted to be part of this lifestyle and live this lifestyle.
He was not awarded the Medal of Honor yet but I read the story of Corporal [Jason] Dunham and I think it was junior year, almost the end of my junior year, and at that point I actually had wanted to join the Navy. Then I read the story of his actions, this young Corporal who just took his kevlar off and jumped on top of this grenade to make sure that none of his other Marines were injured, reading that just made me go, “Wow. I want to be part of that brotherhood. I want to be part of a unit of those types where you wouldn’t hesitate for just taking one for your brothers.” So then I went into the recruiting office and that was that.
RH: Nice. So it was Dunham that motivated you to join the Marine Corps versus the other services?
RH: Alright. Good to go. Why did you pick the MOS that you did?
LM: Actually, I did not pick. I went open contract. I just wanted to go. I wanted to leave home as fast as possible. Not that anything was wrong at home but I was ready to take on this challenge and the recruiter told me that if I wanted to leave within the next week, I would have to go open contract. I was like, “OK. Fine. Let’s do it.” I signed my contract and two weeks later I was on Parris Island – December 26th, 2006 I was on Parris Island. I didn’t find out my MOS until I was in MCT. They were like, “Supply Admin.” Alright. Good to go. Later on I found out that my recruiter was a supply Marine as well so it was like OK, that’s kind of fitting. When I went to MOS school, the Supply world of the Marine Corps is like learning a whole new language. But I really like it. I’m a really good supply Marine. I really enjoy what I do.
RH: Alright. Good to go. How did your family feel about your decision?
LM: They were so, so proud of me. They were so excited and they were so supportive from the beginning. I think my dad more so than my mom. Growing up in a Hispanic family, traditionally if you’re a girl you just stay home until you meet someone and get married. You get married and then you move out of the house. So going out of that tradition it was a little unnerving for my mother. I grew up away from those traditions so it didn’t really phase me. I didn’t understand how much of a big deal it was.
But my father, I remember graduating and looking at the parade deck. We graduated Fourth of July weekend. We did not graduate on the regular Parris Island parade deck. We were in an indoor facility. I was looking up at these bleachers and I immediately saw my family. I picked out my dad and I saw him cry. It was the first time ever in my entire life that I saw my father cry. He said he was so incredibly proud of me and he could not wait for me to go out and do whatever it is that the Marine Corps does.
RH: Good to go. Where were you on September 11th?
LM: I was living in Queens, New York. I went to a private school. I went to a Catholic school and I remember, I believe I was in science class. I remember my science teacher just collapsing and crying hysterically. Everyone was just stunned like, “What is going on?” Then all of a sudden parents were coming to the school and taking their kids out and they still haven’t told us anything. I was like, “What is going on?”
They took us downstairs to our auditorium-slash-lunchroom and the priest came out. He told us there was a terrorist attack on America. A plane hit one of the World Trade Centers and there’s no more twin towers. We were just stunned. I had a couple of friends who broke down crying because they had family that worked in the towers. They ended up being OK. A lot of my friends’ families work in the city so just getting out that day was so chaotic.
What I will never forget though is the next day. I was in Queens, New York and the debris from the tower made it to where we lived in Jackson Heights. I remember my grandma asking my father and I to go to the store. We were leaving our apartment and we were just surrounded by debris. You could literally see little shards of glass and you could reach out into the air and you will have a piece of debris in your hand. So it was a really dangerous couple of days. We had to wear masks. Some people had little minor cuts. It was just a crazy, chaotic time. My aunt, she owns a salon and she grabbed a bunch of donations, water donations. My aunt and a couple of other aunts, they went down there and handed out water to firefighters and stuff like that. But I know that they went to the scene and saw some traumatizing stuff because they were never the same again. They were always super chipper and happy and then there’s this tone of calmness around them.
RH: Alright. Since you were living in New York, as the weeks and months progressed, what were some of the things that you noticed going on in the city?
LM: Everyone was just scared. You can tell that parents were holding their kids a little bit closer and people just kept to themselves a lot more. It was like this really weird silence that’s not normal for New York City. Also there was this outpouring of just helping each other. What do you need help with? How can we help? Everyone just wanted to help. I remember seeing that and being surrounded by that especially with my aunts saying, “What can we do? We need to do something.” I think that that definitely was a fundamental moment of my life because I tend to do that now. Every time I see something or someone that needs help, I want to help them.
RH: Alright. How did it affect your fellow classmates?
LM: A couple of my friends had family members that had worked in the city around the World Trade Center and I remember everyone just really on edge. Everyone was really shocked. Everyone was just in shock like, “Wow. This really happened here in our hometown.” Everyone tried to maintain a normal life. Like I said, it was a Catholic school so we had an instant prayer time. I guess we found a way to cope.
RH: Alright. Good to go. You talked a little bit about going to boot camp in Parris Island. What was boot camp like?
LM: I was really looking forward to it. First of all, I didn’t know what to expect. I had no idea what to expect. Everyone says it’s the hardest training out there and it’s true. It’s not easy. It’s not a walk in the park. [laughs] It challenges you mentally, physically and especially emotionally. They are there to break you. They are there to see if you have the heart because if you have the heart, you can make it through anything, any obstacle.
And then I had a fluke in training. We were doing the obstacle course and during one of the obstacles, I fell and I fell down in a way where my entire body weight landed on my left arm and ended up shattering my elbow. [laughs] When you get injured in boot camp you get sent to, for females, it’s called the female readiness platoon. Basically you’re put in the squad bay until you heal and then you resume training. I think we were a week shy of going to the rifle range and moving to the second phase of boot camp. I was in there for about a month already. I already had a relationship with these girls and I had a relationship with my drill instructors. To be dropped into a platoon of instructors you don’t know, women you don’t know, you don’t have that camaraderie that you have with your initial platoon where you started together, you know?
