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Episode 6: I Write To You From Kandahar Again

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Mariah Smith

6: "I Write To You From Kandahar Again" with Mariah Smith
Episode 6: Career Army servicewoman Mariah Smith has completed six tours and was one of the first female candidates in the Army's integrated Ranger school. On this episode of Incoming she discusses gender integration in the military and balancing her identity in and out of the service. Email the show to give your thoughts or suggestions: info@sosayweallonline.com

Justin Hudnall: Welcome to Incoming, the series that features true stories from America’s veterans, told in their own words, straight from their own mouths. I’m Justin Hudnall. Today’s episode will be spent with Major Mariah Smith, who, in the time between when we recorded in the spring of 2015 and our air date of November the same year, transitioned from her post at Fort Bragg to the Pentagon’s Congressional liaison office. Mariah is fifteen years in to completing a life-long career in the Army, having joined before 9/11, and completed six tours since. She’s far too humble to say it in these words, but she was part of history earlier this year as one of the very first female candidates to participate in the Army’s integrated Ranger school. Mariah Smith: And I failed. Yup, so I made it about two and a half days and then yup, it’s time for me to come home. Didn’t live up to the standard. But it’s alright, they’re definitely not compromising their standards. Justin Hudnall: Self-deprecation aside, I’m willing to wager you’d be hard pressed to find someone who wouldn’t feel better knowing the armed forces have Smith among their ranks, and as you’ll hear in her story and interview, her voice is remarkably candid and vulnerable on subjects such as finding an identity outside of the military, the struggle to maintain relationships while serving, and her dedication to seeing a fully integrated military. But I’ll let her speak for herself. Here’s Mariah. Mariah Smith: Hi, my name is Mariah Smith, and my story is titled, “I Write to you from Kandahar Again.” Last time we saw this place together was February of 2011. Do you remember how crowded the Boardwalk was? We were traveling to the Purple Heart ceremony down in Tarin Kowt. It was winter and we were fighting the weather. We’d made it into Kandahar by C-130, then six flights in a row were scratched. Six trips down to the PAX terminal. Hopes dashed six times. Six times three hours wasted in manifesting for helicopters that never showed. Eventually we sat in the Chili’s--who’d have thought there would be a Chili’s here? Or a Boardwalk?--playing Scrabble, desperate to kill time. I started to cry. Scared and feeling hopeless that we were going to miss seeing the survivors. We’d miss seeing their faces and shaking their hands, comforted in the tangible proof that they were intact, in body certainly, if not in spirit. You paused in your act of setting down a letter A, looking at me across the table. Concern written across your face. Later we walked the boardwalk and took pictures of the gray tabby cat who had made himself a little cave in the exact middle of a pallet of water bottles, sleeping curled with his paw over his nose for warmth. One night and then a second, spent shivering miserably in the temporary billets. I’d committed the unpardonable sin of traveling in country without my poncho liner, despite knowing better. Why is the AC on in winter? I pictured the many past nights I’d spent sweating on a cot draped in mosquito net. I huddled, too cold to truly fall asleep even with my watch cap. At some point in the night I felt someone lean over me and cover me with an old wool army blanket. A brief glimpse in the dark of a tan tee shirt and braids pulled back into a bun. I woke long enough to hold my teeth together from chattering and murmured a, “Thank you.” In the morning, all other transient soldiers were gone so I didn’t even have a chance to thank her again. I folded the Army blanket at the foot of the bare plastic mattress and left it for the next stranded traveler. Eventually, after 48 hours, a helicopter came. I have always loved Chinooks best of all, those big ugly workhorses with their deep, reassuring chop. I wanted to be a pilot like you but it wasn’t in the cards. As soon as we were on the bird they hustled us right back off, a soldier running back on with a clipboard, papers flapping. There was some mistake. Maybe. They weren’t sure. They ushered everyone off. I stood my ground, pointing to you, grabbing the crew chief’s harness to shout into his headset. Everything deafened by the rotor wash. Your Kevlar-topped face peering in, worried, from the yawning ramp of the bird. “That’s my Dad,” I hollered into the crew chief’s headset. “We’re trying to get to my husband’s outpost for his Purple Heart ceremony.” The crew chief stared at me for a minute, taking this in, his face almost completely hidden by his helmet. I didn’t let go of his harness until I saw understanding