Written by Ron Farina

Of the almost 2 million Americans who have received Purple Hearts since World War II, only about 500 have been women. The vast majority of these women earned the award since September 11, 2001. On two VBC Happy Hours in March, we had nine such recipients join us, along with Marine veteran and author, Ron Farina, who captured their stories in his 2022 book, “Out of the Shadows: Voices of American Women Soldiers.” Below is an excerpt from that book about Army Reservist Jennifer Hunt, a Purple Heart recipient who joined the military to help others around the world and took home scars of war.

American Army reservist Specialist Jennifer Hunt in Afghanistan

Jennifer Hunt while on a mission to an Afghan village to distribute humanitarian supplies to residents in 2005 (Jennifer Hunt)

Iraq, 2007: On September 26, shortly before noon, American Army reservist Specialist Jennifer Hunt sat behind the wheel of a Humvee, the third vehicle in a small convoy of five Humvees filled with American Civil Affairs soldiers. She’d been in Iraq since late August, after almost two months of staging in Kuwait, not long after she’d graduated college and married another soldier. They deployed together.

In Iraq, a land where friend and foe are indistinguishable, American soldiers never knew what trouble waited outside the wire. The Iraqi Army, pressed to fight another of Saddam’s mother of all battles, had been crushed in 2003. Twenty-eight days after the second American invasion, Iraqi soldiers fled the battlefields, leaving behind a vacuum. By that fall, insurgents, a caustic collection of rogue Iraqis, Al-Qaeda and Isis fighters bent on owning Iraq, filled the void.

Four years later, when Jennifer deployed to Iraq, a blanket of uncertainty still covered most of the country.

Iraq felt different to Jennifer, more dangerous than her year in Afghanistan. Soldiers here, more vigilant than she remembered from her time among the Afghans, stayed alert. She followed their lead — always geared up in full battle rattle, always donning her Kevlar instead of the soft bush hat or baseball cap she wore during her year in Afghanistan. She carried her M4 wherever she went. She kept a Glock M9 strapped to her right thigh.

The small convoy approached a nearby Iraqi Police checkpoint after rolling out of FOB [Forward Operating Base] Falcon, the team’s home base. The FOB sat a short distance outside of Baghdad proper, about 13 kilometers (8.1 miles) south of the Green Zone. One of the police guarding the checkpoint spotted the convoy and raised a gate. The convoy slowed to 15, maybe 20 mph. The guard signaled them forward. Jennifer followed the first two Humvees, checked her mirror for the two behind her. The guard smiled, nodded, motioned her through. His arm moved back and forth like the pointer on an old-fashioned metronome. Jennifer smiled back, tipped a gloved hand to the brim of her Kevlar and continued past the guard shack, speeding up once she cleared the checkpoint.

No signs of trouble.

The Iraqi Police checkpoint sat just outside FOB Falcon. Good or bad, the location was a common practice. Situated in the urban outskirts of Baghdad, it was also common, almost routine, for FOB Falcon to be mortared by insurgents who used the surrounding neighborhoods as cover. Insurgents reserved IED ambushes for convoys and soldiers outside the wire. To remain less visible, to baffle enemy spotters waiting to trigger a roadside bomb, convoys usually moved at night. Daylight put convoys at greater risk. But safe travel was never a guarantee, especially when Iraqi Police — bribed, or in league with insurgents — smiled, raised a gate, and waved convoys into harm’s way.

American Army reservist Specialist Jennifer Hunt loading truck

Jennifer Hunt with a truck full of interdicted opium in Afghanistan (Jennifer Hunt)

Jennifer kept a safe distance from the Humvee in front of her.

Midday sunlight turned surrounding buildings into shimmering towers of light. The reflection blinded the turret gunners, drivers too. Scanning windows, doorways, and rooftops was almost impossible. Everyone squinted behind sunglasses or tinted goggles. Sun bounced off the Humvee in front of Jennifer. In the glare, she lost sight of the Humvee. She lifted her foot from the accelerator, ready to slide her toe onto the brake pedal. A cloud passed overhead, temporarily blocking the sun. Vehicles dulled by the shadow appeared a safe distance in front of her. She relaxed.

