A warrior's transformation

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Tracey Rickert
  • 56th Medical Support Squadron
In October 2006, my number came up: the Air Force tagged me to deploy to Iraq to support the war on terrorism. I can't say I was happy. As a matter of fact, I didn't say much at all. I just sobbed.

My husband and I are both active duty. We had a plan, and deploying was not part of it. I was going to finish my degree, we were going to expand our family by one and then I was going to separate from the military. Needless to say, our plan did not work out.

January 17, I said goodbye to my husband and my 18-month-old son and boarded a plane with five others destined for the field hospital at Balad Air Base, Iraq.

For the first few weeks of my deployment, I cried myself to sleep nearly every night. I missed my husband and baby so much it hurt. Additionally, working in patient administration at the hospital, I witnessed terrible things.

We were responsible for loading and unloading all patients from the helicopters. We were the first to see the wounded. It was not long after the first American soldier died and the first Iraqi child came into the emergency room screaming, that I began to understand how important it was for me to be there. I felt pride and honor in taking care of American heroes. Many patients just wanted someone to listen to their story, and others needed help accomplishing simple tasks.

I remember one evening after dinner I stayed behind and helped feed ice cream to three patients who had both arms wrapped. They talked about what they had been through and how they got hurt. But most wanted to talk about their families and how much they looked forward to seeing them again.

Unfortunately, not everyone lived to tell their stories.

Among my duties was one of the saddest things I ever had to do. I helped tag and bag all the bodies of fallen comrades. I remember having an American soldier's wedding ring and family picture of him, his wife and their child sitting on my desk while I filled out his death certificate. They tell you not to personalize things, but it's hard when you see their family and think of your own.

As heart wrenching as this duty was, it also turned out to be one of the most honorable things I have ever done. Those troops gave the ultimate sacrifice. They died to make our country a better place for their families and mine. I had the honor to ensure their remains were treated with the respect and dignity they had earned. You could never believe the honor and pride you feel when you wrap an American Flag around a fallen war hero.

I quit crying myself to sleep.

I'd realized the importance of my service. I still hated being away from my family, but at least I knew they were safe. I was there to help take care of other families. As much as I did not want to deploy, it ended up being one of the best experiences of my life. I am back with friends and family now, and I am grateful for that. But my experiences have given me a different perspective on life and the military. Since being back, I've decided to reenlist and continue my Air Force career.

I see the big picture now.