in his eyes and he waved you back on. We buckled in. We made it in time. Just barely. That was three winters ago and that was my fifth tour. Kandahar is a ghost town now. The Forever War is waning, for the time being. I can’t believe I’m here again. Scratch that, yes I can. I feel like I never left. Like the three years between tours five and six were the dream and this is the only reality. Like my short marriage was just a dream too. Like too many other veterans, it was lost to the never ending pace of the back-to-back deployments and the uncertainty and absence of stability. And the fact that even when I was home part of me was still always here. War was over for him and he was ready for it to be over for me too, but many of us can’t leave it behind and when we get a chance to come back and live it again, we go. I’m here with a different unit, a different set of people. I find myself becoming confused at which tours I’ve gone through with which friends. I turn to SFC Carter smiling to reminisce about how this drive reminds me of the time we drove from Ghazni to Camp Warehouse in Kabul and stopped for a lunch of goat and watermelon with the Afghan National Police at the camp named Four Corners. But that wasn’t him. That was a different year, a different sector, the same war, a different me. The news rattles incessantly from one of four flat screens mounted in the TOC. How people return to their narrow metal rooms and continue to watch TV well into the night is beyond me. The voices are deafening. The words never stops. More responsibility and thus more clamor every day. I am constantly surrounded by sound and smothered with interaction until after 16-18 hours of it each day I retreat behind a locked door for 6 hours to write or better yet, read, in as much silence as I can muster. I’m exhausted but strangely happy, even after I discovered Tim Robbins donuts was gone from the Boardwalk. There aren’t as many Canadians here anymore as there were last time and I miss them. Last time I saw Kandahar it was a zoo of different uniforms, concrete barriers and strange vehicles parked in every available spot. Jostling constantly for room in the showers, in the line at the chow hall, in the gym. Now it is empty and makes sense. I can see the neat grid squares of space as it was originally laid out. Entire yards sit empty, the green sniper netting torn and dusty, peeling away to blow across the scrubby no-man’s land. We now have a wealth of space. In the mornings I walk outside of our small compound within a compound and stand under the bay trees with my coffee. It took me weeks to figure out what these trees were, the smell oddly familiar from my childhood. I finally placed it one day when I fished out a familiar leaf from the stew at the mess hall. There won’t be a normal for me. This isn’t an interlude from my regular life. This is my life. Normal has passed me by. Who will I be when I am no longer at war? I’m 36. This all started when I was 22, a platoon leader. Two planes flew into two towers and two more planes went down and not too much later I was standing in a surprise formation watching a general from the 101st give us our go-to-war speech. My friends all are married with kids now. I love them just the same as I always have, but our common ground is fading. I know you would have come with me this time if you could. I love you and I wish you were here to see this. Everything is closing down here. We will be one of the last units out. And then we will wait until we get told to go somewhere else. From what I see on the TVs, I doubt we will have to wait long. I am glad. I feel useful. But someday there will be a pause in this long war and I will have to search out a new way to find meaning in my days. But what will ever come close to this? I look at the faces around me. They grow younger with every tour. This is all new for them. They make me smile. I don’t need to be anywhere else. For now, I am home. [Transition music.] I came from a family where service has been widespread since the civil war even. We have a great great, great grandfather who was killed at the battle of Vicksburg. And then throughout my family’s history, we’ve been involved in World War 2, and my Grandfather was a Navy Veteran, I have cousins that are in all branches of the service, and my father served thirty years in the Navy before he ended up coming to Afghanistan as an Army Civilian on this tour. So I was in high school when I started to think about ‘how am I going to pay for college?’ Um, and we had a young lady who had graduated and had gone on to John Hopkins, and she came back in her ROTC uniform. And that was really the first I’d heard about the program. I knew about OCS and I knew about going to the service academies like West Point, but I learned about ROTC where you drill every Thursday, you take one military science class every semester on Tuesdays, and then the rest of the time you’re a regular college student. So I applied, I didn’t tell my parents until I found out I had won kind of their top-level scholarship. Then I told my parents and I was really proud of that because dad had challenged me to find money for school in the form of scholarship. So I found it and I had selected Vanderbilt University which is an insanely expensive school, so thankfully I was able to attend with the Army scholarship and then I found out as the years went by in college how much I truly loved it and it felt like the one thing in my life that up till that point I was truly good at. I hadn’t really played sports in high school, wasn’t the most athletic kid around, was a decent, decent scholar but nothing that great, and just being a military officer felt like my calling. I felt drawn to it. So I took a commission in 2000 right when I graduated, they commissioned me as a second lieutenant on graduation day and off I went. At the time they did not accept laser surgery to correct vision for pilots, so I started looking at where can I really make a career, what was I drawn to? And um, at the time I was drawn to— I wanted to be a platoon leader. I had read, growing up, all these stories and biographies of young men who were platoon leaders in Vietnam. And who at the time were the same age as me, 19, 20, 21, and that was their formative experience. And really their passage into adulthood was leading a platoon of 30 folks. And a female, there are not as many branches, there weren’t, open to us at the time, more have since opened up and the Army is the process of opening even more opportunities. But one of, in my opinion, the best integrated branch was the Military Police Corps. They had managed to fully integrate women into every aspect, every job, you had the opportunity to lead a platoon of military police, military police have a very strong role in combat support on the battlefield, so you just don’t do law enforcement during your garrison mission when you transition to a war time environment. Military police have a security presence, they do reconnaissance missions to survey area security. We handle enemy prisoners of war, and I saw the most opportunity there where I wouldn’t be limited by my gender, and I had the most opportunity to lead a small unit. Justin Hudnall: That’s really interesting that the military police, you felt, was one of the more integrated branches out there. Was that present among your platoon out there, did you find it was more gender-balanced? Maj. Mariah Smith: Absolutely, the military police tends to draw, has a slightly higher percentage of women, than a lot of the other branches, because I believe there’s so much opportunity for us to be treated completely equal. To have all roles open to us. And it also draws women who are attracted to law enforcement, the outdoors, physical activities, those types of things. So while the rest of the Army is about 14-15% women, the military police corp. is about 18% and the officer corp. is as high as 21% I believe. I think our branch, military police, has led the way in showing that women are capable in combat situations and leadership situations where gender doesn’t have to be a discriminator, and I’m really proud of our branch for that. Justin Hudnall: In your piece you say you’ve been in this was since you were 22, and I wanted to ask you if you’ve felt like since that time you’ve been at war that whole time. Maj. Mariah Smith: I have. It has been without the most formative experience of my life. It has gone on since 2001 and 2002 for me now, and it shaped all of my 20’s and now almost all of my 30’s, because we rotate over—units rotate for anywhere from nine months, one year, even 15 months rotation. I have a 15 month rotation when I was a company commander in Afghanistan. But when you’re home, back in the States, just given the tempo the military has been operating under for the past 12 years, you’re not fully home. You’re either training for your next rotation because you already know when you’re going to go again, or you’re doing recovery efforts, recovering equipment, doing redeployment training once you’re at home. And there hasn’t been that time to really kind of rest for long periods and know you’re going to be able to establish a stable, steady life. Justin Hudnall: In your piece you say you’ve been in this was since you were 22, and I wanted to ask you if you’ve felt like since that time you’ve been at war that whole time. Maj. Mariah Smith: I have. It has been without the most formative experience of my life. It has gone on since 2001 and 2002 for me now, and it shaped all of my 20’s and now almost all of my 30’s, because we rotate over—units rotate for anywhere from nine months, one year, even 15 months rotation. I have a 15 month rotation when I was a company commander in Afghanistan. But when you’re home, back in the States, just given the tempo the military has been operating under for the past 12 years, you’re not fully home. You’re either training for your next rotation because you already know when you’re going to go again, or you’re doing recovery efforts, recovering equipment, doing redeployment training once you’re at home. And there hasn’t been