By Laura Naylor Colbert
Laura Naylor Colbert appeared on VBC Happy Hour back in June to talk about her experiences serving with the 32nd Military Police Company in Baghdad as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003-2004. The article below is adapted from her award-winning Sirens: How to Pee Standing Up—An Alarming Memoir of Combat and Coming Back Home (Warriors Publishing Group, 2019). Today, Laura is an educator, business consultant, and Director of Parks and Recreation in Waupaca, Wisconsin, where she lives with her husband and three children. Learn more and buy the book at lauracolbert.com.
On March 6, 2001—six months before 9/11—I signed up for the Army National Guard. I was a freshman at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I was athletic and wanted adventure, and the Guard would help pay for school. I never expected the adventure I got.
Less than two years later, I was activated as a member of the 32nd Military Police Company and then shipped to Iraq for what was supposed to be a six-month deployment.
My platoon’s first official mission was to protect and oversee the operations of the Al Sha’ab Police Station in the northern reaches of Baghdad. It sat in the middle of a volatile Shi’a neighborhood adjacent to Sadr City. My platoon monitored the station 24 hours a day.
One of my jobs was driving the lead Humvee in a small convoy from our company’s camp in the Green Zone to Al Sha’ab. Each 45-minute trip was a nerve-wracking exposure to some of the worst Baghdad had to offer.
Baghdad was the perfect storm of Third World infrastructure colliding with First World amenities. Highways featured people riding on top of cars, families of five on mopeds, pedestrians in the middle of the road, and donkey carts woven into the traffic. Cars barreled the wrong way down streets with utter disregard of lanes or lines. Blaring horns. Constant shouting. Garbage covering every square inch of neighborhoods. An occasional dead horse festering in the middle of the road.
A few times gunshots rang through the air close to our convoy, but we cruised on, never knowing if they were meant for us or someone else.
Walking into Al Sha’ab Police Station for the first time left me in a state of disbelief. How could professionals function in such disrepair and repulsive conditions? Garbage surrounded the two-story, tan building. A sewage leak in the back released a green, odorous liquid. One useless intact window stood out among its jagged-edged or nonexistent counterparts. The bathroom was two holes in the ground, one hole slightly resembling a squatting toilet. The other three-inch hole emitted a pungent sewer stench I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.
Baghdad’s lawlessness made a mockery of the local police. I once asked one of our interpreters, Nada, why no one enforced the laws. She said:
The Iraqis don’t know how to deal with freedom. Once Saddam’s regime was gone, the Iraqis thought they could do whatever they wanted. If they could get away with it, why not? Why not loot the museums and stores? Why not drive down the wrong side of the street? Why not drink in public?
We rotated among five posts at the station: guarding the front gate, working the front desk, manning the radio, and holding down one of two fighting positions inside and on top of the building.
Each job had its own challenges. At the front gate and in the fighting positions, we contended with loitering children. Normally, I love kids, but the Al Sha’ab children were beyond irritating. Usually, between five and 15 children stood yelling at our gate. Most wore rags and had flies swirling around the sores on their bodies. They were filthy and starved for attention.
It sounded like an elementary school playground, but instead of innocent children playing, they were trying to distract us. They begged for food, water, money, and attention. They yelled in Arabic and broken English, screamed nonsense, waved if they thought we were looking at them, blew kisses if we made eye contact, and brought us dying flowers or dirty candy.
Because the children would be caught in the crossfire if we were attacked, we tried everything to get them to leave: yelled, pointed weapons, told them to Ishta―go away―and Imshi―keep walking. The Iraqi police even threw rocks at them, which caused them to scatter like cockroaches, only to return a few minutes later.
We also worked with and trained the Iraqi police in real time. But they did next to nothing. Crashes occurred, thefts took place in front of their eyes, and they merely looked on, impassively. We’d order them to run out and help, but they did so at a snail’s pace. Sometimes, they ransacked wrecked vehicles for money.
Residents would occasionally come in and report a crime.
My brother kidnapped my daughter.
My husband is prostituting out my pregnant daughter.
The government is trying to steal my land, but the Americans promised I could keep it.