Just a few clicks out from the police checkpoint, someone with mean intention waited. Silent. Invisible. He let the first vehicle pass, then the second, hoping that an attack in the center of the small convoy would inflict the most casualties.

Now, now!

A roadside bomb, a shaped charge IED, exploded. The world spun out of control. Shrapnel blew through the Humvee. Smoke spiraled up toward the clear sky.

*                       *                       *                       *                       *

By her senior year, 17-year-old Jennifer Baker had an inkling that helping others, understanding more of the world, and traveling internationally held her interest. These things, she thought, might someday make up her life. Those desires fed her curiosity. College, she knew, would help her.

“We’re all for that,” her parents said. “Money might be tight, but we’ll find a way.”

Too young to decide on the exact direction her life would move in, Jennifer knew enough about herself to know that life held more than small-town Shelton, Connecticut. She had no inclination to join the military, never really gave it much thought, even after a plume of smoke rose high in the sky on the morning of September 11th.

In the weeks that followed, the more outspoken students at Shelton High School and high schools across the United States voiced their wrath. The bravado, real or exaggerated, waned quickly. For a few, anger remained. The more impulsive, those wanting revenge, joined the military. Few, if any, understood actual military life.

Jennifer, sandwiched somewhere in that stratum, had been deeply troubled by the 9/11 attacks, but revenge or a rush to enlist in the military didn’t fit her reaction. There was no, oh my gosh, I have to join the Army, moment for her.

By late November, weeks after the Twin Towers heaped chunks of slag, dust and debris onto streets, buildings, cars, and people below, and just days before the fires at ground zero flickered and finally died, life at Shelton High School had mostly returned to normal. Students who’d rushed into the hungry arms of the Army talked about heading off to boot camp after graduation. Others, fingers crossed for early acceptances into the school of their choice, had sent off college applications.

Jennifer leafed through college brochures, huddled with the school’s guidance counselors, and visited a few colleges. On a whim, she’d sent an application to the University of Hawaii at Manoa. She took a shot. Hey, why not? The university replied with regrets. Jennifer’s escape plan, her getaway from harsh New England winters, disappeared.

Shortly afterward, almost on a whim, she met with a pair of Army recruiters at her high school.

“There is a specialty occupation called Civil Affairs,” said the Staff Sergeant, noting Jennifer’s interest in international relations.

“Civil Affairs is a liaison role in foreign countries where America might be engaged in military operations. As part of the U.S. military liaison, you’d work with local officials and the people of whatever country you’d be serving in. It’s a job right in line with your interests.”

That evening, Jennifer explained it all to her skeptical parents. She told them about the Civil Affairs MOS, and explained that she’d have to go in as a Reservist, then return home and start college after Basic Training.

Jennifer’s parents signed the enlistment papers. Years later, they would admit that they didn’t want Jennifer to go into the military, but they reasoned that their headstrong young daughter would just wait a few months until she celebrated her 18th birthday. After that, no longer needing their consent, she’d simply enlist.

*                       *                       *                       *                       *

Afghanistan, 2004: After just a few hours in Germany, the airplane departed, finally touching down at Bagram Air Base. Jennifer’s unit, the 450th Civil Affairs Battalion, in limbo for the next two weeks, pulled guard duty, rotated through typical security details, and mostly did the classic military hurry-up-and-wait.

By early September, Jennifer and the soldiers of the 450th flew into Kandahar, stayed a few days, then rolled out to Forward Operating Base Lagman, one of several FOBs in and around the city of Qalāt, in Zabul Province. The 450th, combined with other groups — 80 soldiers in all, just four of them women — would become the area-operating Provincial Reconstruction Team, a PRT. They left Lagman, a combat-ready tactical outpost, and set up a less-threatening compound three miles to the west, next to the Mayor of Qalāt’s offices. The move, a deliberate signal of friendship with an intended message, “We are here to help.”

