Melissa Baker, 20, an Army Reservist with the 641st Adjutant General Company, came home from a one-year tour of duty in Iraq on Feb. 11. A graduate of Williamsville North, she joined the Reserves at 17 and was attending the University at Buffalo when she was sent to Iraq in January 2004. She is now working at Dairy Queen and planning to go back to school. NeXt recently got a chance to interview her about her experience in Camp Cuervo, Baghdad, where her platoon's main responsibility was processing mail for fellow soldiers:
Q. What made you decide to join the Army Reserves and for how long is your tour of duty?
A. I joined pretty much for the adventure, the experience, and for the college money. My tour of duty is for eight years, until Sept. 13, 2010.
Q. Did you have to go through any training?
A. I had to go through basic training. It was all right -- mostly mental.
Q. Could you run through a typical day for me?
A. There's really no such thing as a typical day. Anywhere from an eight-hour shift to a 12-hour shift, then depending on the day you might have guard duty, you might have CQ (company quarters), you might go on a mission. (CQ means) you are responsible for answering the phone and when something happens on the camp. If we get mortared or we get a rocket attack or something you are responsible for making sure that everyone in your platoon is OK. A mission is just like -- I was postal -- so we would go down to another camp and set up a post office where they didn't have one.
Q. So was being in the postal division relatively safe?
A. The dangerous part was being on the road but other than that, yes, it was pretty safe.
Q. What were the living conditions like in Baghdad?
A. It was all right. We had hard buildings. We had showers. There was food -- Army food. But, there was nothing really to complain about. We had all the basic necessities.
Q. Were you ever afraid to go to sleep at night?
A. Not really, you just get used to it. It can be frightening at times, but you learn to adjust and trust your fellow soldiers to watch out for you.
Q. From a female soldier's perspective, were the responsibilities any different than those of a male soldier?
A. The responsibilities weren't any different. Your whole platoon would be assigned a job and it was everybody's responsibility to get the job done. There were certain things that the guys could do better and certain things that the girls could do better.
Q. Have you come back with anything positive about the war regarding your experiences?
A. That's a hard question to answer. I still don't fully understand the war, but I can say I had both positive and negative experiences in Iraq. I think the soldiers' intentions are good. (That is) something I can't really touch too deeply on. I think the Iraqi people need help, and I think that some of them really do appreciate the fact that we're over there, but others may not.
Q. How have these experiences changed your life?
A. It's just a whole new perspective on life. You just realize how good we have it over here and how much I have always taken for granted just having a house and having food and having, you know, little things that you don't even think about that millions of people live without.
Q. What did you miss the most?
A. My family.
Q. What are your plans now that you are home?
A. I want to go back to school, spend time with friends and family and enjoy my life while I'm here.
Q. How involved are you with the Reserves at home?
A. I have to attend meetings one weekend a month and two weeks over the summer.
Q. Do you plan to keep in touch with your friends in the army?
A. We just went out the other night and we call each other all the time; it's like a second family.
Q. Is there any chance you may be required to return to Iraq?
A. There is a very good chance that I may be required to return. It wouldn't be for at least another year.
Q. Knowing what you know now, would you join the Reserves again today if you had the chance?
A. I probably would still join because I have learned a lot and it's such a big part of my life now.
Q. Would you encourage others to join?
A. It depends. I think it's something you do only if you have a passion for it. If you don't care about it you'll never finish your term, and it isn't worth it. You have to have something driving you.
Q. As an American, and particularly as a soldier on duty in Iraq, were you aware of the historical significance of (the Iraqi election)?
A. We were aware of the historical significance. We were aware of the danger, and we took precautions and adjusted as necessary. Luckily things went better than expected.
Q. It has been said that a significant amount of young Americans don't vote... whereas, the Iraqi citizens lined up on Election Day, risking their lives to vote. How do you feel about this?
A. I think it's moving because people over here take things for granted saying, "OK, we already have this great country and I can do pretty much whatever I want so I really don't care," whereas over there ...it's the first time they have actually been able to have an election. It was incredible that they had such a great turnout.
Q. Can you estimate the percentage of troops that voted (in the U.S. presidential election while in Iraq)?
A. Everybody in my platoon voted.
Q. The Iraqis have just started on the road to democracy. Do you feel proud to have been a part of the Iraqis' fight for freedom or do you think that the U.S. effort was in vain since the Iraqis may never live in a peaceful nation? A. I feel proud to help and to serve. I'm not sure how everything is going to turn out. Hopefully it will turn out for the best, but at least I can say that I did my part. Whether it worked or not, I can say that I did something.
Meghan Dougher is a freshman at Nardin.