Archive for the ‘military’ Category

I Saw It Too

Posted: July 8, 2020 in military, real life

With the discovery of Vanessa Guillen’s body and the account of her murder on Fort Hood, the national conversation has turned to sexual assault and harassment in the military. I have watched many online friends and acquaintances come forward on my feed to contribute their stories. I debated whether I should add my voice to this topic.

To be very clear, I have never served in the military. Rather, I have worked as a contractor for Department of Defense contractors or military customers the majority of my career, which included a brief deployment to Iraq in 2009 (as a technical writer and software trainer). But I decided that is why I should write about my experiences–because my outside perspective, what I saw as a non-military person, only corroborates what all these female soldiers and sailors are saying now. I’m NOT saying #ImVanessaGuillen, far from it; I’m saying I saw it too.

When I went to get my required vaccines for my trip to Iraq, the doctor more or less guaranteed me that I would be raped in theater. He had served multiple tours in the Army as a doctor and had since retired to civilian practice. He asked me why they would be sending a girl like me (25 year old civilian) to that place and why I would agree to go. He did not tell me to be worried about rocket attacks or Iraqi insurgents. He looked into my wide, young, naive civilian eyes and told me I needed to fear the other Americans more than anything else. He said he had seen and treated numerous patients for being raped by their own in theater, going into detail I won’t repeat here. He asked if I was married and instructed me to say I was, to make sure I mentioned a husband clearly and often. He said they might respect that I belonged to someone more. Then he stuck me with the shots and wished me luck. When he looked at me before he left the room, I could tell from the heavy, dejected glance he gave me exactly what he expected to happen to me over there.

My female coworker who had gone to Iraq (and possibly also Afghanistan) as a software trainer before me told me how she had caught a man’s eye in the dining facility (DFAC) one day. That night, someone had tried to break into her trailer as she slept. He had not been able to get through the door, but she assumed it was the same man from the DFAC.

When I arrived in theater, there were unique signs in the female spaces. From my bathroom trailer on Dodge City South to the Morale, Welfare, and Recreation (MWR) gym on Victory Base Complex (VBC) to the small forward operating bases (FOBs) like War Eagle or Tallil. All the signs communicated the same message: have a battle buddy, don’t shower or workout or go to the bathroom by yourself, you’re not safe alone. There were a couple other females with my company in theater when I was, but we did not work the same shifts and rarely went the same places at the same time. I was usually the only girl, so I found these signs unnerving. Maybe men had these signs too; maybe everyone was supposed to have a battle buddy, but that is not how the messaging was conveyed.

I worked swing shift for the majority of my time in theater, noon to midnight. I had a roommate only for part of my time, but she also worked the day shift, so we overlapped very little. When I got home, it was the middle of the night. I had to trek a quarter mile to the bathroom trailer alone in the dark. Between the doctor’s warning, the stories, and the signs, my paranoia was thick. The trailer pad was covered in rocks and gravel to combat the native mud, so you could hear every footstep. If I ever heard anyone else in the dark, I stopped walking and turned off my light, waiting and hiding in the dark, hoping they would not know I was there and could not see I was female.

One day, I went on a support call with a male coworker. We went to the desk of a sergeant who was having trouble with our software. The sergeant had pictures of his family and his waning countdown calendar to his trip home on his desk. He was nice, flirtatious, but I thought nothing of it. We resolved his issue and returned to our trailer. Later, the sergeant emailed me on the secure network (SIPR). He was very complimentary and expressed how he wanted to get to know me in normal life. I, again, did not react much but shared the email with my coworkers, who at this point had to endure hearing just about every thought in my head.

My coworkers were less dismissive of the sergeant’s advances. They seemed genuinely worried about it, which changed my reaction. As he continued to email, I saw in their response that this was something to be concerned about, to be scared of. They asked if he knew where I slept, which DFAC I ate at. When he started calling the trailer, they made sure I never had to talk to him and that he knew I would not be handling his inquiries. When he showed up at the trailer, they got rid of him. They took the situation very seriously and kept me safe. Then the sergeant’s countdown ran out, and he rotated home, and I never had to hear from him again.

As a civilian, pushy flirtation was annoying, but I didn’t interpret it as dangerous until I saw how my coworkers reacted. Much like I wouldn’t have been wary of everyone I interacted with without the doctor’s horrific stories. Much like I would not have stopped walking in the dark without the battle buddy sign in every bathroom.

I prepared for theater without these expectations, and I managed (through the guardianship of some amazing men I worked with) to make it through my entire deployment without being assaulted. However, my encounters with other people’s experiences and the culture itself (we haven’t even touched on the volume on non-combat event rape reports in the database I worked with) showed me how real that threat was even before I met my stalker.

I saw these things as an outsider, without coming up through the military or learning any complacency to it. They came through fresh, naive eyes. So many things blinked and screamed like red warning signs.

So, do I believe there is a problem with sexual assault and harassment and the handling of it in the military? I know there is. Yet just like when we talk about police brutality, it’s not everyone. The men who kept me safe (who traveled with me so I wasn’t on unfamiliar bases alone, we left me the car so I wasn’t walking in the dark across the base at midnight, who told me how to react to rocket attacks) were military once too, and I know they’re not the only ones who would do that for someone. But they shouldn’t have to. The system is broken, and it’s failing some people. Just like the police and justice systems. Goodness amidst the problems doesn’t mean we don’t fix the problems.