that time to really kind of rest for long periods and know you’re going to be able to establish a stable, steady life. Justin Hudnall: When you’re in a military marriage, when you’re in a military relationship even with someone else who’s serving currently, do you ever feel like you can steal a moment with them when duty isn’t in the room with you? Maj. Mariah Smith: It’s very hard. You know with dual military marriages or relationships, every military family makes sacrifices, and in the military we often tend to find that one partner takes a role where they can bring more stability to the family, whether they choose to be a stay-at-home parent, whether they chose the type of career where they can telecommute, where they can do something where they can move with their spouse. But every family makes sacrifices. But um, when you’re with another service member, kind of in this dual partnership, the military is almost like a, it’s like you’re married to them, to the military as well. It’s like this third party in the relationship trying to manage the needs of the Army and its incredible demands on both of you. And to find time to set that aside and really just be present with your partner, without the strains of knowing what’s coming up, if there’s a long separation coming up, or um you know, is one of you on call, having to take calls all night cause you’re on duty, it’s very difficult to find that time to just be with each other. Justin Hudnall: I feel like for a lot of civilians there’s a ton of media coverage during the surge, and the buildup, and the country kind of get’s its own going-to-war speech, maybe in five-minute intervals on CNN if they’re watching that stuff. But what I don’t think we get a lot of coverage of or a lot of sense on back home is what it’s like being in a draw-down. Can you talk a little but about the differences in being in a build-up versus a draw-down? Watching the base, slowly recede into itself? Maj. Mariah Smith: Absolutely. So when I got orders for the most recent deployment which I just returned from, it was number six for me and it was number three in a row to Afghanistan. We went over there our unit—I’m now in a Criminal Investigation Unit—and we went over in the fall of 2014. And I remember when I was telling my extended family and friends that I was going back to Afghanistan, there was kind of confusion on everyone’s part. They were like, “but we’re pulling the troops out, December 14, it’s the end date. Like everybody’s coming home, how are you just going over there now?” And to explain to them that there is still a mission over there, we still have a commitment to providing stability and training resources and things to the Afghan government, it is a little different. It will be different than my tour in 2007 with 82nd Airborne was. That was a very kinetic, very tactical tour. And in these past couple of years the military has found itself more in a mentorship role. There’s still a great deal of risk that’s assume by our service members that are moving around the battlefield each day. But the emphasis is on creating an enduring system that we can leave with the Afghans when we depart. Justin Hudnall: Did you feel—this is kind of tangential and I’m sorry if it comes off too much like a civvy questions, like “what was Afghanistan like?” Did you feel that risk, especially in such an environment of the era of green-on-blue attacks? Maj. Mariah Smith: Green on Blue is one of the largest concerns, and our unit, criminal investigation command, has a role in investigating those when they happen, as part of a larger joint task force. My previous time there, the one the story that my dad and I were on the tour together, when I’m writing to him reminiscing about our time together in 2011, I was assigned to a NATO unit at the time. A NATO training mission. And the goal of the NATO training mission was to specifically partner with the Afghan Army and the Afghan police and develop all their systems—their logistic system, their artillery systems, their police force—so we were working on a daily basis with the Afghan soldiers and recruits. And it was a time, 2010, 2011, when Green on Blue was at its highest rate. It was just occurring on a regular basis. It was a very difficult period because we still had that trust and working relationship with many of the Afghan security forces that we were partnered with. But to still maintain that kind of vigilance and readiness, to be prepared for these insider attacks at any point, was very difficult. Justin Hudnall: One of the things that I loved the most about your piece, that I’ve found the hardest to explain personally, and for some of my friends to explain, is the anxiety that comes from the prospect of coming home while you’re away on deployment. I know that you’ve been since before September 11th, do you remember the time abouts when the idea of coming home started feeling distressing for you? Producing anxiety? Maj. Mariah Smith: I do. So I’ve been in 15 years now, and probably like many other soldiers I’ve thought periodically