My Army Days

My army days were some of the most memorable and meaningful in my life.  For those reading that don’t know my background, I attended West Point from 1999-2003 and then served on active duty until July 2009. Ten amazing years, three deployments, countless lifelong friends and finding my husband were all because of serving.

I didn’t even know West Point existed until my sophomore year of high school. No one in my family had gone nor served in the military, so it wasn’t until my older sister started receiving college brochures that it appeared on my radar. I was instantly interested and began researching and looking into the requirements to attend. The summer going into senior year, I was accepted in early admissions, pending a physical fitness test, physical, congressional appointment and successful completion of my senior year.

I almost didn’t attend because I was medically disqualified for two reasons. First, my vision is pretty bad and I was told that it was not able to be corrected to 20/20 vision, even with glasses. Second, I had/have a heart murmur that “could limit” my physical fitness and ability. Thankfully, I went to follow-up doctors and was able to show that I could see 20/20 with glasses and that my heart murmur was benign and would not impact my physical ability.

When I first stepped foot onto West Point’s grounds in June 1999, we were a nation at peace. But when I graduated just four short years later, we were a nation at war and deployment was very likely for myself and my classmates.IMG_6794

After graduation (May 2003), I spent the first six months as an Army officer at in Fort Huachuca, Arizona as part of Military Intelligence Officer Basic Course. This is where new LTs learn the basics of the branch you have chosen/been selected for. Immediately upon that graduation (Jan 2004), my dad and I drove to Fort Hood to find me an apartment and get settled in. But it was short lived – my unit had been part of the first wave to deploy to Iraq months before – and were still deployed. And so days later, I was on a military plane to Iraq. I was 22 years old and scared out of my mind.

I was assigned to the 312th MI Battalion – part of 4th ID.  I showed up and the very next day, my company commander had me leading a convoy as the convoy commander. I was the executive officer (XO) of the company and was responsible for the maintenance of the equipment and vehicles. For the next 3 months, I was responsible for almost daily convoys to other bases for parts and equipment. Most XOs are 1LTs, not 2LTs, so we didn’t learn any XO duties while we were at OBC. It was all new to me. Two weeks prior I was enjoying life in Arizona – late night partying with my girlfriends Katy and Molly with no responsibilities except myself. Now I was the convoy commander in Iraq during OIF-03-04.  Things were different back then – US forces didn’t have the uparmored vehicles or equipment – so we drove with the doors off our vehicles, weapons pointed out.

Out of my three deployments, this one was the hardest in regards to living conditions and safety.  I didn’t get to talk to my family much at all, we slept in large rooms on cots (side by side) in one of Saddam’s old palaces (my entire company of 120+ people) and were limited with shower/hot water use.

I returned home a few months later and was reassigned to the Aviation Brigade (still part of 4ID). Similar to my previous position, OBC didn’t really cover a lot of intel associated with aviation units, so it was all new to me. Thankfully, my previous company commander and I had migrated together (he had requested me), so there was some comfort in being under his guidance again. This was the longest stretch I went without deploying (almost 15 months!). We deployed with the division again – this time to Taji – where all the aircraft were kept. My job during this deployment alternated between intelligence battle captain and being in charge of the Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance. Basically, I would take all the intel reports we would receive and find buildings, areas or locations we wanted the aircraft to check out as they were going about their primary mission (passenger movement, surveillance, etc).

The best part of the deployment was the company. I was with three guys who became my closest friends in the world during those 12 months – Mike, Luke and Paul (my future husband). We were all on brigade staff in different sections (Mike was even in a different building) – and yet, we found each other. We did everything together – lunch and dinner every single day, gym and running and holiday meals.

IMG_6792

After returning from that deployment, I switched units again and returned to the very first unit I had been a part of. But this time, I was a captain and would be on the team that provided the intelligence to the division leadership.

Six months later, we deployed to Baghdad for 15 months. It was, without question, the hardest 15 months of my life. But it was also the most rewarding in so many ways. I was the Division Intelligence Targeting Officer and had 15 amazing, brilliant soldiers who worked underneath me – two officers, senior and junior NCOs and enlisted soldiers. We ran 24 hour ops, 7 days/week.