So it sucks. It sucks big time and it sucked emotionally for me. Thankfully we had all the females in Parris Island train in Fourth Battalion – that’s the female battalion – and we had a Chaplain, the Fourth Battalion chaplain, Chaplain Coleman, who I consider a godsend. And it’s really impacted how our relationships progressed throughout my life. She was the Fourth Battalion Chaplain and she would go, I think it was once or twice a week, to talk with the females there. Some of them were there for months. One of them, I believe, was in for a year. It was a hip fracture. She kept reinjuring herself. She goes there to talk and make sure they’re in good spirits, keep the motivation like, “Hey, keep going. You’re already here.” There a saying that says the fastest way out of the island is graduation. So the goal of everyone in there was to focus on training and to graduate boot camp.
So I was in there for about – first, when I fell I completely blacked out. I woke up in an ambulance with my senior Drill Instructor next to me just nodding her head. I was like, “What’s going on?” I go to the hospitals. They do x-rays. They say I’m fine. I go back to the squad bay. The next day I have this appointment to see their physical therapist and I tell her, “Yes, ma’am, I’m fine. I’m ready to go back to training.” She’s like, “Oh really? Get down and give me three push-ups.” So I get down and I do three push-ups and she says, “Alright. Then go back to training.” I was in training for about a week before they dropped me to FRP. About midweek I started losing feeling in my fingers in my left arm. Then we were practicing for our initial drill that Friday, I believe, and we had to carry our rifles. As I’m carrying my rifle my hand just starts dropping and here I am using my other hand to push my arm up so my Drill Instructor doesn’t see and she caught me. She was like, “Sit down.” I was like, “Ah, fuck. I’m getting dropped.”
So I got dropped and went to FRP. And because I had gone and was pretty deep – well, not deep – further in training than some other girls, in order for me to resume training I had to pass, I believe, two PFTs – Physical Fitness Tests – in order to be fit for duty to return to training. I did one month where I couldn’t work out. My physical therapist said, “No. You can’t. You need to get strength in your arm.” I had lost mobility in my arm and nothing. It took about a month and a half of intense physical therapy to finally have enough strength to pass the flex arm hang. Obviously I had to get past that obstacle. So I did it. I passed my PFT and resumed training and I picked up with a platoon. My original platoon had already graduated and it was so heartbreaking to see these girls that I had started with graduate. It was bittersweet. I was so happy that they did it and that they graduated but I was so sad that I couldn’t be there with them. But, move on. I had to move on. I had to focus. I had to graduate.
I pick up with my new group of Marines and they already had established their camaraderie, their rapport and their relationship with their instructors then here comes this stranger in the middle of your cycle. It like, “Who are you?” So it took a while for me to build that camaraderie with them but eventually we did it. It was a smaller platoon and group so it was a little bit easier to do it. But sometimes tempers flew and a room full of hormones can lead to things. So boot camp was definitely interesting. I’m so glad I graduated, so glad that I did it. I went to MCT – our combat training that all Marines who are not infantry do – and then I go to my MOS school. Then I got my first duty station which was Henderson Hall.
We do a PFT, I think, two weeks after I check in and I couldn’t even hang on for one second on that bar. Mind you, I had to do another PFT in MCT and a PFT in MOS school and that was fine so I was shocked. I’m like, “Why can’t I?” I couldn’t. I had zero strength. So I told my Sergeant, “This is what happened to me in boot camp. I don’t know if it’s because of my injury or whatever the case may be.” She takes me to an Army medical facility and it was this Army doctor who saw me. He didn’t even examine my arm and he was like, “From what you described that means we’ll probably have to medically discharge you.” This is bad. It was kind of completely crushing my dreams of being a Marine and continuing to be a Marine. My mother has always taught me that if you don’t like what a doctor tells you then you go for a second opinion. So I was like, “Alright sir. With all due respect Sir, I think I’m going to go seek a second opinion.” I was so glad that my Sergeant was in the room with me because I could not believe what he was telling me. So I just look at her and say, “Let’s go.”
So I go to Bethesda and the naval medical center. The doctor writes two options down for me. She was like, “OK. We’re going to do x-rays, MRIs and tests and we’re going to see what’s going on first. Depending on that we might need to do surgery and then you’ll be OK or you may not be OK and we will have to medically retire you. Or we’re going to try to fix you as much as possible and then they’ll probably medically retire you.” So when they did an MRI, they found out that I had a radial fracture and I had to do a bone and nerve decompression. In a way they had to reconstruct a part of my elbow. I’m like, “That all makes sense.” The way the fracture was, it had pierced one of my nerves which explained why I couldn’t feel my fingers. They were like, “How did you survive this long? You should have taken care of this as soon as you got injured.” I was like, “They did x-rays and everything showed fine so I don’t know.” But they ended up fixing it and I was able to continue but it was not fun at all.
RH: Alright. Good to go. Where in the US were you stationed when you deployed?
LM: I was in Arlington. I was at Headquarters Marine Corps. I deployed as an individual augment. I deployed by myself – I didn’t deploy with a unit.
RH: OK. Did you serve in Iraq, Afghanistan or both?
RH: How many times did you deploy altogether?
RH: Once? OK. What was the date of that deployment?
LM: I deployed on September 11th, 2010.
RH: 2010. And when did you get back?
LM: December 24th.
RH: Of 2010?
LM: 2010. Yes.
RH: 2010. OK. Great. Where in Afghanistan did you deploy to?
LM: I was in Kandahar, Bagram and Kabul. I deployed with MARCENT. Basically, when you deploy as an IA, you deploy with a unit that is already deployed. Since I was going by myself I had to find a unit to attach myself to, to be able to go overseas. So I signed up with MARCENT who is stationed out of Florida, I believe.