about leaving the military at certain points in my life, in the previous years, and I have decided to stay. But it has become such an integral part of my identity that there’s almost a fear in leaving, and I feel a lot of us face that. Because who will you be when you are no longer a service member? When you don’t have this meaning in your life anymore? When you don’t have that connection to others that are like you and have been through the same types of things that you have been? That’s actually a large reason why I have decided to stay. I feel like this is what gives purpose to my life. This is my way to contribute I guess to society and to the people that I care about. Is leading this type of life and making this type of commitment. Because I really am not, not sure who I would be if I took off the uniform. Where would I draw my meaning from? One thing that I think is very powerful and why I was drawn to your organization is because I think veterans find a sense of purpose when we help other veterans, or when we help our local communities. I worked in an organization called, “Soldier for Life,” before I came to this current job, and the whole point of Soldier for Life is that the Chief of Staff of the Army was looking at, as we draw down this Army that’s been larger than it has been in years, as we drawn down the over hundred thousand, how are we going to best serve the people that end up separating? How are we going to connect them to education and employment, and how are we going to help people, help our own veterans, make that transition back into the community? So as I thought about that and I’ve been involved in these types of veterans service organizations for the past two years, the idea that leaving the military has become less frightening and has become more exciting. Because I do have 15 years in, so I have, what five or six or seven more years before it’s time for me to retire. And that’s what I think that I will do. I want to find a way to bridge that divide between our civilians and our military, and integrate our veterans back into our community. [Transition music.} Major Mariah Smith: It seems sometimes the military is kind of a family business and a lot of us—many of us—that are in the service now have parents like you, like me, that served in an earlier conflict or served during the Vietnam era. They were deeply wounded by the way that they were received back home and back into society, and I also believe that the country was deeply hurt by that. That’s where I think we have this national memory to never do that again to our service members Justin Hudnall: You mentioned you were reading a lot of war lit in college and I don’t want to misquote or misappropriate this quote but it might have been Tony Swafford who wrote Jarhead who said, “there’s no such thing as an anti-war story.” He references a lot of like Tim O’Brien and lot of the big military writers but also movies like Apocalypse Now which was intended at least in PR as kind of an anti-war statement, but here when he was in Marine Corp. boot, almost “jarhead porn” he calls it. You’re racking your clip along with it, you’re playing Ride of the Valkyries. How did you, when you were about to enlist, how did you interpret all of that war lit that you were reading. How did you synthesize that with your experience as a soon-to-be officer? Maj. Mariah Smith: You’re right. Before I came in the military and when I was reading these types of things, like so many young people and teenagers, I just saw the glory and the adventure in it. And I was like, I wanna do that, I wanna go to these foreign places and I want to test myself in that ultimate environment, and I want to see how I react, and I want to confirm that I’m brave and that I’m strong. That was what 17 year old Mariah was thinking as she read these stories. And then when you actually live the reality of it, I think any veteran will tell you, war is 90% boring and just wishing you were somewhere else, somewhere home where you had air conditioning where you were more comfortable, where you were back with your loved ones. And then it’s about 5% excitement and fun and 5% terror. These are non-scientific ratios by the way. So then to truly live it, the quote is right because there’s probably an anti-war aspect to everyone’s story, the drawdown, the hardship, the heartbreak, the questioning of why you’re there. But it is such a transformative experience, and there are times when the camaraderie, or the experiences you wouldn’t have in any other type of environment or setting, and it changes you. And that’s what we miss when we leave it behind. Justin Hudnall: Have you found that it’s difficult to communicate or that people are surprised when it’s communicated the nuance that you can be a service member, you can be a veteran, you can be pro-military and pro-soldier and pro0America, and ambivalent about conflict. And I ask that not at all as a political question, I’ve just never met, I’ve never worked with a veteran that I can think of right now at 10 or 11am my time who was