The 450th’s motto: “Not by Sword Alone.”: The PRT, its mission clear — help rebuild the structures of local government and civil society to the point where they can function on their own — tackled a wide range of tasks. Configured into eight-person PRT teams that traversed Zabul Province, they organized health clinics manned by U.S. Army medics, also part of the eight-person PRT team. Beyond medical assistance, they evaluated villages for the build-out of a variety of new construction projects that would better the lives of villagers. To poor Afghans living in the more remote areas, the PRT provided cooking oils, rice, and wheat flour. Farmers and businesses starved for cash, supplies, or inventory, once vetted, could obtain American funding. The PRT did the vetting, processed the paperwork, and qualified legitimate requests.

Too many Afghans could not read or write. The PRT did what it could to increase the education of the locals, including construction of new schools, or refitting old buildings, turning them into classrooms.

This was the role Jennifer had trained for.

In the early weeks of deployment, Jennifer, too new, too young, too inexperienced, usually found herself in the position of lowest-ranking member of her PRT team. She discovered that it really does roll downhill — in military parlance, everything crappy coming from the top of the chain of command rolled down to the lowest-ranking member of the team.

The lines between her role as a Civil Affairs soldier and the duties she was often ordered to perform, blurred. Often nothing more than a tagalong, she pulled security in full battle rattle. While officers took the lead, parleyed with village elders and tribal chieftains, she stood guard outside the Humvee.

Frequently she got tagged designated driver, wheeling a boxlike Humvee or a Toyota Hilux through populated towns or over dirt roads leading to remote villages. And — because she was a woman, Afghan men would not talk to her. Their refusal contributed to her limited role. Of course, that never stopped the Afghan men from offering marriage proposals.

Weeks passed. She learned, settled into the job, often traveling with a woman officer, Captain Hicks. The teams traveled with an interpreter. Communication, a layered process dictated by Muslim custom, demanded that the interpreter relay information through the men that the Captain and Jennifer traveled with.

A typical meet-and-greet, especially with the women of a village, went like this: “Tell the interpreter to ask the women if they need medical attention,” the captain ordered. The soldier turned to the interpreter.

“Tell the women the captain wants to know if they need any medical attention.”

The interpreter approached the women. An animated exchange ensued. The interpreter turned back to the soldier.

“The women want to know if the husbands of these women soldiers know where they are,” he said.

The soldier informed the captain.

“What’s that got to do with my question?”

The interpreter would go back, try again, turn to the soldier once more. The captain waited.

“Well?” she asked.

“Ma’am, they want to know if you and the specialist are married?”

Outside the wire, the PRT team members looked out for women soldiers. Things inside the compound, 76 men, four women, were different. Jennifer would get propositioned frequently. The women captains not so much. Rank does have its privilege. Jennifer was careful. She understood that one-on-one prolonged conversations with men, even as little as five minutes, could send the wrong message.

Village elders or chiefs were eager to accept anything the Americans had to offer, particularly since it almost always meant help in the form of cash. A girls’ school in Qalāt, a well-attended school, needed supplies. The PRT helped. Later, the school was used as a polling place for elections. The PRT provided security. Hamid Karzai won the election.

By late November, Jennifer and Captain Hicks rolled out with a team escorted by regular Army. The PRT teams traveled in their Toyota Hiluxes. The escort providing security rode in up-armored Humvees. Jennifer looked forward to the mission. An Army veterinarian, compliments of the United States, intended to inoculate the villagers’ herds, especially sheep and goats. The mission, planned for two, possibly three, days, also included a medical clinic. Captain Hicks and Jennifer stationed themselves in the women’s medical tent. The PRT had women doctors and women interpreters.

Jennifer saw diseases she didn’t know existed.

Inside the medical tent, a woman looking for help removed her burka. She revealed a side of her face that looked mummified. The doctor, Captain Hicks, and Jennifer, too, tried to suppress their shock. They couldn’t.