IMG_6795

My section was responsible for tracking the individuals and networks that were attacking coalition forces and local nationals. We built out the networks from various intelligence reports (human intelligence, signals intelligence, imagery intelligence, intel gathered from a previous raid) – to include the leadership, bomb makers, suppliers, the financers. We tracked the higher echelon individuals that we wanted to kill or capture and the brigades then worked on the networks that rolled up into the higher-level networks.

At the division level, we didn’t have an action arm – a unit to go out and either kill or capture the individuals we were ready to take down. And so I worked directly with the special forces, British special forces, CIA and other agencies to help with our actionable intelligence.

It was an incredibly exciting and rewarding job. I remember coming into work some mornings and being greeted at the door by soldiers in my section with the news that a certain individual was killed or captured the previous night. I never could have imagined the happiness I would get from hearing a target was killed, but when you knew that someone was directly responsible for organizing lethal attacks against US forces or that killing or capturing that individual would prevent further attacks, you dream of the day when that individual is taken down. (I even cried tears of happiness on several occasions.)

IMG_6796

Some of the officers I spent 15 months with – they were there for me for the good and bad days.

The other aspect of my job was the twice/daily briefings to the one and two star generals and senior division leadership. Our Commanding General was very focused on the lethal targeting efforts – and so each morning I would brief him (and the senior leadership) in his office on who was killed/captured, what we gained (intel) from those operations and what the effects would be (retaliatory attacks, disruption in the network, etc). Each night, I would brief him on any planned operations that the special forces had, who the individuals they were targeting were and what we hoped to gain from that operation.

race

2008 Camp Victory Half Marathon – First Place Female =)

Once a week, I briefed 15-20 of the division’s senior leadership and brigade commanders on the structure and layout of the division-wide networks, any new emerging individuals within those networks, what the division accomplished the previous week and what the targeting goals were for the coming weeks.

IMG_6797

One of perks of being in my CG’s office a lot was getting to meet all the cool celebrities that came to visit our Division!

One of the highlights of that deployment was planning an indirect fire attack on a safe house (where a high value target would frequent). When the criteria was met, I led a go/no-go briefing to the leadership and got to watch the mission happen live from my CG’s office.

I think what made the deployment so special was that I felt my section was making a difference – we were providing the intelligence that was leading to the kill or capture of terrorists who had plans to attack and kill our soldiers.

But it was a long, hard deployment. I had one day off during those 15 months (with the exception of the two weeks I got to fly home and see my family!). I generally was at work by 7am and back in my trailer by 10pm. I shared a 15×12 trailer with another female captain (I’m thankful that Becky was an amazing trailer-mate!). We had communal bathrooms and showers. I ate my meals at my desk because I wanted to run and I couldn’t be away for too long, so most were spent in front of computer. We were deployed for two consecutive Christmases and New Years and missed the entire 2008 year (deployed in 2007 and returned home early 2009). And I missed my family and boyfriend terribly.

IMG_6791

During that deployment, I made the decision that my time in the Army had come to an end. It was strange. I truly loved every aspect of the Army and especially my last deployment, except for being away from my family. Between my CG and the senior Intel Officer for all of Iraq, I was promised anything I wanted in lieu of staying in (posts, positions, schools). I had also been contacted by West Point to return to teach in the Systems Engineering Department. I tutored a lot at West Point and always dreamed of returning one day to teach in the Math or Systems Departments! But, I had missed my sister’s pregnancy, my niece’s birth and almost the entire first year of her life. I missed several family members’ deaths. I missed hugging my mom. I missed my boyfriend. And I was ready to settle down and start a life in NYC. And so a few months after returning from Iraq, I was honorably discharged from the Army and on my way home (for good!) to NYC.