RH: OK. Good to go. What was MARCENT’s mission?
LM: They had a lot of different missions depending on where you were. My specific one in Kandahar, the Supply mission was securing injured Marines and getting them back south, back into Helmand, back into the firefight with either new uniforms, new boots, whatever it is that they needed because we had everything that they needed.
RH: What, specifically, was your job?
LM: I kept inventory of the qudacons. We had all of that – the extra uniforms, the extra food. Also, I was in the Kandahar airfield – huge flight line. I had to pick up passengers from the main pack and take them to the wing side where the Marine aircraft would take them to their R&R locations or other parts of Afghanistan. I did a lot of driving in Kandahar.
And then one of the unique things and unexpected things was Role 3 was looking for volunteers – Role 3 hospital – was looking for volunteers and my Gunny was like, “Hey. You should go check that out.” So I’d go in and I talked to the Chief and I said, “I heard you guys need volunteers,” and he was like, “Yeah, we do.” Then he took me to the morgue and he says, “We’re going to need your help here.” And for about three months that I was in Kandahar, every time casualties were flown in, I would go in with a team. It was a mix of soldiers. I think it was National Guardsmen – I’m not sure. I just say Army. We would have to run to the flight line, get on the Blackhawk and physically pick up the body and then transfer them over to the morgue and then get them ready for transfer. So I did that.
I was walking home one day and the ICU was on my left and I saw a little boy who was one and a half or two – I can’t remember now. He was a little toddler and I just walk inside. I had deployed when my daughter was a year and a half so I kept thinking it was my daughter. I remember walking inside this room and standing next to this little boy and this nurse who was cleaning tubes. She was like, “Do you want to help me?” I’m like, “Sure.” I helped her drain some of his tubes and change his diaper and ever since that day I came back every day and helped her out with taking care of the younger children that were injured. They might bring in children that need medical attention or surgery. I would try to help with them but also, in the squad bay to the left, were terrorists that were there. On the right were coalition and American forces healing their wounds. It made me respect doctors, medical doctors, so much. I would just talk with some people and they would explain to me that they don’t see what they did. They just see a person that needs to be saved. For me it takes a lot of moral and ethical courage to just save a person that quick, somebody who literally just shot the room right there.
So I was volunteering at the USO and I managed to keep myself busy. I was married at the time and I missed my husband and I missed my daughter so I just kept busy, busy, busy. It was like work, work, work and working out and then more work.
RH: Alright. Good to go. What was it like the night before you deployed to Afghanistan?
LM: It was nerve wracking. I was nervous and excited and sad all at the same time. My husband at the time, we stayed at a hotel and I’m pretty sure we played some card game or something and then we just watched movies and spent some time together. Then he took me to the airport and he stayed with me up until I boarded the plane and [laughs] when I got on the plane I just started crying. I was like, “Oh my God. I’m really leaving my husband and my child. I’m really doing this.” There was this gentleman sitting beside me like, “Is this your first deployment?” I nodded my head yes. He said, “If this is your first deployment, don’t worry. It gets easier.” The people beside me, it was their third deployment. He was going to Iraq but it was really nice, that little comfort.
RH: Alright. Good to go. What was it like when you stepped off the plane in Afghanistan?
LM: In Kandahar I landed in Kandahar – Kandahar airfield. It’s infamously known for its poop pond so the very first thing that I smelled when I got off that plane was poop. [RH laughs] I was like, “What in the world is this?” The airman who was taking care of his craft said, “It’s literally crap.” Then they briefed us about the poop pond and I was just like, “What?!” For the first week I smelled it really, really bad. It’s everywhere. But then after that, you stop smelling it. I remember waiting for my transport and I look up and I see mountains, Afghanistan mountains, and was like, “Oh shit! I’m really here. I am really here and experiencing this place.” Then the next day was the first day that I experienced indirect fire from rocket attacks and they were like, “We have to go to the bunker.” So we were sprinting to the bunker and the alarms were just going off. It’s ironic though because I’m super cool and calm and collected. I’m not freaking out or anything. I’m like, “Oh cool. We’re getting a rocket attack. Great.” We’re sitting here waiting until it’s done. I’m like, “Alright.” It was just like this button went off on me where I just couldn’t feel anything. I was like, “Alright.” I was just going through the motions. I had my mission and I knew what I had to do to complete it and that was it. If I had stopped and sat down, I would have started thinking about home and it just hurt a little bit to think about home.
RH: Alright. Good to go. As you started to settle in, you did mostly supply work at first?
LM: Yes. Mostly supply work. A lot of volunteer work and then I got moved to Kabul and in Kabul I was actually assigned to be a driver for coalition officers from our little hub near ISAF headquarters. I worked permanently with the Army. It’s weird. The whole deployment I rarely worked with Marines. I was working with the Army mostly. In Kabul, my A driver was always a Specialist.
RH: OK. So you would transfer them outside the wire, correct?
RH: What were some of those missions like?
LM: A little nerve wracking. Everyone there, for the most part, carries an AK like it’s an accessory so it’s really hard to distinguish. Is today the day that I’m going to get shot at? I really hope not. You just have to be on guard. You have to continue reminding yourself, “I have to complete this mission,” regardless of what obstacles are thrown at you. Literally, sometimes people would walk in front of your vehicle or thrown people in front of your vehicle to try to deter you. Every morning we got briefed on what roads to completely avoid for the day or stuff like that. I don’t want to give too many details. So we were very aware of where to go, what to do and how to react if we were ever put in a situation.
