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Alumni put their lives on the line in Iraq

By Steve Hansen


Staff Sgt. Flood walks the streets of Baghdad on security detail in a 50-pound full combat uniform. Wearing gloves and a head and face cover, not one inch of skin shows. All this is in a region where 110-degree heat is commonplace.

The cover-up is part of the uniform for only one reason – to disguise the fact that Staff Sgt. Flood is a woman. Andrea (Bernhardsen) Flood ’98 serves in Iraq as a medic in the U.S. Army Reserve’s 425 Civil Affairs Battalion Public Health Team.

As coalition forces work to shore-up the nascent Iraqi government, Flood says the fact that she is a woman makes her a potential “weak target” in the eyes of enemy combatants and a target for sexual harassment in the eyes of many Iraqis. So she stays covered up.

Five Iraqi women rest during Iraqi national guard marksmanship training. Their names remain undisclosed to protect them from “honor killings” and reprisals for working with the Americans. Photo by Jim Bartlett

Such techniques only work so well. On patrol on a busy street one afternoon, a small girl approached Flood and sized her up. After a moment, the girl looked as though she was in on a little secret – asking Flood repeatedly in Arabic, “Are you a woman? Are you a woman?”

For this little girl, to see a woman this independent was a revelation. And for Flood, it too was a revelation: It was one small moment where a little girl could see the endless possibilities of what she could be, not what society says she is supposed to be.

For Flood, these are the small victories that happen every day in Iraq.

Here in the United States, there are differing opinions of the war – both how we came to it, and what should be done now. But there is no denying the sacrifice made by the some-130,000 members of the U.S. armed forces. For them, and the numerous PLU alums who, as part of their own service, are participating in their own small – and large – victories. Here are the stories of a few of them.

When she first arrived in Baghdad, Flood’s team leader, Lt. Col. Steven Watters, charged each member with the task of choosing a local project that they would adopt in addition to their assigned missions. “He asked us to select something that would make us feel fulfilled,” she said. “One that would make a difference.”

Flood chose the Transitional Protective Services Project, the Iraqi equivalent of domestic violence program. She began with the funding and refurbishment for a TPS safehouse – the first clinic used for and by domestic violence victims. She also trained local women to provide confidential emergency medical care to their sisters in need.

After months of meetings with Women for Women International (who headed the program), USAID, female indigenous leaders, and other non-governmental organizations, the first grant was written. “Seventy thousand dollars later,” said Flood, “we were on our way to empowerment of these very strong Iraqi women.”

First Lt. Ben McGrann ’01 is also making a difference. As the medical platoon leader responsible for the health and welfare of an 800-soldier task force inside Baghdad’s Green Zone, he has 26 medics and one physician’s assistant working for him.

McGrann and the medics of the 1-35 Armor, Second Brigade, First Armored Division, however, have larger goals. Since May 2003, when McGrann entered Iraq, they have been working with medical clinics in the area. “[The] medics have treated many Iraqi civilians and have helped military public health teams assess the local primary clinics and hospitals,” he said. “It just did not seem like enough.”

So McGrann and his team got to work. They found a clinic near area schools and homes. “The facility was old and the power only lasted a few hours per day,” he said. “The doctors wanted a good clinic with labs and an emergency room, but had no money to finish the project.”

The platoon was able to ensure the clinic was among the first to receive reconstruction contracts. After nearly $150,000 in construction and equipment including an X-ray machine, dental services and an emergency room, the clinic now serves some 5,000 people. All told, McGrann’s unit has been responsible for more than $2 million in rehabilitation works, including the reconstruction of sewer and power lines, schools and health clinics.

McGrann is in the second year of his four-year Army commitment, stationed in Baumholder, Germany. His wife, Genevieve Shook ’99 works at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center as a civilian registered nurse. McGrann is proud of his work – he sees the effort of his unit as “working together to build a better world.”

As part of the 50th Medical Company (Air Ambulance), 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), Brent Gruver ’99 was a pilot and leader of a 12-aircraft MEDEVAC (Medical Evacuation) platoon. His mission, quite simply, was to rescue fallen soldiers on the battlefield and transport them to a hospital.

Gruver, who hails from Gilbert, Ariz., and attended PLU on the Army’s Green to Gold Scholarship, entered Iraq two days after the war started, traveling up the western flank of the assault toward Baghdad, ultimately reaching as far north as Mosul. Gruver’s 10-month stay allowed him to see fighting when it was the heaviest as well as when things became comparatively quiet.

“We were very successful – we never lost someone on the aircraft,” said Gruver. “We never lost an aircraft and we never lost a member of our unit.”

Other signs of success are moments when the MEDEVAC unit becomes less busy. The longer he was stationed near Mosul, flying above the country in his UH-60A Blackhawk helicopter, he was able to chart, albeit anecdotally, stability taking root. “When we first got there, there were not a lot of lights on the ground,” he said. “By the time we left, lights were everywhere.”

Lights mean regular power, and regular power means day-to-day life is returning to normal. It also meant local hospitals were becoming better equipped to accommodate their populations. And that being the case, Gruver could put his platoon to other uses – such as flying a 6-year-old girl who was suffering from a genetic disease two hours away to a better hospital.

Ben McGrann ’01 stands outside of the Al Gadisiyah clinic in Baghdad, along with several doctors and contractors. McGrann’s platoon helped rehabilitate several medical clinics in the area. Photo courtesy Ben McGrann.

An Iraqi woman stops for a moment during training at the newly formed national guard of Iraq. ‘She has seen more actual combat from her living room than most of our soldiers see in a lifetime,’ said Staff Sgt. Andrea Flood ’98. Photo by Jim Bartlett.

“At first, many of the people I met didn’t understand ‘freedom.’ It was such a new concept, they didn’t understand why we were here,” said Gruver. “But after they got to know us, and we could do things like [flying the girl to a better hospital], it was obvious that we were there for good.”

Another alum, First Lt. Tyler Wade ’01, served about a year in Iraq as a member of the 22 nd Signal Brigade. He was a platoon leader responsible for a node center – vehicle-mounted shelters and devices that enable units in the area to communicate.

His platoon rolled into its location from Kuwait about three days after the initial fighting ended, when there were still great fears about weapons of mass destruction. “Everyone was prepared for the worst,” Wade said.

The challenges turned out to be different than they expected: The extreme heat of the Iraqi desert virtually fried sensitive equipment and made communicating a challenge. “It was a lot of living in our vehicles, drinking warm water and warm MRE’s,” Wade said. “But in the end, our unit far exceeded expectations.”

Facilities are now in place that improved communications equipment – and the living conditions of the soldiers.

After his tour, Wade, who was a freshman roommate of McGrann’s at PLU, spent a month in Tacoma visiting family with his wife, Katherine, and their 3 year-old son, Drew, before they returned to their base in Darmstadt, Germany. Now a member of the 165 th military intelligence battalion, he is scheduled to be deployed to Afghanistan in the coming months.

“I have no negatives – except for being away from my family,” said Wade, who missed the graduation and wedding of his brother Dusty ’03. “This experience gave me the mentality that I can take on the world, that I can accomplish something that is bigger than myself.”

Flood is back in Savannah, Ga., but she remains an enthusiastic advocate for role of public health officials in the war-torn country. She speaks with pride about her experience, and she seems to speak on behalf of McGrann, Gruver, Wade and the many other PLU alums serving in Iraq or Afghanistan

“The risks of war would not scare my PLU peers off target,” she said. “Most of them have been through much worse than a few bullets and have survived, like me, to help others.”

 

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© Scene 2004  •  Pacific Lutheran University  •  Fall 2004

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