The Witmer family sent three daughters to the Middle East, but only two came home.
In "Sisters in Arms: A Father Remembers," father and author John Witmer describes his daughters' experiences at war and the family's struggle to bring them home after a devastating tragedy.
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Chapter 1: Up on My Roof
Baghdad, Iraq, 2003
Rachel and her squad took their positions on the roof of the battered concrete building that served as the neighborhood police station. In recent weeks, insurgents had focused their assaults on these fragile beacons of law and order. In this war without frontlines, the 32nd MPs were given the task of providing security for the Iraqi Police, so attacks on police stations were both an attack on the post-Saddam regime and the U.S. government. Police stations were a convenient and efficient target.
The sun was low and the day-shift convoy had just pulled out heading back to Camp Victory after their twelve-hour watch. The police station, in Al Adamia, was just large enough to house a few cells and some dingy offices. It was far from inviting, and Rachel never completely trusted the IPs (Iraqi Police) she worked with; if she found herself in the unfortunate circumstance of needing to use the dilapidated commode, she kept her sidearm ready.
She began her routine, setting up her M-16 and scanning the streets below in slow, rhythmic sweeps, watching for anything that seemed out of place: a truck moving a little too slowly, a pedestrian moving a little too quickly, or a moment that was just a little too quiet. In the months that preceded this one, Rachel and her team had taken small arms fire and mortar fire and had dealt with their share of grenades. She was just a few minutes into her watch when she heard it, a sound she couldn't place. It was like the sound of the surf in the distance.
Rachel struggled to understand where the sound was coming from. Her apprehension grew as she attempted to find an explanation. Her eyes carefully traced the streets below until she saw it—a wave of humanity, off in the distance, making its way toward the station. Not the roar of the ocean, the roar of the crowd, an angry, roiling, gun-waving mob.
Now she could make out the voice of the mullah (a religious leader) crackling over a loudspeaker. The rapid-fire words seemed to be urging the crowd on. Rachel could only imagine what was being said, but the words erupted from the primitive speaker with anger. The streets of Iraq traded in rumor and conspiracy, and this uprising could have been sparked by any one of the wild stories that routinely circulated about American soldiers: that they desecrated mosques, molested children, or spread pornography. It was clear that the gun-waving mob was heading their direction, hell-bent on taking revenge on this handful of soldiers, the most visible manifestation of the American military. The sergeant radioed the day shift and told them to double-time it back to the police station. Rachel was grateful for the reinforcements, but still, there was no way they could fend off an armed mob of this size.
As Rachel took her stand on the roof, time began to expand, seconds passing like minutes, altered by the adrenaline that now pumped into her bloodstream. In that heightened state of awareness, in a moment of clarity, Rachel accepted the fact that it might end here, that this might be her last stand, her last day on Earth. As she prepared herself, she was suddenly calm. Peace came over her as she reflected on the people she cared about, bringing their faces to mind, one-by-one, as the pounding of her heart subsided.
Her sisters came to mind first. Michelle served with her in the 32nd MPs. Michelle's platoon was pulling the same kind of duty in a different part of Baghdad. Then Charity: she was a medic with the Company B 118th Medical Battalion, stationed at BIAP, Baghdad International Airport, on the other side of town. She brought her brothers' faces to mind, little brother Tim, just two years younger, and baby brother Mark, now a senior in high school. Then she thought about Mom and Dad and aunts and uncles and dozens of cousins. She wondered what it would be like for them if it all came to an end, here, on this rooftop in Baghdad.
This was not the first time Rachel had experienced this: time standing still, recalling the faces of those she loved, making peace with death, bracing herself. There had been a mortar attack on her barracks, in the middle of the night, that had shaken her awake. As she lay on the floor calculating how long it would take the insurgents to dial in the next strike, which would likely be dead-on target, this same sensation came over her. Fear left her; she was resolute, ready to accept her fate. Then the choppers came in and she heard the report of a big gun and she knew the insurgents would not fire another round. The threat had been neutralized. The chopper hovered, standing watch over the barracks, and the sound of helicopter blades sang Rachel to sleep that night.
A new noise pulled her back into real time: the unmistakable thudding of helicopter blades. The Blackhawk hovered above the crowd, and all forward motion stopped as its guns were trained on the throng below. The mob continued to shout and wave their weapons, but now tanks were rolling up the side streets, blocking the way to the police station. The standoff continued as the sun inched toward the horizon. But slowly and steadily the crowd thinned, melting into the twilight.
The recruiter hit the jackpot, a two-for-one special. Rachel and Charity sat at his desk looking at pamphlets. He explained that, yes, Charity could sign-up when she turned seventeen, as long as she had her parents' permission and a high school diploma. The sign-on on bonus? $8000, half after basic-training and half after finishing three years of the six-year contract. "And don't forget the GI Bill," he reminded. All they had to do was pick one of the bonus-eligible MOSs (Military Occupational Specialty) and military police or medical specialist both qualified.
It was the fall of 2000. Rachel was two years out of high school. She had worked at various jobs but hadn't quite settled on a direction in life. She was well-read and intelligent, but the last few years of high school had been a grind, and she wasn't ready to jump back into the books. But when she was ready to go to college, she wanted to do it on her own. If she asked for Mom and Dad to help with the expenses, there would be strings attached. She was supporting herself and she wanted it to stay that way. Joining the Guard seemed to be the answer: a bonus, job training, and money for school. She signed on the dotted line as sixteen-year old Charity looked on with envy.
In January 2001, we stood with Rachel as she checked in to a hotel across the street from Milwaukee's MEPS – military speak for "Military Entrance Processing Station." MEPS would be the first of hundreds of new acronyms Rachel would learn over the next four months. In the morning, she would receive a wake-up call at 4:00 a.m. and the induction process would begin; the day would be full of medical tests and examinations. Then, late the next day, she would board a bus to Milwaukee's Billy Mitchell Field. A plane would take her to St Louis and another bus ride would land her at her destination: Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, one of the toughest basic training facilities in the country.
She had to be in her room and accounted for by 10:00 p.m. We lingered in the hotel lobby until the last minute, the whole clan: Mom (Lori), Dad, Tim, Michelle, Charity, and Mark, making small talk. "We'll be there for graduation—write us and tell us when it is just as soon as you find out," Lori reminded her again. We had always been a close-knit family, and saying goodbye, even for four months, was difficult.
Two days later, Rachel was moving through a line at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, collecting her gear as the drill sergeants screamed instructions to the new recruits. Finding combat boots in a size four had not been easy, but the gear was collected in a duffel bag. She wrote us describing carrying her duffle bag full of her new gear: "We had to hold the duffle bag in front of us as we walked. It was almost as tall as I was and weighed nearly as much." From the beginning, it was clear that the drill sergeants meant to tear the recruits down so that they could then be reassembled into soldiers. Many in this group would not make it. "A lot of recruits have washed out," she wrote a few weeks later, "we're down to 280 from about 320. One of the guys attempted suicide last night."
I marveled at Rachel's tenacity as I read her boot camp letters. It wasn't just that she endured the long days or the relentless physical training—she made it through the mind games. "For now, we're only allowed to eat with a spoon. When we get into the next phase, the drill sergeants may let us have a fork." Through it all, she remained positive, and when we saw her again, at her graduation, there was no doubt that my first-born daughter had become a soldier.
Excerpted from "Sisters in Arms: A Father Remembers," available now from Library Lane Publishing (www.librarylanepublishing.com). Copyright © 2010.