We’d hand the reports to the Iraqi police, who completely ignored them.
I asked an interpreter why the police never followed up on criminal complaints.
“The majority of the complaints are made up,” he said, “you shouldn’t believe the people.”
“Why would anyone make up such lies?” I asked. “What would be the point?”
The interpreter just looked at me, as though I would never understand, and shrugged.
The radio position was initially located inside a Humvee that was parked on the front lawn. Ten days after arriving in Baghdad, I was outside on RTO (Radio Telephone Operator) duty when I had my first real war experience.
An explosion sent me to the floor of the Humvee in a flash. Because our Humvees weren’t up-armored, I ducked low and slid out of my vehicle to take cover behind the tire well. Staccato bangs indicated a likely a drive-by shooting. As the first shot rang through the air, time sped everything into a blur.
Realizing I had left my rifle sitting in the vehicle about seven feet away, I crawled back into the vehicle, snatched my rifle, and scooted back to the tire well.
I was the only MP still outside. My heart was beating outside of my chest, and my head spun with nervous anticipation, wondering what my next step should be. Within seconds, my trusted team leader emerged to try to kill the henchman who was long gone. He asked if I was OK.
I was more than OK. I was ecstatic.
We collected ourselves and checked for injuries. Pride flooded over me. I had just stepped into the world of the front lines. My eyes lit up. I could go home with a bona fide war story.
* * * * *
By October 2003, our deployment changed radically. We went from liberating the Iraqis to occupying their cities. And with that occupation came more animosity and bloodshed.
For me, the defining moment of that transition was the bombing of the Al Sha’ab Police Station.
I was lounging outside our hooch in the Green Zone on a beautiful October 27th morning, waiting for our mission to start. The birds were chirping, the sky was dotted with a few fluffy clouds, and the temperature was comfortable at 75 degrees.
I had just finished my morning Power Bar and preparing the Humvee for the day’s journey to the station. Our gear was waiting for us on our vehicle seats.
Two earth-moving explosions boomed in the city. One of the bombs was close enough to elicit a holy shit under our breaths as we scanned the buildings across the Tigris. But we didn’t pay it too much heed. We’d become accustomed to explosions.
The birds, however, knew better. They screeched and took to the skies.
Within moments, a voice from second platoon came over the radio:
We just received an RPG attack at the Al Sha’ab police station. There are multiple fatalities.
Without an audible order, we threw on our gear, mounted up, and drove like hell to the station.
We accomplished the 45-minute drive in 25 minutes. I scraped the side of an Iraqi car that took too long to give us the right-of-way, drove down the wrong side of the road, jumped over medians, and tore through intersections.
We gasped as we turned onto Al Sha’ab’s main road. Within a half hour of the blast, thousands of curious men and boys had poured onto the streets, covering every square inch of road, like a crowd in Times Square on New Year’s Eve.
The mob parted like the Red Sea as I honked the Humvee’s puny horn, and we screamed Ishta out the window.
As the bystanders stepped aside, they revealed a ruined station still shrouded in smoke and dust. This was far more than an RPG. It was a car bomb, and a large one.
One side of the station and our ten-foot security wall were gone, along with two houses and at least ten shops across the street. Homes and businesses within a four-block radius had blown-out windows, and shrapnel had torn through their walls.
The destruction was mind-numbing. I could smell burning rubble, garbage, flesh, and bomb residue.
We jumped out of our Humvees and pushed our way through the crowd toward what was left of Al Sha’ab. Ground zero was a 10-foot-deep and 20-foot-wide crater yawning from the sandy earth. Surrounding it were four heaps of melted metal that were once cars.
We turned around and went into crowd-control mode, pushing bystanders back away from the blast site and secured the area.
Recovery men dug bodies out of the rubble, including those of three young girls. Their fathers sobbed over their charred and mutilated bodies, cradling them like babies.
These were the same children I’d seen swarming around the station.