I look back on my time wearing our country’s uniform with nothing but happiness and pride. I would not be the person I am today if it were not for the challenges I experienced during those years. And most importantly, I’m thankful for the beautiful people the Army brought into my life. My college and army friends are the epitome of true friends – there’s no way to really describe how close you become with people when you are with them 12+ hours/day, seven days/week. There’s a bond that will truly never be broken.

    Related posts:

    26 thoughts on “My Army Days

    1. Thank you so much for your service! I truly look up to you and salute you.I have deep respect for our armed forces for their dedication to our country. Thanks for sharing your story!

    2. Thank you so much for your service! I truly look up to you and salute you.I have deep respect for our armed forces for their dedication to our country. Thanks for sharing this story!

    3. Thanks for sharing this, I found it fascinating! My oldest daughter is a junior in HS, XC/track runner, and recently received a recruiting letter from the West Point coach, but like you, we have no military familial history, so it’s a whole new world for us. I’m going to share this with her, this was super helpful for me to better understand!

      And thank you, for your service.

    4. Thanks a lot Michelle for sharing this. I have often wondered abot your military service 3 tours is lot.

      Also being a Navy Veteran, I have some feeling how difficult a challenge even the academies must be. No doubt all these experiences molded you to where you are today. Great service too, that saved a lot of Americans and deserving Iraqis as well.

      Take care, Patrick

    5. I am humbled by your amazing service. I think of how easily I complain about my work day…yet I come home to my family each night. Your story is an inspiration (and a reminder) to appreciate the blessings I have and to never forget the sacrifices our troops make each day, each hour, each minute. Thank you!!!

    6. Thank you so much for your service! Reading about your incredibly long days was one thing, but when you said you missed an entire year of your family’s life, that really brought it home. Thanks again!

    7. What a great piece, Michelle. Thank you to you and your husband for your service! I went to G-Burg with your sister and I remember the first time she mentioned that her sister was at Westpoint. She was extremely proud of you. A really great post!

    8. Thank you for sharing your experiences! We don’t come from a military family, so we were all caught by surprise when my brother came home from high school senior year and said he wanted to go to West Point. He graduated in 2002 and shortly thereafter deployed for the first time – he definitely doesn’t talk about it much, and he got out after two deployments. They tried to get him to stay in, but they said he’d deploy again in a few months and he didn’t want to go back. I can’t imagine being in a war zone and being away from my family, etc for over a year at a time. I’m so grateful for the people who sacrifice so much for the rest of us – thank you for your service!
      Susan – Nurse on the Run recently posted..2015 NYC Marathon Race ReportMy Profile

    9. Thank you for your service ! Looking back I wish I had worked as a nurse in the military. It does seem so scary at 22. There is a part of me that reads posts like this or sees all the posts on Veterans Day and feels regret I never did it. I know I wouldn’t have met my husband though and had my children:) thank you for your dedication:)
      Runningnurse26 recently posted..What do you do with your running numbers?My Profile

    10. I started following you because of your story, not your running accomplishments. I have a deep respect for our armed forces and thank you so much for your sacrifice and service. I am not sure what prompted you to share but it’s truly amazing to hear more of your time as an active duty officer. Your running prowess is only icing on the cake, you are an exceptional woman!

    11. Lovely article! Thank you for your service 🇺🇸 I am retired Army and I can definitely relate to this article and history of your life. Again, thank you!

    12. What an interesting read! I had no idea of your background when I started following your running adventures. I attended USMMA from 1994-98 and visited your school often during that time. I was a Navy reservist for 15 years and now I’m an AD spouse.

    13. Thank you so much for your dedication and service to our country! You are so inspiring to so many of us who follow your blog. :)

    14. As a fellow female military officer, THANK YOU for speaking openly and confidently about your experiences. I found your site when I was scrubbing the internet for running while pregnant advice. I was excited to learn that you were a military academy grad then and I’ve loved following your posts since. GO AF, BEAT ARMY! :)

    15. Ok 1- You missed Pete by only a few months in Iraq. He came home August 2003. 2 – Now I’m crying. 3 – Love you! and Thank you for your service!