Christina Bergling

Go with It

Posted: January 10, 2019 in military, nonfiction, psychology, real life, survival

As our plane began to land in Baghdad, it went dark. The crew extinguished the cabin lights, floor lighting, exit lights, indicators. The resulting black consumed us, startling and unnerving. It felt so unnatural to be floating in a darkened aircraft. If it weren’t for the engines still vibrating under the wings, the plane could have been mistaken for coasting dead. A few passengers tugged their window shades down to solidify the darkness.

The more experienced contractor beside me leaned over.

“They go dark so hostiles can’t target the plane from the ground as we land. They’ll use any small bit of light,” he whispered. “Oh, and be prepared for the evasive landing.”

He eased back into his own seat, gathered up his phone, and brought the bright screen to his face, a tiny beacon of light broadcasting to the open window. Confusion contorted my brow as I stared at him, dumbfounded. If a seatbelt light could get a rocket launched at us, why did he have his phone blazing in his face? It near-blinded me against the dark. I just kept looking from him to the open window beside us.

The plane descended toward the small lights below as my heart ascended into my throat. The shapes on the ground dilated in size. Pinpoints of light grew into buildings and roads; the dots articulated into the darkened city. My body automatically braced itself out of practice, habit from so many plane landings. I knew what the final descent should feel like, the way a gentle suspense gripped the air until the ground hopped up into the tires. Instead, the plane glided down then banked sharply. I groped startled at my armrest.

Anxiously, I glanced around me. No other passengers reacted. No one spoke. They sat as if nothing happened. The man beside me remained glued to his glowing phone, inviting the enemy to shoot us down.

The evasive landing.

No one else reacted, so I took a deep breath and went with it.

As I stepped out of the plane and onto the gravel in the surprisingly cold Iraqi night, I smelled only shit and burnt fireworks. I stood alone, unsure where I needed to go next—a 25-year-old female civilian contractor in an active warzone.

A week later, after I had been placed in my freezing trailer, been orientated to camps Victory, Liberty, and Slayer, and began riding the first unfathomable wave of homesickness, I headed to lunch with two fellow software trainers. Bored with the low level of service requests in the training trailer, Charlie and Ed decided we should venture away from the main dining facility (DFAC) and burn time traveling in the dented, dusty Mitsubishi Pajero to one farther from our trailer.

In the DFAC, we sat on metal folding chairs at plastic tables. Charlie hunched across from me, a tapestry of tattoos crawling from his jaw to his hands. Ed rest beside me in a bright blue polo shirt and fauxhawk. I nibbled on my grilled cheese and cantaloupe as they attempted to dazzle or unnerve me with their military stories, as always.

A siren shrieked through the air. The sound snatched my breath, tangled it in my throat. The piercing tone was followed by a flat voice repeating, “Incoming imminent. Incoming imminent.”

I threw wide eyes at Ed then Charlie. They continued to eat uninterrupted as if they had heard nothing at all. The third country national (TCN) workers came flooding out from the kitchen and huddled under the flimsy tables. Soldiers sat on the floor and crouched beside the buffet lines. I looked around at all the people on the floor, waiting.

“They do that because the kitchen doesn’t have any T-walls,” Charlie said, still chewing. “A while ago, a rocket landed on a kitchen. Killed all the TCNs.”

Ed sat casually, gathering a bite on his fork as he watched the TCNs unaffected. My heart battered my ribs. I tried to force out calm breaths and keep my face slack as my eyes roamed. My back tightened, and my posture stiffened.

Charlie looked at me.

“Look, there’s not a damn thing sitting under this table is going to do if a rocket hits this DFAC. If it’s our time, it’s our time,” he said, shrugging and looking down to his food.

They both resumed eating. I sliced my melon with shaking hands and shoved a bite into my mouth, unable to taste it. I took a breath and went with it.

The all clear sounded, followed by an annoying series of tones. Whining smoke detectors replaced the noise to complain about the unattended food left burning. Gradually, everyone got up and returned to their stations. Back to normal, like nothing ever happened.

Later that shift, I sat at my desk in the trailer, letting my fingers dance on the dusty keys of my laptop. I typed away, jamming software procedures into a user guide when a whooshing sound rippled past the trailer, nearly indistinguishable from the sound of an incoming helicopter as it crossed the wire and passed over us.

A boom echoed off in the distance; then a small vibration rumbled against the soles of my boots. Another deeper sound erupted in response, closer and louder. A ripping burst then a pause followed by crackling explosions in the air. I tensed and looked toward the ceiling as if I could see something of what was happening.

“C-RAM,” one of the guys mumbled.

A second rocket hit, far away. A second C-RAM answered.

The trailer fell silent, thick with anticipation, waiting for more. Another rocket, another C-RAM to rebut it. That burnt smell swelled in the air, so thick it spread onto my tongue, that same smell that assaulted me at my first step off the plane.

