After Iraq

By Libby John

Larry Johannessen said he could see the change in Christina Rivera within the first 30 seconds he saw her.

The small, 5-foot-3-inch woman, who used to be quiet in Johannessen’s Vietnam Literature class, is now a war veteran who has experienced life in a way only a select few have.

“She used to sit in the corner of the classroom and hardly said a word,” said Johannessen, an associate English professor and Vietnam veteran. “Now she will tell you what’s on her mind – without hesitation.”

Rivera, a senior English major, is an Iraq War veteran who served in the 307th Tactical Psychological Operations Company from St. Louis. She served in Iraq for seven months.

As soon as she came back, she tried to get back into her old routine, which included going to work and enrolling at the NIU-Naperville campus. She enrolled at the DeKalb campus last fall.

“At 22 years old, I felt like I was 70,” she said. “My soul was aged.”

Tiffany Jacobson, a senior OMIS major and Rivera’s former roommate, said she also saw a change in her friend because of all she experienced, but her personality remained the same. She said they have talked about Rivera’s experiences in Iraq several times.

“We didn’t talk about it unless she wanted to,” Jacobson said. “All the conversations we’ve had were led by her.”

Rivera now is at a time when she is coming to terms with what she went through, Johannessen said.

“When I came back from Vietnam, I was lucky,” he said. “I had a wife who was open and would listen to me. Now I try to talk to [Rivera] and ask her questions.”

Going to war

It was the beginning of a new semester, and Rivera was anticipating her senior year at NIU.

She was at her townhouse, hanging out with her two roommates, when her cell phone rang with the call that would change her life.

“Just by what she was saying, we could tell what was happening,” Jacobson said.

The call was from Rivera’s first sergeant of the U.S. Army, who said that in two weeks, Rivera would be on her way to Iraq to join the other U.S. soldiers already stationed there.

That meant putting her life on hold, including withdrawing from the university, deferring her loans, moving out of her townhouse and opening a checking account overseas.

Jacobson said she didn’t expect Rivera would be called to go to Iraq.

“I knew that her unit left and that she was going to stay, so it wasn’t on my mind,” she said.

The unit Rivera left with was from St. Louis. It was in need of a unit supply sergeant, and Rivera was picked for the job.

“My unit was already deployed,” Rivera said. “I was under the impression I would not go. I was bewildered, to say the least.”

Going with a unit she wasn’t trained with is something that happens often, she said.

Rivera first was sent to Fort Bragg, N.C., where she was given a crash course on what to do in worst-case scenarios. Some things she learned about were chemical and field training, working with different weapons and night-fire capabilities.

“There we got used to the idea of going overseas,” she said.

After the three-week course, Rivera and the unit were sent to Iraq. The day she arrived was the day Operation Iraqi Freedom started.

Though they were not told it was the day the war would begin, a sense of anticipation was in the air.

“We had a good reason to believe it when we were escorted by fighter jets,” she said. “It was refreshing to know that I was pulled out of my life for a reason.”

Rivera said she remembers seeing the sky light up when America first started its strikes. But even after a few close calls, she said, she never was scared.

“I was in the company of really good people,” she said.

Rivera’s job was to resupply highly sensitive equipment to soldiers when they came back to base. She would supply them with weapons, clothing, uniforms and night vision goggles. She also helped to safeguard classified information and documents and was a driver for her commander.

Rivera also worked with the British army, acting as a liaison between it and her unit.

Before her experience, Rivera said she often thought of war as being romantic. She thought of people sending soldiers off and having parades when they came back. When she was sent to Iraq, though, she realized that wasn’t the case.

“Nothing can prepare you for it,” she said.

Johannessen said he told her to keep her ass down, don’t volunteer for anything and stay out of trouble.

“I told her it would change her forever,” he said.

While in Iraq, Rivera was promoted from specialist to corporal and later, sergeant.

Her unit

It took Rivera about a week to get used to her new unit, the 307th Tactical Psychological Operations Company. After spending more time with its members, they formed the bond of brotherhood.

