It was July 2003 and US Forces had invaded Iraq four months prior. The country’s dictator, Saddam Hussein, was in hiding and my Iowa National Guard transportation company was 6,000 miles from the Field of Dreams back home. We were attached to an active duty combat unit that was responsible for securing the northwest quadrant of the country.
This unit was armored cavalry, meaning tanks and helicopters. It controlled border checkpoints, patrolled insurgency hotbed towns like Ramadi and Falluja, and secured the Hadithah Dam -- the second largest hydroelectric power source in the country. Our company, nicknamed “Hawkeye” after the University of Iowa’s team mascot, were the wheels that delivered the Cav’s supplies -- everything from ammo and repair parts to mail and enemy prisoners of war.
I was one of about 16 female soldiers in a unit of 150. I had worked hard early on to earn my place in its ranks, passing with flying colors the qualifications for physical fitness, weapons, first aid, land navigation and other soldier skills. I acted tough, maybe tougher than I was, never let my guard down and could hold my liquor, smoke and drink with the most macho of them.
I didn’t want to be exactly one of the guys, but I knew if they called me this, I’d won them over. That reassured me that within my platoon, I was worth my weight in salt. I was proud of that fact.
It was the start of a typical mission day -- the sun had just risen over the sea of sand and we were starting to simmer at around 100 degrees before coming to a rolling boil midafternoon when the temps reached 120. We took respite in Ramadi where I used the police station’s bathroom to relieve myself.
Describing the hole in the floor as a bathroom was stretching my imagination beyond its comfort zone, but that was par for the course. Everything during the war in Iraq was outside what I knew as normal. There was no “greener grass,” just different layers of purgatory until I returned to my home state of Iowa.
Iraqi bathrooms, or floor drains, have a distinct sewer gas smell I’ll never forget. And though I didn’t want my body close to it, I hovered low because the bathroom had no door and a few police officers were shuffling in and out to report to the police chief. Squatting was the most privacy I had.
As I walked outside to rejoin my co-driver at the back of our truck, I noticed that a few other truck driving teams had clustered together and were talking, almost carousing actually, with some of the locals that had approached. As I drew nearer, my squad leader pointed at me and the Iraqi men flew into a bidding war.
“One goat and one hundred American dollars!” a short stocky man shouted while waving his arms from underneath his traditional robe clothing.
“One goat and one hundred fifty American dollars!” a slightly taller and thinner man shouted. His unusual blue eyes were fixated on me in a glassy gaze.
“She’s a virgin, too!” another staff sergeant shouted.
“Shut the hell up, sergeant!” I said in shock, tightening the grip on my weapon.
“Well you don’t have any kids, what’s the difference to them,” he said in a low voice. “She can give you many babies,” he continued grinning at the men, then me.
“One goat and three hundred dollars!” the short man called out, upping his bid.
“What the hell are you doing?” I said looking around at my buddies. “You suck. You’re probably only worth two chickens and ten dinar, but I’d damn sure sell you for that right now,” I said punching my co-driver in his shoulder.
“It’s just a joke!” he yelled at my back as I walked away.
Without turning to see, I heard the men settle. It was a sudden and eerie calm. I stopped and pivoted.
“I’m not for sale!” I said looking over the Iraqis.
Then an eruption of angry Arabic dialogue filled the air, first among the Iraqis, then directed at the male soldiers still standing nearby.
A cold sweat broke across my forehead as I leapt up the sidesteps and into the driver’s seat. I fired the engine up quickly then looked back to see the other guys double-timing toward their trucks followed by the Iraqis with raised fists shouting, “Hey, Joe. What about the deal? Hey, Joe!”
The convoy commander gave the signal to move out and hopped in the passenger seat of his Humvee. The lead vehicle, a .50 cal gun truck, lurched forward. I followed closely behind it as the convoy pulled back onto the main supply road to deliver its cargo at a forward operating base a few hours away.
My eyes were fixated, watching the path of the vehicle ahead, scanning the roadside for rubble and trash or anything that could be used as a disguise for an improvised explosive device. The heat from the engine radiated into the cab, increasing the air temperature to around 140 degrees. I was parched and the sand streaming in the open windows left grit around the corners of my mouth and across my neckline.
Everything rattled -- my gear, our weapons slings, the windows inside the door frames. As the hour stretched on, my thoughts returned to the sale, to my worth, which had turned 120 pounds of salt into two goats and four hundred dollars.
The Iraqis weren’t just attempting to buy a wife, or sex or future babies or labor on their farm. They were purchasing my freedom. They were trading a couple livestock and a fistful of greenbacks for my choice to be in charge of my destiny and pursue my own dreams. They were operating under the rules of their culture, the only lifestyle they knew, and for that I could not fault them.
My battle buddies, however, my brothers-in-arms, were pretending to sell me and they could only do so if they assumed I was theirs to sell. Did they believe they owned me? Was I not their equal and their “sister” but a possession? Did the push-ups and muscle aches and miles of ruck marches in a downpour and the tears and heartache of this life boil down to just a joke?
Hell, who knew? I had nothing left to prove. And in this desert hell, this chaos, where everyday there seemed to be a casualty on the intel report, but politicians said we were conducting “operations other than war” and where women were losing limbs and lives even though we weren’t “in combat” or on the “front lines” … everything was backward anyway.
In fact, in Iraq everything that was grand -- a palace, a dictator -- could suddenly disintegrate into oblivion, while the tiniest items -- a piece of fresh fruit, a letter from my father, a nod of camaraderie from my platoon leader -- could get me through one day after another until I returned to Hawkeye country 403 of those days later.
So maybe the joke was on them because I realized that my worth was immeasurable. I was priceless. We all were. It was that American ideal, not some political conviction, that motivated me to gear up and head out for another mission. It was that faith that I was not just a number or some female or another GI, but a life worth living; no, I was a life worth celebrating.
I’d decided all this by the time our convoy was pulling inside the forward operating base gate where we were dropping our loads. I made a lot of decisions along those roadways, some I remember, many I don’t. One promise I said to myself that I’ll never forget: Don’t underestimate yourself. You’re worth more than any man can afford.