like, “yeah, that was awesome, we should have done more of that.” You know what I mean? Maj. Mariah Smith: Exactly. Justin Hudnall: And it has nothing to do with who’s in office or what party, I find most of my friends are a-political almost, it’s like “here we go again” seems to be the party line. Maj. Mariah Smith: It very much is, yeah, it’s like well, you can vote and you can express your political beliefs certain ways, but when it comes down to it you have to operate under whatever the currently political environment is and you have to go and do your mission. And you’re right, you want a military of professionals who are deeply ambivalent about conflict. Because we live, you know, the drawbacks and the suffering associated with it for years. Sometimes even for our whole lives. So you want that reluctance and that true introspection on what is the purpose of this? What am I trying to achieve? How can I best shape an outcome for the good that I can influence, whether it’s training this platoon of Afghan policemen or making sure all my soldiers come home, that I do everything everyday to bring them home safely and help them move on with their lives—yes I believe pretty much every service member to a man, woman, and veteran— they may not be when they come in but once they gain some experience and some insight are deeply examining and introspective of why do we go to war and what are the objectives that we’re trying to achieve. I know you’re currently enlisted still, but if you were to encounter somebody who was about to term out in say two weeks or a month, and you were able to give them one piece of advice about what to expect or prepare for getting their head straight about being on the other side, what would it be? Maj. Mariah Smith: It would be to have a good plan about how they’re going to pursue some type of career or employment that they’re passionate about, how they’re going to better themselves through education and how they’re going to care for themselves and family, through either health care or finances. Because what I saw with a lot of folks who left, there was just this sense that they wanted to get away. They were done and they needed to kind of defuse, break free of the military, and they left without a plan. And we have some tremendous benefits available to us when we become veterans, like the post 9/11 GI Bill, the support of communities, organizations that hire veterans, that hire military spouses. And the military has a program, a transition assistance program, for preparing yourselves in your final months of service to make that leap to the outside and to become a productive citizen through finding a quality job or getting enrolled in an education program. So that would be my biggest piece of advice, is make a plan for what you want your life to be like next month, next year, five years from now, and don’t just kind of walk away from everything in the military without a good plan. Justin Hudnall: Alright, Major Mariah Smith, thanks so much for being on Incoming. Maj. Mariah Smith: You bet. Thank you for having me. [Outro music.] Justin Hudnall: That was Major Mariah Smith, and that is our show. Incoming is produced by myself, Justin Hudnall. Our composer and musicians include: Chris Warren, Ariana Warren, and Kristopher Apple. Thomas Torres is our assistant editor, and Ikoi Hiroe provides transcription services. In the studio: Nate John is web editor. Kurt Kohnen is our Production Manager. Emily Jankowski is our Audio Technician, and John Decker is the Program Director who’s missing beard we mourn the most. Special thanks to WUNC Chapel Hill for helping us talk with Major Smith from all the way here in San Diego, they’re good people. You can find us on the web at kpbs.org/incoming or at incomingradio.org, and hey, listen up to this part because it’s really important: we want to hear what you have to tell us about the show, and about who you are and what your story is, so shoot us an e-mail at info@sosayweallonline.com so we can connect. We look forward to hearing from you. Thanks for listening, we’ll talk again soon.

This episode is spent with Major Mariah Smith, who recently transitioned from her post at Fort Bragg to the Pentagon’s Congressional liaison office. Mariah is fifteen years in to completing a lifelong career in the Army, having joined before 9/11 and completed six tours since. She’s far too humble to say it in these words, but she was part of history earlier this year as one of the very first female candidates to participate in the Army’s integrated Ranger school.

We’re willing to wager you’d be hard pressed to find someone who wouldn’t feel better knowing the armed services have Smith among their ranks. And as you’ll hear in her story and interview, her voice is remarkably candid and vulnerable on subjects such as finding an identity outside of the military, the struggle to maintain relationships while serving, and her dedication to seeing a fully integrated military. But don’t take our word for it, give a listen.

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