A voice in the distance declared the all clear, transient as if broadcast from a helicopter. Soldiers arrived in the trailer for accountability, to ensure we were all present and still alive. As we stood in the dark beside our T-wall lined with a single strand of Christmas lights, our jingle T-wall, we heard the sirens traveling in the distance. The rockets had hit something.

In the dark, I took a breath and went with it.


Christina Bergling


I support the Wounded Warrior Project for the same reason my book has the characters and themes that it does: my own time in Iraq. In 2009, I spent three months in country (Baghdad, with stops in Tallil and Taji) as a civilian contractor. That entire experience changed my perspectives on just about everything. However, I can trace when wounded veterans became especially prominent in my mind to one single instance there.


In Iraq, every day was the same. Unless I traveled (which was a nightmare all its own), it was impossible to distinguish one day from the next. I worked the same shift every day, so days of the week meant nothing. I marched through an identical routine every day.

Every morning, I wrenched myself from catatonic, depressive sleep and crunched my way across the deep gravel of the contained housing unit (CHU) pad. I hit the treadmill and the weights then walked back to my CHU, back across the pad to the lone female bathroom, and back to my CHU again. I was like a zombie just going through the motions and counting down the days until I could board that plane back home.

When I struck out on the sea of gravel once more to walk to the work trailer, I saw him. He was moving across the rocks towards the trailers. In the wavering distance of the desert air, he looked like any other soldier. Perhaps his silhouette was slightly slumped and his walk a little punctuated. It was impossible to tell on those shifting rocks. I just continued toward the water palette and then the road and did not think twice about it

As we approached each other, I could make out more. Squinting in the harsh sun glaring off tall concrete T-walls and the dust covered roads, I could tell that his skin color was not consistent. From behind my sunglasses, it caught my attention more, perked my curiousity. As our opposing trajectories brought us closer along the gravel pad and he came into focus, I could see why.

His skin was a patchwork of scars. The minimal flesh exposed by his pixelated BDUs–his entire head and neck, both his hands–was stretched, shiny, warbled. He looked as if he had been melted. His skull was no longer round, and deep scars snaked through the buzzed hair that had grown back on his now misshapen scalp.

Our paths crossed under the bright light on dirty rocks, and I, shamefully, was in shock.

My entire time in theater, it was customary to make eye contact and say good morning or whatever salutation as you passed someone. Perhaps this was not universal, but it was my experience, and that small gesture always made things feel more normal and civilized than where we were.

When confronted with this survivor, I did make eye contact, thankfully with my mouth closed (at least that made me less of an asshole), yet my voice failed me. I was lost with my mind reeling to wrap around the extent of the injuries I was seeing on a walking, functional man. I was taken aback; I was inappropriately fascinated. Then that brief instance of our passing was gone, and I had failed to treat him like any other person.

Before the sound of his footsteps even crunched off into the distance, I was awash with regret. It welled up in my throat that had been so sadly dormant. I wanted to chase him down and rectify my failure, replace it with a normal interaction, but that time had passed. That moment was gone, only filled with wide eyes and closed mouth. Instead, I walked on to work, wringing my mind and mentally berating myself.

More than the clearly catastrophic injuries he survived, it was his presence that weighed on my mind, like a thorn buried in the back of the gray matter. I got over his appearance once the shock sank in; instead, it was the fact that he had endured such trauma, assumably during some phase of this same war, recovered, and redeployed. Him putting the uniform back on and returning is what haunted me and turned my mind.

The mere seconds of seeing this soldier stayed vividly in my mind. My overabundant empathy fixated on his motivations. Maybe he felt he needed to return to finish the job. Perhaps it was the only place that felt normal after such an experience. How could I possibly fathom? What did I know about any of it? All I knew was that I admired him, whatever the reasons and story behind it.

That experience, and specifically my lapse in normalcy, changed my mind. He was a physical manifestation of the sacrifices made by the military that I was only beginning to learn about. My three month civilian tour was the smallest glimpse into the years they spent deployed away from their families and lives. The stories and reports I heard were only echoes of experiences they went through. It was all just a taste that still managed to change everything. And this one man, with less than a word from either of us, solidified the depth of what was involved and the respect it deserved.

After that morning, it became very important to me to properly support those who had sacrificed. I still think of this nameless soldier from time to time. He still walks through my mind and reminds me of what I left over there when I returned to my comfortable stateside life.


Once I started running, it was a definite goal of mine to run a race benefiting the Wounded Warrior Project. However, things never quite aligned. When I lived in Chattanooga, there were none close by. When I moved back to Colorado, one got flooded out. Then, finally this summer, the Wounded Warrior Project 8K came to town, inconveniently when I was over 9 months pregnant.

However, I would not be dissuaded from participating. My doctor cut me off from running at 7 months pregnant, and even if she had not, I did not anticipate pulling off 8K that far along. Instead, I resolved to volunteer my time. I waddled my very round belly around and helped with set up and then course direction and cheering.


While I didn’t do much, it still felt better to do more than donate money, to actually physically do something. I suffered for standing so many hours so pregnant for the rest of the day, but it was worth it. It was barely a tax paid on the debt that I owe.