“There was intimacy without intimacy,” she said. “We got really close.”

When there were attacks against her unit, she and other members would look around for their platoon sergeant, who was the leader of their unit. There were times when they couldn’t find that person, who was supposed to be the one to protect the unit.

“We found out that person was only in it for the paycheck,” Rivera said. “That made the rest of us stick together because we were on our own.”

Rivera said another reason her unit got close was because they experienced something together that no one else would be able to understand.

“We were forced into a situation where we got to know people that we otherwise would not have been able to know,” Rivera said.

She said she ran into some soldiers from her original unit while in Iraq.

“It was funny,” she said. “We were just like, ‘Hey, what’s up?’”

The uniting factor, Rivera said, was that all the soldiers chose to be there.

“None of us were drafted; we all wanted to be there,” she said.

Rivera said she still keeps in contact with members from the unit.

Media and war rallies

While in Iraq, Rivera said she saw the media coverage of the war.

She said the way the media would talk about the course of action the Army would take upset her because it was like they set them up for failure.

“The media only reported the numbers,” she said. “They never reported the good things.”

The reason for that, Rivera said, was probably because the public is more likely to respond to tragedy.

“It helped in the beginning because it helped rally support,” she said.

Jacobson said watching the war coverage on the television was stressful because there were long periods of time when she didn’t hear from Rivera.

“It was a lot different than if I didn’t know anyone that went,” she said. “I always wanted to know what was going on and if she was in trouble.”

While overseas, Rivera heard about the anti-war and support rallies going on in America. She said she expected that kind of reaction but didn’t think those conducting the anti-war rallies should be attacking the soldiers themselves.

Rivera said she saw this war in the shadow of Vietnam, based on the fact that there were two strong, opposing sides; people for the war and those against the war.

“It did trouble me that they would turn on the soldier,” she said. “We are the ones who protect the right to disagree.”

One situation she said she felt the media overplayed was the Jessica Lynch rescue mission. Lynch was a soldier captured by Iraqi soldiers and rescued by American troops. Lynch’s incident led to book deals, TV movies, Web sites and a lot of media attention.

“It’s not right that she would capitalize on such an unfortunate accident,” Rivera said.

Over time, the American people might have lost focus on what is important, she said. People’s minds could be altered because of the Sept. 11 attacks and because it’s an election year, she added.

“If things don’t change, they might mismanage the outcome of the war,” she said.

Joining the Army and being a woman

Rivera first enlisted in the Army at age 17.

She said that at the time, she was less ambitious and one her main reasons for joining were the educational benefits.

Rivera said she saw commercials for the military and felt she would be able to get a lot of experience.

Though the initial training was tough, Rivera made it.

“They are good at filtering out who can’t make it,” she said. “They like to get you when you’re young.”

Most of the soldiers enlisted in the Army were men. In Rivera’s unit, she was the only female.

“It was different to be female,” she said. “It’s so hard to hang on to your identity.”

One difficulty Rivera said she had was that she was more emotional than other soldiers.

“I can never seem to turn them off,” she said.

Coming home

Rivera was released from Iraq seven months later, after the Army had enough support.

She said there were weeks at a time when she wasn’t able to contact her family while she was overseas.

Her family was in denial of what was happening, she said, until she was in Kuwait.

“My family was put through hell for seven months,” she said. “All they saw was the media coverage.”

Rivera said it was different trying to go back to her normal life and her family and friends after the war.

“They knew I would never be the same,” she said. “But they love me and they accept me.”

She said she didn’t really follow the war once she came back to America.

“I was jealous [the soldiers] were still there,” Rivera said. “They still had their mission.”

Rivera was at a friend’s house when she heard Saddam Hussein had been captured by U.S. troops. She said she felt relieved.

“We did something we rarely did, and that was go to church,” she said.

Rivera said her unit is preparing to go back to Iraq in August. So far, it doesn’t look like she would join them.

Currently Rivera is inactive, but she still can be called to go.

“If they asked me, I would go,” she said.