The 33-year-old marketing manager and mother-to-be recently turned her war writings into a book. “In the Company of Soldiers” is the story of her time in Iraq.
Meichelbock took the time for an exclusive email Q&A with BrooWaha to discuss being separated from her unit, a poignant moment while frisking an Iraqi woman and the important role females play in the military.
BrooWaha: When were you in Iraq and what was your position?
Melia: My position was a Civil Affairs Specialist (civil assistance, rebuilding efforts,
elections, etc...). We meet with the local leaders to help rebuild and improve economic conditions. My rank was Sergeant. I lived in several places -- two forward operating bases in Tikrit, a safehouse and a patrol base in Samarra, a forward operating base in Balad, Tuz, and Balad Ruz.
B: You kept a journal during your service and turned it into a book. Do you feel there is a lack of awareness amongst the majority of the American public about what is going on in Iraq?
M: Most definitely. Most of the journalists barely venture out of Baghdad. Baghdad is not Iraq. Having lived in several different places I have visited over 50 villages and towns, most very welcoming. I had a very positive experience with the Iraqi people.
B: Why did you decide to keep a journal to document your experiences in Iraq?
M: I looked for something to read before I deployed and there was nothing out there from a female perspective. Plus I thought it would be an excellent way to cope with the stress and something to pass down through generations. My grandmother was a WAC (Women's Army Corps) and I would have loved to have read some entries from World War II.
B: What was the most challenging part of your deployment?
M: The constant movement and change. I had the worst luck. I was separated from my unit from the start. I flew into Iraq on my own because of mixed up orders, on 9/11 of all days. My bags were lost too. I lived with strangers and the clothes on my back for months.
The scariest was probably living in the safe house and patrol base in Samarra. There was always something going on, gun fights and explosions. There were plenty of times I thought I might die.
Being the only female in most places had its pluses and minuses. You could get whatever you needed for your team, but there was a lot of unwanted attention such as staring and even sometimes notes slid under my door.
B: Do you feel like you made a difference during your service in Iraq?
M: Yes, the Iraqi women were wide eyed when they saw me. I think a woman manning a machine gun made quite an impression on them. The kids too. The little boys were always proposing. I think it opened their eyes to possibilities. The biggest always broke my heart.
Overall I saw lots of improvement from OIF I (Operation Iraqi Freedom) to OIF II. The local police and military were starting to take over more.
B: What moment stands out the most to while you were in Iraq?
M: There are so many. The moment that most stands out though was probably in Samarra. I was with strangers, the toilet was a hole in the floor, the shower was in the same place, there was no hot food, and it was practically all men. I was stuck frisking women who were coming in the safe house to make a damage claim from a recent battle (Operation Baton Rouge).
It was fairly uncomfortable to frisk ultra conservative women in 120 degree heat and I usually just kept thanking them in Arabic. I was trying to hold it together and just do my job. I would take the women in a private area to frisk, so that they are not in front of the men.
This elderly lady I had to frisk took one look at me and was visibly concerned, not for her, but for me. I had a strand of hair that had fallen down my face and she pushed it out of my face in a very motherly way. I almost broke down crying. I guess some things are universal and don't require words. She knew how I was feeling from the moment that she laid eyes on me. She said a little prayer over me before she left. I guess it worked because I am still here.
B: Where are you now and what are you currently doing?
M: I work for the California and Nevada Credit Union League as the communications and marketing manager. I am working on my MBA. I am eight months pregnant with my first child. My husband is a green beret I met in Iraq.
B: How has it been adjusting to civilian life again?
M: It took about three months to adjust. You hold a lot in, so when I came back to the safety of home the flood gates opened. I cried a lot and got annoyed when people acted petty.
B: You recently wrote an opinion piece in USA Today that criticized an article called "Mental toll of war hitting female servicemembers" because it didn't focus, as you say, on the positive work female soldiers are doing in Iraq and the many female soldiers who are coping succesfully. Do you have any examples of this from your own experience?
M: Yeah, its extremely irritating that they spotlight only the women that had trouble. For the record, both men and women experience PTSD (Posttraumatic Stress Disorder). One of the biggest issues for women in the military is proving their value. Articles like this set us back.
CNN 360 just posted a similar story and people were responding "this is why women don't belong in the service." I rode out with the Infantry and even did foot patrols through town. We lost a soldier and had several injured. It's tough, but that is war and to be expected.
We're trained to shoot at human targets and avoid mock explosions. Anyone thinking the military is any different shouldn't serve. That goes for men and women. I just don't like the singling out of women. If they want to talk about PTSD they should talk about "soldiers" not women. Their selective stories paint us in a "can't handle it" light, when handling it has nothing to do with gender, both men and women can have issues or even be heroic. What was even worse was the women had never even left the base. She was stressed from hearing bombs in the distance.
B: Are women treated equally in the military or is there a different set of standards?
M: I saw it in other units, but not so much with mine. As with any job, leadership is top down. In most places I was treated as an equal, even sharing room and toilet facilities in extreme cases like the safe house. That was hard, sharing a bathroom!
Occasionally there were base issues I would run into. At one base in particular they stuck all the female soldiers in one giant room, regardless of rank and let lower enlisted males have their own shared rooms. That irritated me the most. They gave lower ranking soldiers better quarters because they felt it was easier to lump all us females together. But my leadership eventually got me out. I was lucky in that my superiors supported me as a soldier, not a woman.
B: What is the overall message your want to get out about females serving in Iraq and in the military in general?
M: That we kick butt just as much as the guys! Ha, ha. Actually in Iraq we play an important role. Men cannot approach women or frisk them. We play a key role since the women often hide weapons in their dresses.
I'd like to see some positive stories about what we do to put us on par with the men. It seems like the men are heroes and the women are just felt sorry for. It makes me sick to my stomach that someone would rather feel sorry for me than thank me and tell me I did a good job.
B: What advice do you have for young women who might be considering a career in the military and the very real possibility of getting deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan?
M: Prepare yourself mentally and physically as best you can. Read and learn as much as you can before you deploy. Don't be so quick to judge, you'll learn for yourself rather fast who you can trust and who you can't. Don't put yourself in bad situations. I heard about some young women getting taken advantage of skipping off to drink with the guys, always take another female or trusted male with you anywhere you go with strangers.
B: Thank you for your time and for your service and best of luck promoting your book.