One situation that I remember, we were returning from a convoy and we were going to Camp Phoenix. On our way to Camp Phoenix we were right around the corner. There was this guy in the market that – we don’t know what happened – he just snapped. He just grabbed his machete and started slashing people. He was just slashing people and it was towards women. Because it was so close to one of the FOBs they shut down the FOB. We were outside in-between the FOB and this crazy guy so we just kept driving towards the FOB because that was our destination. But it was very unpredictable. You don’t know what’s going to happen and you have to constantly remind yourself that regardless of how calm a day may be, you’re still in a war zone. Anything can happen at any moment.
RH: You guys didn’t dismount or anything, did you? You proceeded to the FOB past the guy?
LM: Yeah. It wasn’t anything connected towards terrorist threats or anything. It would have been different had they come towards us and started banging on the windows or something but it was completely focused on that group of people. So we continued on to the FOB.
RH: Alright. Good to go. I know you talked about it a little bit but what were some of your other impressions of Kabul?
LM: Dirty, very dirty. Polluted. However, in Kabul I did notice that the women’s hijabs were a little more colorful and they had a little more detail whereas in Kandahar it was just black burqas or blue burqas or extremely conservative. I did notice that in Kabul it was a little bit more open.
RH: Good to go. Aside from what you already told me, what were some of the notable events that occurred during your deployment?
LM: I would say the first was when I had to do a dignified transfer for a Marine. That hit me in the gut like he was my own brother. He is like my own brother but it was the realization that shit’s going down right now. People are dying right now and this Marine is dead right now. I remember I could not leave his side. I remember staying there the whole night even after we put him in this huge refrigerator-like box to preserve the body. I remember putting out a chair and just sitting there. Until they put him on the bird home, I could not leave him. It just hit home really, really hard. I remember googling his name and trying to find a picture, a regular normal picture of him smiling. I just want to remember that face. Those were really hard days. [sighs]
Then – what month was it? Actually, I have a blog where it’s not military centered but it’s anything I want to write kind of thing. I actually posted this story on my blog for Mother’s Day. There was a little girl that, through the humanitarian efforts, they were trying to save her foot. They were not able to save her foot. The only way for her to survive was if they amputated her foot. Her first name was Medina and my last name is Medina so I immediately gravitated towards this little girl.
So the visitors in the waiting area, there’re always men. Women can’t come and visit their children or anyone unless they have a male escort. If they don’t have a male escort for that day to walk into the hospital, they can’t come and see their children. That really angered me. I got so mad at that concept and I remember the date that little Medina got out of her surgery – she had just got her foot amputated – and she just kept moaning. The anesthesia was wearing off and she just kept reaching her little arms up and I climbed into her little bed and I just cuddled her. I just held her and I remember the men in that room just gave me the evil eye, like, “What are you doing?” I was like, “I don’t give a fuck. This little girl wants her mom and I’m going to give her a mom.” And I just sat there and held that little girl. It just made me think about my daughter and thinking that if, God forbid, my daughter ever needs a mom then someone will be out there to give her that love that only a mom can give. That’s another super defining moment.
RH: Oorah. What else do you have? Any other memorable experiences from the deployment?
LM: The very, very, very last – and I guess the life changing moment for me – was in Kabul. In December I was returning from a mission and we had just cleared the first gate to get to the second gate and there was this little narrow dirt path. On the right side it was just these cinder blocks to block you from falling into a river that’s there and then it’s barbed wire to the left. So I’m driving and I’m driving a huge, black armored SUV. So I’m driving, driving, driving and this vehicle’s coming toward us. It’s speeding and it’s a tiny little thing. I’m assuming it thought that it could just slip past us. It didn’t. It ended up hitting me full force. I got lifted from my seat, hit my head, and we veered our vehicle towards the right and ended up hitting the cinder block. I didn’t pass out. I remember feeling that vertigo feeling like I’m falling for a split second and then I immediately am like, “Oh shit. We’ve got to get back inside the wire.”
The first thing I do is check on my Specialist. I’m like, “Hey, are you OK? Are you OK? Talk to me. Are you good?” Then I immediately call my Staff Sergeant. I’m like, “I’m here. I’m at this point and this location. I just got hit by a car.” He comes, the Sergeant Major of the installation comes, everyone and their mom comes. We had to call the MPs. We had to fill out the report and take pictures. Everything. My Staff Sergeant gave me the rest of the day off. He was like, “Just go call your family. You’re fine. You’re good to go.” I’m like, “Yeah, I’m fine.” I felt fine. I go and Skype my husband and my daughter and I go to sleep.
I wake up the next day. I gear up for the mission of the day. I’m walking to work to get my new vehicle. I remember it was really early too. It was probably four in the morning, four or five in the morning. I was walking, walking, walking and then just blackness. My mind goes dark. From this point forward – this is what I was told by my Staff Sergeant, I don’t recall any of this – he said that there were two French soldiers on a smoke break who saw me just collapse. They go over and they take me to the hospital. It was a French-run hospital so everything is in French. All the doctors are French.
I always carry a card of my Staff Sergeant with me so they were able to call him and he came in. Then the next thing that I remember is opening my eyes and not being able to move my body. I couldn’t feel my body at all. I remember my eyes just go down to my hand. I remember trying to curl my fingers, forcing my fingers to curl like, “Why are you not curling?” I think I curled a little bit and then pain – pain from head to toe. Excruciating pain to the point where my eyes immediately just teared up. I remember my Staff Sergeant saying, “Look! She’s crying. She’s in pain. What’s wrong with her?” Then the French doctor is talking back to me in French and we were like, “We can’t understand you!” [laughs]
They take me in to get x-rays and they do this x-ray where they insert a dye in you. They would check for fractures and they see that I have a fracture in the front part of my head. So I get MEDEVACed to Bagram since they have more machines there. In Bagram, because I had an injury that’s serious and there’s something around the brain that could cause more damages, the most efficient way to find out how bad a brain bleed is is the spinal tap. So I had four spinal taps all within an hour of each other to monitor my brain bleed. I was extremely sedated throughout this whole time and then I get MEDEVACed to Landstuhl, Germany where they do an MRI.