Jennifer let out an audible gasp, almost jumping back, her eyes wide.

“Does it hurt?” the doctor asked. The interpreter translated.

“No,” the woman said.

“Can you feel anything?”

“No. I have no feeling at all.”

The doctor looked at Jennifer, Captain Hicks. They shrugged their shoulders.

“I can’t do anything with this. Hell, I don’t have any idea what it is,” the doctor said. “Whatever it is, it needs surgery, or debriding, or skin grafts. It’s not anything that I’m touching, and it’s not anything that can be done in Afghanistan.”

The doctor spoke to the woman through the interpreter.

“We don’t know how to help you,” she said. “Do you feel sick? Are you in pain?”

“No,” the woman said.

“Then it’s best to just leave it alone.”

Not long afterward, Jennifer rolled out with a PRT, the only woman member of the team. The mission, a support role on behalf of an infantry unit, required a search of women in several villages, women suspected of hiding signaling devices or detonators underneath their burkas. Only another woman could search an Afghan woman.

The team followed the infantry unit all over a mountainside for two days. Jennifer had her own tent. Relieving herself in private became a ridiculous endeavor. She tried cutting a plastic bottle. Dumb. Tried standing up. Not cool. She finally decided that finding the most private area she could worked as well as it was going to. So, in the lexicon of the modern-day American woman soldier who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, she secluded herself, and “popped a squat.”

If it bothers somebody, what are they going to do, send me to Afghanistan?

Deployments in combat zones have an ebb and flow, a rhythm that develops on the ground in real time. A rhythm that soldiers know. The PRTs found a rhythm. To appear more friendly, they wore baseball caps instead of a Kevlar. They rolled out in pickup trucks instead of Humvees and MRAPs. They coordinated with combat commanders to minimize impact to civilians. They were in Afghanistan to help. They made it known, and for the most part it worked. That was what they’d hoped to accomplish. That was what they hoped to leave behind.

By mid-summer 2005, the 450th Civil Affairs Battalion redeployed. But the world is not a perfect place. The 450th, the PRTs, Jennifer, and her fellow Civil Affairs soldiers, had done their jobs, but in Afghanistan there would always be unfinished business.

*                       *                       *                       *                       *

Jennifer Hunt, a U.S. Army Reserve specialist, receives the Purple Heart

Jennifer Hunt, a U.S. Army Reserve specialist, receives the Purple Heart at Camp Falcon, Iraq (Jennifer Hunt)

Iraq, September 26, 2007: Dust and the smell of burning rubber, charred wire, and hot metal filled the Humvee that Jennifer had been driving. Smoke overcrowded the inside of the cab. Shrapnel that had blown through the Humvee danced wildly, looking for partners. Shards bit into Jennifer’s arms, a wrist, her face, burned her neck. Hot steel pierced her cheek, its white-hot point running along her jawline, tearing through flesh just below her chin. Blood, not as bad as it looked, covered her face, dripped down the front of her vest.

A larger bomb fragment gnawed at the turret gunner’s leg.

Almost deafened by the blast wave, Jennifer struggled to make sense of the shouting all around her. Mouths opened. Silent shouts. Everything happened like a silent movie. Soldiers pointed, gestured wildly. Jennifer slowed the Humvee to a crawl, then stopped. Stunned by the blast wave, the unfolding chaos, her mind worked overtime.

