Back from Iraq, My Lessons Learned

Vicki Leonard and members of the Multinational Security Transition Command – Iraq (MNSTC-I) team deliver toys, clothing and other items to Iraqi families donated by American families somewhere in Baghdad, Iraq. U.S. Navy photo by Vicki Leonard.
Vicki Leonard and members of the Multinational Security Transition Command – Iraq (MNSTC-I) team deliver toys, clothing and other items to Iraqi families donated by American families somewhere in Baghdad, Iraq. U.S. Navy photo by Vicki Leonard.

PATUXENT RIVER, Md. (October 14, 2010)—A business financial manager’s day is filled with crunching numbers, moving money and reconciling accounts, but for a NAVAIR BFM and single mother of two, it meant deploying for nine months to Baghdad, Iraq, in support of the warfighter.

“When I saw this opportunity to serve in Iraq, I knew this was something that I really wanted to do,” said Vicki Leonard, BFM, Aircrew Systems Program Office (PMA-202).

Leonard left for Baghdad February 2009, returned to Pax River in mid-October 2009 and has been busy since then.

Leonard said she’s had time to decompress; enjoy time with her two children, family and friends; return to work in PMA-260, move into her new home and got a new job in PMA-202.

“I learned a lot about myself while I was deployed,” she added. “I learned not to take for granted what our military members do and that I should have offered to complete my 12 months in Iraq by volunteering for another job. Someone asked me if I’d go to Afghanistan, and if they offered me a position, I’d go. I know it would be difficult on my kids so I’d need to really, really evaluate that, but I would go if they asked me. I wouldn’t go for a year, but I would go for six months.”

Just getting to Baghdad was an experience in itself, said Leonard.

“I got to Fort Benning, Ga., Feb. 7; I finally arrived in Bagdad on Feb. 16, where I served for almost nine months,” said Leonard. “I was originally supposed to be there for 12 months, but our mission changed.”

Leonard said there were about 400 military, Department of Defense civilians and civilian contractors going through in-processing at Fort Benning. Once that was complete, they flew to Kuwait. Upon landing, they were separated into groups again and went through another round of in-processing. “I had my orders saying I was going to Iraq, but I didn’t know where in Iraq I was going to end up,” she said.

Leonard said her trip to Bagdad encompassed four days of constant travel and very little sleep.

“For anyone who’s been in the military, the phrase ‘hurry up and wait’ should be familiar,” she said. “I was always on the go, told to show up at 6:30 a.m. then told to come back in two hours; all the while I’m carrying four huge bags of gear and it’s 120-degrees. It was such a relief to get to Baghdad and finally find out what I was going to be doing.”

Once in Baghdad, Leonard worked as a budget analyst in J-8, a joint office for the Multinational Security Transition Command – Iraq (MNSTC-I) on Forward Operating Base (FOB) Phoenix. The unit’s primary mission was to train, mentor and assist the Iraqi’s in building up their police, Air Force, Army and Navy. She was one of two operations maintenance budget officers. She and the Air Force master sergeant who shared duties with her managed an annual budget of $173 million dollars.

“We supported many MNSTC-I personnel in the outlying FOBs including those in Taji, Shield, Besmaya and Habbiniyah,” Leonard said. “Once I got to Baghdad, I settled in pretty quickly.”

I found out that I could survive with less than what we think is important in our everyday lives. You get used to living in a small self-contained housing unit. I had a little eight foot by eight foot space with one bed, one dresser, one lamp, and one closet; I wore body armor to and from work and during the many drills of simulated and real incoming enemy fire.

You get used to going to the dining facility for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I got used to not having food in my room because I was never there. I was working seven days a week, 12 to 14 hours a day.

The operational tempo was just crazy, though it was very exciting. My housing unit was butting up against one of Saddam Hussein’s former palaces, the Believers Palace.

Where we worked was about the size of three parking lots like those behind the NAVAIR building. It used to be a girls’ school, but we had concrete t-walls, barbed wire and snipers around the complex.