Then I start having this fainting episode. I just start fainting out of nowhere. For the first two days that I was in Germany I thought I was OK. I was up and running and talking. I was like, “I feel fine. I want to go back. Send me back.” [laughs] I felt that whole leaving my Marines behind feeling. “No, they need me! I have to go back!” The doctors were like, “No. We need to take care of you first. We need to figure out what is going on. After that I started fainting. I remember walking down the stairs and I just passed out and I fell down some stairs. After that is when they put me in the ICU. I was sedated for about three days until I was transferred back to the States. I always call it the year I celebrated Christmas twice because I celebrated Christmas mid-flight over Germany on our way to the States and then again when we got back to the States.
RH: Alright. Good to go. Before we move onto you coming back home I have a couple more deployment questions and then we’ll get into coming back. What do you remember most about the Afghans?
LM: Oh, goodness. They were some very, very, very, very I don’t want to say pushy but kind of pushy people when it comes to selling their merchandise. The couple of times I got stuck in the bazar, everyone’s trying to make a living like every other place, trying to support their families. I didn’t really interact much with Afghans. I tried not to. Obviously they don’t see females as their equal and I have always had this fear of putting my team in danger because I’m a female. So out on convoys I would try to disguise myself as much as possible. I didn’t want to bring any attention to myself.
RH: Alright. Good to go. Are there any Afghans in particular that stuck out?
LM: No. I didn’t really interact with any.
RH: OK. What was the most challenging non-combat aspect of deploying?
LM: I would have to say the family life, missing family. That was tough. My husband – he’s my ex-husband now – he was a Marine as well and he had deployed to Iraq so he understood. He definitely understood and he was supportive.
RH: Alright. Good to go. What do you remember most about some of the soldiers, sailors and Marines that you served with in Afghanistan?
LM: If I could go back in time and grab those Marines and soldiers that I served with to serve with me for the rest of my career, I would. It was the best team that I have up to now served with. The best. I was the only female in the group as is with most cases in the Marine Corps and it was like having five brothers – five very over-protective brothers. The Gunny in charge, he was one of those Marines, one of those leaders who wanted to see you succeed. “What can I do for you to get to the next step in the Marine Corps? What can I do to enhance your career? Let me know what training you want to go to. What is it that you want? Let me mentor you. Let me guide you.” It’s becoming harder to find leaders like that. I have been lucky that throughout my career I have been surrounded by leaders like that. I hear the horror stories from some of my friends who are like, “Oh no. My Staff Sergeant’s a shit bag. You won’t believe what he did. Bla, bla, bla.” Thankfully I don’t have too many of those stories. I have one and that doesn’t even matter anymore.
So it was an incredible team. We had each other’s backs. It was incredible.
RH: Alright. Good to go. Before we go ahead and move onto your MEDEVAC and coming home, is there anything else that we left out about the deployment that you want to address?
LM: There is a story. I was in the ICU that day. I remember I was standing next to a little boy. This little boy, he was caught in some crossfire. It’s such a hard environment that place, I tell you, because the little boy was in the crossfire of insurgents and some stray shrapnel went straight in his head. It went straight through and they thought that he was paralyzed to the left side of his body. Then a twelve year-old boy was planting an IED and it backfired on him. He was brain dead but per the procedure they have to keep him for a certain amount of time before they release him to the family.
I was standing next to this little toddler when all of a sudden chaos just erupted everywhere. It was November, the beginning of November, and these two soldiers come in. I’m trying to get out of the way because I’m not a medical escort. I leave so the doctors can do their thing and one of the soldiers that was on the gurney – there was blood everywhere – he just stood up and grabbed me by my forearm and he wouldn’t let go. He just kept saying, “Mom,” over and over again. “Mom, mom, mom.” Then the doctors were working on his leg and they were like, “Keep talking to him. Keep talking to him.” And I was like, “Hey. You’re going to be OK. You’re going to go see your mom soon.” I was just in shock like, “Oh my God. This isn’t happening to me. What’s going on? What’s going on?” But I just kept talking to him like, “You’re going to be OK.” Then they came and took him into surgery. I remember just walking outside the room and there were two other bodies that were covered with the American flag that were getting wheeled through the morgue.
I came back the next day and I saw the soldier that had grabbed me. He was asleep and next to him was another soldier. I walk up to him and I was like, “Hey. Are you OK?” He was like, “I could be better.” We just struck up a conversation and we just started talking. I visited him the day after that and for a whole week I visited this soldier and we developed a friendship. He was married. He was an immigrant from Brazil and it was his first time leading a fire team. He was excited for the opportunity to lead and the VBIED was a guy on a motorcycle who did the whole vehicle suicide thing on his motorcycle. Two other soldiers ended up dying that day. I believe one of them was caught on the other side and he was hurt. He was really injured too and he had grabbed a little John Deere looking thing and drove it through enemy crossfire and grabbed his soldier to bring him back to safety. He was telling me all this and I was like, “Shit. That’s crazy.” And he was like, “Yeah.”
He stayed there for two more weeks and then I didn’t see him at the hospital. I was concerned. I was like, “Hey. Where did he go? Is he OK?” And then I see him outside of a Wounded Warrior tent. He was like, “I’m getting ready to go back to the fight.” I was like, “I hope you stay OK.” That was the last time that I ever saw him. I don’t know when it was – I think it was 2013 – that I decided to google his name. His name was Sergeant Felipe Pereira. He received the Distinguished Service Cross for the actions of that day and I remember reading his citation and I started crying. I was like, first of all, yes, he’s alive and made it. Then reading his citation it made me think of what he told me himself which is what happened. I was like, “Oh my God. This guy is incredible.” I was so glad that he got out of there alive. I looked him up on facebook and I called him and I was like, “Hey. It’s Medina from the hospital.” He was like, “Holy shit! How are you?” We caught up and he told me he’s a cop in Tennessee now and still happily married. It was really good. It was really good to know that he was OK.