Process. Use your training. Who’s yelling? What? What’s that soldier shouting? Go? Go where? Get out of the kill zone? Of course. Damnit, of course. I got it. Roger that. I’m moving. I’m going. I’m going! No bad guys shooting at us now. No secondary attack. How the hell did this happen so close to the checkpoint? We just passed it. C’mon, nobody could plant a bomb this close without the Police seeing them. A spotter. Someone in that guard shack had to see him. Had to. A payoff, I’ll bet. If not, then it’s police in league with the bombers. Can’t worry about that now. My gunner is hurt. I need to get to Al. Oh geezus, it’s bad. I need to stop, get the medical kit. It’s behind the passenger seat, behind the headrest. Okay. I gotta stop the Humvee. Out. Move. What? Who the hell has got me? Why are you putting me in another Humvee? Leave me alone. I’ve gotta help Al. Bleeding? I know he’s bleeding — What? I’m bleeding? Nothing hurts. In shock? I don’t think so. No. Maybe. Al, I need to get to Al. Where are you taking us? Back to base, into the CSH? Okay — makes sense. Stay awake. Of course, I’ll stay awake. Sing? Just keep singing? What? Anything. Okay. Ever hear the song that never ends, goes like this:

This is the song that doesn’t end

Yes, it goes on and on, my friend

Some people started singing it, not knowing what it was

And they’ll continue singing it forever just because …

Inside the CSH (Combat Support Hospital), medics triaged the wounded. All the soldiers in Jennifer’s Humvee sustained wounds. Al, who should have lost his leg but didn’t, was stabilized and flown to Germany, to the Army Medical Center at Landstuhl. Shrapnel tried, but couldn’t sever his leg, his thigh as big and thick as most soldiers’ chests.

The medics cut off Jennifer’s uniform, exposing her wounds: burns to the neck and back of her head, shrapnel to her side, a wrist, both arms, and to her face. They cleaned the wounds, picking most of the shrapnel from her flesh. To her relief, the wounds were not deep. She’d have a scar on her face, small, a second dimple. Nerves in her wrist, more likely bruised, possibly nicked by shrapnel, made her hand useless for several days. A headache from a slight concussion disappeared quickly. The obligatory internal exam ruled out any organ damage and internal bleeding.

Dismissed from the CSH, given large men’s military boxer shorts, a man’s uniform, and plenty of pain meds, Jennifer made her way back to her quarters. Within a week, once again battle ready, she returned to full duty.

*                       *                       *                       *                       *

Out of the Shadows book cover, written by Ron Farina

Seventeen-year-old Jennifer Baker had been a girl eager for life. What she found as a young soldier was a surprise. She hadn’t set out to fight. She wanted to help. She did. In Afghanistan, as a member of a PRT, she helped build schools, increased literacy, and encouraged cooperation between local officials and the American military. She assisted in the development of health clinics and helped encourage women in more remote villages to seek medical treatment.

She tried to do some of the same in Iraq.

After her second deployment, after Iraq, she returned to a quiet life, children, graduate school, a career with the Department of Veterans Affairs, and a good marriage.

Twenty years have passed. Bits of old shrapnel sometimes poke through her skin, reminders of war. We’ve left Afghanistan, Iraq, too. Jennifer and others like her, American soldiers, many of them women, left something of themselves behind — the good that they tried to do. They sacrificed, not just for America, but for people around the world.

Jennifer Hunt’s full story is part of the collection Out of the Shadows: Voices of American Women Soldiers, featuring the stories of nine wounded American women soldiers. The book is available at Amazon and books stores everywhere. Copyright © 2022, Ron Farina. Published by Lagrange Books, an imprint of Oren Litwin. Printed with permission.

Ron Farina is author of two previous books, including, most recently, At the Altar of the Past and Who Will Have My Back. He holds an MFA from Western Connecticut State University, served in Vietnam in 1966–67, and lives in Connecticut with his wife and two golden retrievers, Henry and Preacher.

*                       *                       *                       *                       *

Jennifer Hunt’s full story is part of the collection Out of the Shadows: Voices of American Women Soldiers, featuring the stories of nine wounded American women soldiers. The book is available at Amazon and books stores everywhere. Copyright © 2022, Ron Farina. Published by Lagrange
Books, an imprint of Oren Litwin. Printed with permission.

Ron Farina is author of two previous books, including, most recently, At the Altar of the Past and Who Will Have My Back. He holds an MFA from Western Connecticut State University, served in Vietnam in 1966–67, and lives in Connecticut with his wife and two golden retrievers, Henry and Preacher.