I surveyed the damage as I went to the roof to pull security. The building reeked of blood and burning flesh. A lone hand lay on the ground, palm up, in the front entryway. The walls along the length of the police station were snaked with cracks, splattered with blood, and studded with shrapnel. The prison door was ajar with a six-by-two-inch gaping hole in the middle of it. All 60 prisoners had escaped.
Three of our MPs were in the station at the time and received the worst of the blast. But they were lucky, comparatively speaking. The worst wounds among them was a deep head laceration and severed ear.
Twenty-seven Iraqis had died, including six police officers. Over 120 others were injured. Insurgents had choreographed three other explosions through the city that morning targeting police stations and the Red Cross.
The following day, we went back to Al Sha’ab and pulled security on what was left of our fighting positions, conducted more crowd control, and loaded three truckloads of salvageable items.
The bomb left little intact. Media arrived in droves, including the BBC, CBS, and NBC. While I was sitting on the rooftop pulling guard, I watched with caution while three different men meandered onto a roof directly across the street and pointed something black in my direction. The glare of the sun, my scratched sunglasses, and the distance between our rooftops made it difficult to decipher what they were pointing. I put my finger on the trigger and turned my weapon to fire. After a short time, they left without incident. I found out later that day they were photographers. I saw myself sitting on the roof when I logged onto Yahoo.com later that evening.
By the third day, my shock had worn off. That night, I untied my boots, hung up my weapons, and crashed into my pillow, fully dressed. I sobbed into the softness of my bed and blanket, shaking my bunk.
* * * * *
Our six-month tour got extended to eight months, then twelve, then fourteen. Baghdad got more violent, and so did our missions. Mortar and rocket attacks became common. More IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices). More RPGs (Rocket Propelled Grenades). More car bombs. Once, we even got warnings of submarines in the Tigris River.
In early April 2004, Sunni insurgents launched another wave of attacks on police stations around Sadr City. Our company manned guns and fighting positions around Al Sha’ab every day.
One night, on the way back to the Green Zone, I noticed our team’s Humvees were the sole vehicles on a four-lane road with apartment buildings rising 30 stories above us. The pulsing rhythm of the heavy tires on the pavement was interrupted by what sounded like popcorn popping or clapping. From my side mirror, I saw the gunners crouch into their turrets.
We were receiving small-arms fire from the dark windows in the surrounding buildings. The shots sounded muffled inside the up-armored Humvee.
BOOM! A Humvee-shaking explosion detonated behind our convoy, followed by more gunfire. My toenails curled in my boots, and my knuckles whitened around the steering wheel.
I stepped on the gas pedal hard and hauled ass into our checkpoint, called “Assassin’s Gate.” The guards leaped out of our way. The serpentine did nothing to slow our speed. I needed to get our whole convoy through safely before I dared to press on the brake. We pulled over to assess the damage. To our surprise, all the soldiers and our Humvees were unharmed.
How many close calls like this could we survive?
The very next night, we took a different route home from Sha’ab, but our second platoon didn’t. Unknown to us, they retraced the same path of our ambush the night before. We learned this only when the second platoon leader’s desperate chatter broke radio silence.
IED . . .There’s so much blood. We pulled Witmer into the Humvee from the turret. She’s unconscious and bleeding through the nose, but she still has a pulse. We’re rushing to the Green Zone CSH [Combat Support Hospital].
The red eyes and mournful expressions in the MWR (Morale, Welfare, Recreation) room the next morning told me all I needed to know about Witmer’s well-being.
We were grief-stricken beyond words. Our own sweet, kind, gentle Michelle Witmer was the first female soldier in the history of the National Guard to be killed in action. Her face was plastered on CNN and FOX news.
The next few days were clouded with sadness and resentment. Why didn’t someone tell her squad to avoid that route after we were attacked the night before? I still live with the guilt of feeling like I could have done something to prevent Witmer’s death.
As if to break us further, the Army told us days later that were yet again extended. I sent this angry email to my family and friends:
Another week of missing home more than I can say. This place is taking a toll on me. Hope and morale have been drained from my system. I’m a pile of skin and bones that does what I’m told. It’s hard to think for myself anymore. I don’t care. I don’t care when mortars hit. I don’t care when an IED goes off I’m numb. That’s why they need to get us out of here. We have nothing left—mentally or physically. It is completely inhumane what they have done to us. We have tortured souls.