RH: Right on. Good to go. Actually, any other significant stories from your time volunteering in the hospital?
LM: I think that’s about it.
RH: Alright. Good to go. So let’s go ahead and pick up where we left off. You were coming back to the US and you said that it was your year of two Christmases. Where did they fly you to?
LM: They flew us to Andrews Air Force Base and from there they bussed us to Bethesda Naval Hospital. Now it’s Walter Reed.
RH: Did your husband and daughter come back and meet you?
LM: Yes. My husband was there, my daughter was there and then to my shock and surprise my parents where there. I had not expected to see my parents at all. That’s when it really hit me that, “Whoa. This is serious.”
RH: What was your rehabilitation and recovery like?
LM: Thankfully since I was a local I was able to be treated as an outpatient so I did not have to stay in the hospital. For the first month, I would say I felt that guilt and that guilt was very heavy of leaving my Marines. I remember in Germany before I got to the ICU I was e-mailing my Staff Sergeant like, “Staff Sergeant, don’t forget you need to do the contract, bla, bla, bla, bla, bla.” It was like the supply tasker and he was like, “Take care of yourself. We got this. Just stay focused on you.” I felt like I failed. I felt like I failed them. It was a super illogical thought. Obviously I couldn’t control what was going to happen but it was there. That guilt was there. It was hard for me to really embrace and be happy to be home when in the back of my head all I could think was that I want to go back. Then I felt guilty for thinking that. I should be happy I’m home with my daughter and my husband but it was guilt versus guilt.
RH: What unit did you return back to? Back to headquarters?
LM: Yes. Back to Headquarters, Marine Corps.
RH: Alright. Good to go. That would have been December of 2010. Did you separate soon afterwards?
LM: I separated in May.
RH: OK. In the months between when you returned from Afghanistan and separated, what were those months like?
LM: Horrible. The worst months of my life. Living with that guilt and then I developed some super weird separation anxiety with my daughter. She had to be next to me twenty-four/seven. I had to have some kind of visual confirmation that she was right there or else I’d be worried. Of course with my daughter, I’d be like, “Where did you go? Where are you?” I would sneak out of our bedroom in the middle of the night when my husband was still sleeping and I would go into her room and I would lay down next to her crib and just look at her. It was so bizarre. That’s the reason why I decided to get out of the Marine Corps. I wanted to be at home with daughter. I didn’t want to leave. I planned to be a lifer in the Marine Corps. I wanted to do my twenty years and then get out.
RH: Do you think that separation anxiety was directly related to your experience in Afghanistan?
LM: Oh, absolutely. I developed some pretty severe PTSD after that. Then I started having these blackout moments where I couldn’t remember what I was doing. Then a part of it also is the TBI. They tried medication. I’m just not a medication person. I’ve seen what some of the meds do to my friends and I was really scared for me. I was like, “I don’t want to go on medication.” Then my marriage started deteriorating right before my eyes. I didn’t want my husband to touch me. I was very unhappy because I thought he would be more understanding but he wasn’t. So we started going to counseling and I started going to counseling for myself and it wasn’t working. It wasn’t helping me at all. I felt like I was stuck in this black hole and every time that I did try to talk to someone about some of this stuff that I saw, all I saw in their eyes was pity versus understanding me. It pissed me off. Don’t feel sorry for me. Who are you to feel sorry for me? No! For whatever reason it just angered me. I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for me. This was my job. Don’t feel sorry for me because I did my job. I’m just trying to figure out how to handle these emotions now. So it was a pretty tough time trying to understand what was going on.
RH: Alright. You got out in May of 2011. Where did you transition to?
LM: My husband was still active duty and he was stationed here so we still stayed here. I did the stay at home wife thing for a little bit.
RH: You’re still in the Reserves but how has your military experience shaped your life since you got off active duty?
LM: Well, I have very high expectations and sometimes that’s a problem because I am the kind of person who you need to use my talent. Whatever I bring to the table, use me. Whatever tasks you put in front of me, if you indicate that this is a hard one so it’s OK to take your time, I’m like, “OK. Watch me get this done,” and I’ll give myself a time limit. This is my goal. I’m going to do it and I can be very successful. I’m just a complete go-getter. I love challenges. I’m like, “Ooh, yes. A challenge. How am I going to solve this one?” When I’m put in a position where you’re expected to do the minimal work or you freak out over something that’s so super tedious, I just have to take a deep breath and remind myself that this might be the most stressful environment that this person might be in. I have to remind myself that not everyone has experience in a high stress environment. This might be the most stress that they have been in and to not be too hard on people.
RH: Alright. Good to go. Aside from maybe some of the ones that you discussed, what are some of the challenges that you faced since getting off active duty?
LM: First of all, like I said, my plan was to stay twenty years and get out. So getting out after five years of active duty kind of put me in limbo because I was unsure of what I wanted to do. I didn’t know. What am I going to do now? The Marine Corps is all I know and what I know and what I love to do. I had to rediscover myself and figure out what it is I love to do because I want a career in which I love what I do.
So I would say one the biggest challenges was that discovery – trying to figure out the avenue of what is best suited for me. The military and especially a deployment changes your perspective on a lot of things. You are not the same as you were five years ago.
RH: How did you get involved with www.wegiveadam.org?