FOB Phoenix was located in between the Iraqi Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Defense. We had two main buildings, a dining facility, and a couple of other buildings and that was our entire base, with gravel, generators and 120-degree heat.

My commute to work in Baghdad was far different than my usual drive here added Leonard. We traveled by bus to and from work every day, and we had to wear our body armor.

The housing complex I lived in was about two miles away. My typical day was get to work around 7 a.m., work all day, leave around 9 or 9:30 p.m. Get back on the bus, get back to my room, get a quick shower since we were lucky enough to have housing units that had showers; other’s did not have showers so they had to go elsewhere to clean up. After my shower, I’d go to bed and next thing I know, the alarm is going off to begin another day.

The standing joke was, like the movie, it was Groundhog Day every day. You lost track of what day it was, but you’d figure out that it was Wednesday or Thursday by what you were having for lunch.

I was able to work out every day, which was part of the routine just to get you away from your desk for a little while. We had very nice facilities: gym, dining facility and housing.

Because of this, I felt a real need to make sure that our soldiers had what they needed. I knew that there were soldiers out there with no air conditioning, dining facilities were in need of repair, and they were eating cold meals every day or had housing units that were falling apart. Some soldiers were living under their Humvees out in the desert.

I was sleeping in a bed every night, eating nice meals, could shower every day, work in an air conditioned space, so I had this need and felt this obligation to do the best I could to get the money to the soldiers that are doing the job out there.

We had a large office. We originally had 20 to 23 people and when I left, we were down to a staff of ten. We had an Army O-6 in charge; one Navy lieutenant commander and the rest were Air Force and Army.

I really didn’t know what to expect when I volunteered for this assignment said Leonard.

I went in there with no real expectations about what my world would be like. Like I said before I left here, I’m doing this for the people that are in uniform. People have no idea how hard they work. Here at lunch, you’ll see a table full of civilians with one or two military. In Iraq, it was a table full of uniforms, with one or two civilians.

I was issued uniforms, so that’s what I expected to wear when I got there but that didn’t happen; would I have normal working hours, no that didn’t happen either. On my way over, when I got to Kuwait, I thought, I’m finally there, wrong again. When I was at Camp Victory, I thought I was there, but that was wrong too, not quite there yet. FOB Phoenix was still an uparmored ride away in downtown Baghdad.

The Iraqi government wouldn’t allow civilians to wear desert cammies, so my uniform was khaki pants, a polo shirt and my desert boots.

I was planning to be in Baghdad for a year, but my assignment was shortened to nine months said Leonard.

Our command was slowly being absorbed by another one, Multi-National Corp. - Iraq. It also had a J-8 function, and my billet was scheduled to end in mid-December, so there was no need for me to be there.

I left Iraq the middle of October, and I was back here working in PMA-260 by the end of October. As I realized very quickly, I needed to take some time off. So with Capt. Belcher’s approval, I took some leave to get some rest and decompress from my tour.

It was a very surreal transition back to “civilian” life said Leonard.

One day I’m in a war zone, it’s 120-degrees, and I’m wearing body armor and a short time later, I’m back here at my desk doing what I did before I deployed. Cars are driving by; I’m going out to dinner with my family and friends; and I’m out shopping and sleeping in my own bed.

I’ll never forget my time working in Baghdad and the incredible people that were there with me said Leonard.

I really miss the people I was working with there. The Army has something called your “battle buddy.” Mine was a female E-8, Master Sgt., and we became and still are best friends.

When I came back, one of the things I tried to get across to my son is that not all of the Iraqi’s are terrorists. They are lovely people just trying to live their lives after overcoming years of oppression under Saddam. They have some very beautiful architecture and their country is scarred from the years of war. It was a very beautiful place and it was sad to leave as well, you don’t get to see and experience something like this very often, if ever.

I had a real moment of sadness when I was leaving but happily everyone I went there with came back home safely.

Source: Naval Air Systems Command

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