I didn’t have a death wish, and in no way did I intend to commit suicide, but I was secretly hoping to get hurt—to be wounded enough to go home. I didn’t care if I lost a limb or suffered a disability; I wanted to be freed from the shackles of war. I couldn’t see any other way to get out of Iraq.
I had begun to lose faith in humankind.
* * * * *
My 32nd MP Company finally ended its tour and took off for home in the wee hours of July 25, 2004. We flew out of Camp Doha, Kuwait. I’d spent the previous twelve days preparing to become a civilian again.
My steps grew lighter as we unloaded our garbage, spare tires, fuel cans, and extra ammo. We really were going to leave this dreaded place. We were giddy with excitement.
As I tossed my disposable war gear into the Dumpster, I took a last look at the bright blue 99-cent automobile funnel I’d carried with me through my whole deployment. I called it my PUD (Personal Urinary Device).
Peeing while at war was routine for men, but how were women supposed to do it without exposing themselves? The funnel was the answer, and it was my constant companion these last fourteen months. I even used it behind the wheel while driving, directing the pipe end into an empty water bottle. I had some embarrassing misses, for sure, but that funnel came to symbolize the pioneering role of people like me and Michelle Whitmer, women in combat.
I hesitated to pitch such a historic artifact, but before I could change my mind, I tossed it over the edge of the Dumpster, like Rose throwing The Heart of the Ocean over the ship’s side in the movie Titanic. It was time to return to my feminine side.
The long flight home gave us time to process our return. The plane was abuzz with chatter.
Do you think they’ll make us turn the plane around? I heard that it happened to a different company as they were flying over the Atlantic.
How many people do you think will be waiting for us when we land?
I can’t wait to hug my kids.
How many of us are going to suffer from PTSD, do you think?
When we landed on the tarmac in Wisconsin, the plane erupted into a deafening applause—like a walk-off homerun at the ballpark. A crowd the size of a football field awaited us.
Of course, the Army made us line up in alphabetical order before we disembarked. I kept peering out the tiny windows to see if I could catch a glimpse of a familiar face.
On the First Sergeant’s cue, they finally opened the doors.
The University of Wisconsin marching band serenaded us while we walked down the airplane’s steps. A long line of military honchos and Governor Doyle stood at the bottom of the steps to shake our hands. Their faces were like a blur. I gazed past their smiles, trying to see my family’s instead, but to no avail. The crowd was too massive.
People yelled for their soldiers and held homemade signs. Groups chanted their loved ones’ names. The more soldiers who emerged from the plane, the louder the crowd got.
Yet, before we could embrace our loved ones, we had to hand over our sidearms and rifles at the weapon’s truck. For the first time in 16 months, I didn’t have to watch, clean, and keep eyes on my weapons. This solitary act felt like a giant leap toward our own liberation from active duty.
Then, I followed the snaking line through the gated fence and around a bend, and there was my smiling mom, front and center.
“Laura! Laura! It’s you!”
A dozen friends and family members showed up to welcome me home. We laughed, hugged, kissed, embraced.
The physical contact made me flinch. The intimacy was foreign to my war-hardened body. I tried not to show my discomfort.
We out-processed and partied over the next five days at Ft. McCoy. Then, a psychologist interviewed me about my mental health.
We knew better than to reveal anything suggesting trauma. Otherwise, they’d keep you at McCoy to verify your mental fitness before releasing you into civilian life.
“Did you see combat?” the doctor asked.
“Yes, but it wasn’t too often.”
“Did you see any dead bodies?”
“Only from afar. I couldn’t even really tell they were dead.”
“Did you suffer prolonged periods of sadness?”
“Do you feel fully prepared to reintegrate into civilian life?”
Several days later while standing in formation, on the 502nd day of our deployment, we were officially released from active duty.
My first instinct was not to run home, away from the company formation, but to run toward my fellow females, my new family, my lifeblood. We were overtaken by emotion. We stood in a circle and gave each other a bittersweet hug. Our eyes were blurry with tears. We were all trying to talk at the same time.