LM: Basically, during my transition phase it’s not easy to find a job. Even with the veteran’s status it’s really hard work and I’m actually going through that right now as I am moving cross country because my fiancé is stationed in California. So I’m moving out to California here in the upcoming months and I’m in the middle of the job hunt. Hopefully I’ll have a job by the time that I get out there but it reminds me of when I was initially job hunting. I heard the word “overqualified” more times than I can count. I was like, “Oh, don’t say overqualified.” But now I understand why because I did take a job once that I was overqualified for and I almost lost my mind. I was like, “Oh my God. Why did I take this job?” Why? Because I have children I need to feed. I was just going crazy. It was too easy. I can’t do jobs that are too easy. I can’t. It’s not me.
So with the whole hunting process, it can be tiresome. You want to look presentable for your interviews. You want to feel your best and you want people to give you the job. So with Give a D.A.M., I created the care package concept. You can give a care package overseas but to transitioning veterans. In your personal appearance kit – the shortened version for that is the PAK – it includes a gift card for, if you’re a male, Men’s Warehouse. A gift card and a spa finder. For females it’s JC Penney and spa finder. You can have yourself a nice shirt or a nice outfit and then either go get a fresh haircut or get your hair done so you can look good for this interview or for your first week of the job.
RH: Alright. Good to go. How long have you been doing this?
LM: I have been doing this for about a year now.
RH: Do you have any stories about any service members that you have been able to help in particular?
LM: I have had everyone and anyone from the ranks of Corporal to retired First Sergeants that I have helped through this program. One of the things that I also do is resume reviews. I reviewed over fifty resumes and these are just friends of mine, not even the people that have used the program or the people that I actually know. I just helped them review their resume.
This one particular friend that I have, she was having a really hard time. She was a registered nurse getting a job at the VA. So I helped her with her resume and I was actually part of the VA panel to share my story of my experiences with the VA. So I knew some people and made some calls and she ended up getting an interview and she got the job! It made me so happy to hear that. It gave me this sense of fulfilment to know that, yes, my friend got a job. I remember that feeling of being stressed of not having that job and then that feeling of, “Yes! Finally. I got it!”
Then there was a First Sergeant. It was him, his wife and they had a family of four kids so a family of six. He sent me this sweet note of appreciation, “Just to let you know, I really appreciate this program because I have kids to feed. I’m still trying to find a job.” Again, it gave me that sense of fulfilment because even though you have your VA disability or your retirement check or your GI Bill, that’s just one paycheck a month. That’s just one or two grand a month. You can’t support a family on two grand a month. So having a little bit of financial assistance, even a fifty dollar gift card, it does help a little bit.
RH: Alright. Good to go. I’m going to actually move onto a couple of spiritual questions. Has deploying affected you spiritually and, if so, how?
LM: There was a really hard time for me when I came back from deployment trying to find myself and trying to find my center. I grew up Catholic but I did not identify myself as a Catholic anymore or any religion. I consider myself more of a Spiritualist where I do things that make me happy and I believe in karma. You do good and good will come back. I found myself meditating a lot and seeking comfort in nature. I started hiking avidly. Every time I start to feel like any way is way too much or I feel too stressed, I just go take a hike. Appalachian trails are all around me, between an hour or two away, so I just pick a trail in the Appalachian Trail and go get lost in the woods. It helps so much because, again, one of the biggest things I dealt with was that moral conflict of being in the ICU and seeing terrorists on my left and coalition forces on my right. All I wanted to do was just unplug everything on the terrorist side. “You guys put those soldiers over there.” I dealt with that for a while like, “I can’t believe that I thought that.” But I have my peace with it now. I have come to my peace with it. Like I said, a lot of meditation and working out has also been a great avenue to help with that.
RH: Alright. Good to go. Has deploying changed your perception of life and death and, if so, how?
LM: Yes. Big time. I live life to be happy now. I don’t have second thoughts anymore. I don’t get bothered by little trivial things and I also don’t care what people think about me at all because one minute I can be here and the next minute I can’t. I’m not going to live my life just because you don’t like what I’m doing. If I like to draw, if I like to sew, if I like to cook, if I like to dance, I’m going to do it. I don’t hold back on things that I love to do anymore.
I love to travel. I think it was two years ago, I didn’t have my kids for a holiday so I packed my bags and I went to Japan and I spent the holidays in Tokyo. I refused to just sit and be sad.
RH: Alright. Good to go. I have a question about Afghanistan’s current state. How do you feel about the drawdown of US and coalition forces in Afghanistan?
LM: It makes me happy because that means that families will have their sons and daughters back but at the same time a lot of people died for some of the territories that we are in and it would be very upsetting to see that blood shed for nothing.
RH: Alright. Good to go. I’m going to switch it up a little bit. What’s the happiest memory of the entire time you served?
LM: The entire time I served? It was in the hospital in Germany. I found out that one of the Sergeant Majors that I had served with at Headquarters, Marine Corps – he was actually the Sergeant Major of MARFOR Europe – he remembered me. When he found out that I was in the hospital, he was actually getting surgery on his arm. He was getting surgery on something, I can’t remember what. So he sent his admin chief to go check on me. When she walked in she was like, “Hey. I’m here on behalf of the Sergeant Major.” I was just, A, shocked to hear the Sergeant Major remembered me and to make sure that everything is OK and, B, even more shocked now that the woman standing in front of me was one of my drill instructors. She came in and she remembered me and we had a talk and it was great. That Sergeant Major is actually the Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps now – Sergeant Major [Ronald] Greene. To have that kind of leadership to remember someone that he served with a couple of years ago and to remember my name and remember to check on me and make that extra effort, it just made me feel so good to be a Marine. I know that’s the kind of Marine that I want to be, that I’ll remember every single one of my Marines and if something happens to one of my Marines, I will be there for them.