I love you guys.
I never would have gotten through this without you.
* * * * *
A week after I returned home from war, my parents and I went to a residential veterans home to visit my aunt and uncle. A French and Indian War reenactment was occurring in an adjacent field. We had been sitting outside, enjoying the warm sun, low humidity, and the hum of the distant boats on the Chain O’Lakes.
Then, cannons from the reenactment boomed to life.
The first couple of bombs made me jump, and I could feel my heart in my throat. By the fifth, electric waves of fear coursed through my system. I could barely hear over the rushing noise in my ears. I knew my parents were looking at me—concerned—but I couldn’t make eye contact. I was too ashamed of what was happening to me. I tried to crawl inside myself to hide.
As the staccato bangs continued, my fear intensified.
“We have to get out of here. Now!” I heard myself say.
I was frozen in place. My body wouldn’t move under my command. My parents stood on both sides of me and helped me walk to the car. I could barely stand on my own. “I’m safe, I’m safe, I’m safe” repeated in my head, but my body wouldn’t listen until the cannons were out of earshot.
My parents were dumbstruck. “Are you OK, Laura? What can we do?” Their questions continued on the drive home. I shook my head—unsure of what to tell them.
“I’ll be fine,” I said.
Little did we know how bad it would get.
* * * * *
Military psychologists told us that upon our return we may suffer Post-Traumatic Stress, and they explained the different symptoms such as guilt, mistrust, irritability, social isolation, hypervigilance, flashbacks, anxiety, and nightmares.
I refused to admit that war had a long-term impact on my life. I was an intelligent, strong, and determined person. I was not going to let the war beat me. I had made it out of my initial funk and thought that I coming through the worst of it.
But I hadn’t. Over time, I lost my happiness. I didn’t have control over my thoughts and was tormented day and night with visions of war. The very thought of being happy sent me into a whirlwind of guilt. My prior life was an un-reachable dream. I would float in and out of reality. I felt buried, caught in a layer of dirt where the earthworms burrowed and the moles sniffed around.
No one wanted to touch my darkness, and I couldn’t figure out which way was up.
A roaring siren pulsed through my head, getting louder and louder until I couldn’t hear my own thoughts. My ears rang so loudly I felt like I was in a fire truck rushing to the nearest emergency at full speed.
Finally, my older brother, himself a combat veteran, got me to the VA. Dr. Amy saw me immediately. She became my savior. My hero. I can never thank her enough for what she did for me. For talking to me straight, for testing out different meds, for letting me cry and swear and laugh, for giving me my life back.
I continued to see a therapist and a psychiatrist for the next five months following my initial visit to the VA. With time and patience, I was able to overcome my anxiety, my blood pressure returned to normal, and I found my cheery disposition.
But a piece of me was left behind somewhere in desolate Iraq. Some days that piece feels like it’s a tiny hole in my heart. Other days it feels like it sucks me in whole—leaving me with nothing but the darkness to stare at and relish. Over time, this hole has become manageable, and that happiness I felt before the killing fields creeps its way back into my being.
When I look back at war, I see myself as someone completely different than who I am today or who I was before I left.
I take nothing for granted. If something goes wrong, I know it could always be worse. Would I sign up for it all again? Yes. I know that combat was part of my destiny. It was God’s master plan. Many of my accomplishments and joys are due to my enlistment on that fateful March day in 2001.
I have deeper empathy for others. I understand mental health disorders from my firsthand experience. I understand how vast cultural differences can be, and I respect those differences. I am a new person. I can wake up and enjoy the simple pleasures of hearing a bird sing or a ray of sun warming my bed. I know what it feels like to be unhappy and will not settle for that unhappiness anymore.
Life is too short and too fragile for complacency. I went through hell and back, and it has made me a better, stronger, and wiser person.
Adapted from Laura Naylor Colbert, Sirens: How to Pee Standing Up—An Alarming Memoir of Combat and Coming Back Home (Warriors Publishing Group, 2019). Buy the book at lauracolbert.com.
Little did we know how bad it would get.