RH: Alright. Good to go. I know you’re in the Reserves so this is going to be a question about your time on active duty. What, if anything, do you miss about being on active duty?
LM: The camaraderie. It’s a little harder on the reserve side to build that camaraderie because we see these Marines one weekend a month so it’s a little harder to build that kind of relationship on just one weekend a month. When you’re with them every day for anywhere between eight to twelve hours a day, you form a bond. You form that bond that’s unbreakable. I know that if I call a Marine that I served with years ago and I say, “Hey, how are you?,” or I’m like, “Hey, I’m in a situation and I need help,” they will do it in a heartbeat. So I miss that.
RH: Alright. Good to go. What was the best MRE?
LM: Hmm. MREs? I would say whichever one had the m&m’s in it. I wouldn’t eat it. I’d just eat the m&m’s.
RH: Alright. Good to go. What was the best chow hall in the US and the best chow hall in Afghanistan?
LM: In the US, I would say the chow hall at the naval station. It’s in Norfolk, though. It’s a naval base in Norfolk that I visited a couple of years ago. They have this ice sculpture of the Navy. They have an ice sculpture in the middle of their chow hall. I just remember I couldn’t forget it. It was like, “There’s an ice sculpture here. Wow. That’s crazy.” And the food was really good too.
In Afghan, I would have to say the Canadian one.
RH: Good to go. What are some of the funniest stories you have?
LM: Funny stories. Hmm. I have to think about that one.
RH: Want me to come back to it?
LM: Yeah. [laughs] I can’t really think of any stories. I mean, I can but I don’t think they’re appropriate.
RH: [laughs] OK. Alright. Good to go. We’ll move on.
LM: OK. [laughs]
RH: Last couple of questions. What are some of the common misconceptions that the average American might have about the conflict?
LM: Misconceptions of the conflict? I think the biggest one right now and it’s all over the news is about women in the frontlines and how they don’t want to see women in the frontlines when, news flash, women are and already have been in the frontlines. I think that is the biggest misconception.
I served with a Captain, a female Captain, who I can only describe in one word: badass. This woman is incredible. She was one of the first commanders to lead a Female Engagement Team in Afghanistan. She’s got a Combat Action Ribbon. She is the definition of a badass Marine. I look up to her as one of my role models. I’m like, “Ma’am, I want to be like you when I grow up.” She can bust out twenty pull-ups. She’s just overall an awesome leader as well. She’s an incredible leader. She’s one of those leaders who sits down and wants to listen to you like, “Hey. How can we solve this problem? What do we do?” We have women amputees it’s just that the number is smaller because not as many women serve in comparison to male members. But they’re there and they’re kicking ass too.
RH: Good to go. Let me ask you this. What are some of the challenges of being a mother and serving in the Marines that you may have faced?
LM: Explaining to my girls when I have to leave or why I have to leave. It’s a little easier when they’re younger because you get them a new toy and they’re distracted but when they’re older they ask so many questions. Currently my fiancé is deployed and I get the questions all the time from my girls. “When is Michael coming home? Is Michael still up in the sky? Is he coming home soon?” And I have to explain to them. My explanation is, “Michael is in another country far, far away and he’s protecting America.” They’re kids. I want them to keep their innocence. I don’t want them to know yet what war is. I give them the surface but I don’t want them to know yet what it really is.
RH: Good to go. If you could communicate something to young Marines who are going to be fighting the wars of the future, what would it be?
LM: Hmm. That is a great question. [laughs] Give me one minute to gather my thoughts on that one.
RH: Sure. Take your time.
LM: War is not pretty. When you come home, in the beginning you’re going to want to get rid of anything that reminds you of war but then you find yourself looking for those items. I have a pair of my combat boots that still have blood on them from when I was in the ICU and I cannot get rid of them. I just can’t. I won’t. I refuse. It makes me feel connected as if I was still there somehow, some way. And it does get better. Don’t try to make yourself forget. Don’t try to pretend it never happened. The best way to move forward is to embrace that. Out of fear I experienced this and now, let’s move on.
RH: Alright. Good to go. If you could communicate something to young women Marines who are going to be fighting the wars of the future, what would it be?
LM: Do not underestimate yourself and don’t let anyone underestimate you either. Every time that you hear a little snicker in the background or a little, “There’s no way that she’s going to be able to do that,” don’t answer back. Don’t retaliate. Just show them, “Yes, I can.”
RH: Alright. Good to go. Before I ask my last question, is there anything I left out that you would like to address?
RH: Alright. Good to go. My last question is, what specific accomplishment are you most proud of during your service?
LM: Doing the dignified transfers.
LM: It just comforts me to know that when I talk to some of the moms or some of the families of the ones that I’ve done dignified transfers for that I can tell them that, “Your son was never alone.” Because as a mother, I never want my child to be alone.
By Liz Medina
There she goes
Sun so bright
She wears a scarf around her head
To disguise her bun
She holds her weapon close
Always at the ready
She inhales that dry air
The stench of waste fills her nose
But she does not stir
She carries her own weight
She takes a break
Sits on dirt
Drops her pack
She lets sleep return
That second feels like a minute
That minute feels like an hour
Eyes just closed
A moment of rest
It’s time to go
She grabs her pack
And the walk begins
That pack, is no ordinary pack
She carries food, clothes, medicine, socks
But she also carries
The tears her husband shed when he saw her go
The priceless hugs from her daughter that did not want to let go
The weight of her parents concern waiting on her return
She carries it high between her shoulder blades
She carries it with pride
For her it is just a small sacrifice
So that the dirt her daughter stands on
Will never be stained with the blood of war
So don’t you judge this woman
Don’t you judge this woman with a pack
Don’t you judge the tears she cannot mask
For years after her war is over
She will always carry on her pack.