Cramming for War With Petraeus

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Army photo / Sgt. Michael Bracken

A UH-60 Black Hawk from the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) flies at sunset over the Mosul palace where Petraeus had his headquarters, July 4, 2003.

Army Major Kacie Lee flew UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters as a platoon leader for the 101st Airborne Division in Mosul in 2003, in the first of her two deployments to Iraq.

In this December interview with the Combat Studies Institute at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., the West Point graduate discusses the challenges of time and distance – and being a woman – in a war zone. Excerpts:

General [David] Petraeus, then a two-star, was division commander so we were leading forward. We started doing a lot of deployment preparations before I ever had deployment orders, but I don’t think we got our official deployment orders until after Christmas. So, early in 2003, and we deployed in February of 2003.

We started off in Kuwait just like everybody else. It was very haphazard, at least from my perspective. We went into Camp Udairi first, which I believe is now called Camp Buehring, so there’s a big airfield there. They didn’t have tents for us at first, and at some points, we were literally sleeping in the back of our aircraft at night and they kept bouncing us around…

At one point, I remember what few Porta Potties we had weren’t being serviced because the Kuwaiti nationals, who were servicing them, were scared to come on to our base. [Laughter]…

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It was exciting the first time we flew into Iraq because normally we only have 11 seats in the back of a Black Hawk for troops, but General Petraeus signed a blanket waiver to let us take the seats out of the back of the helicopters, so we could fit as many guys as possible in the back. The very first time I flew into Iraq had, I think, 18 Soldiers in the back. We normally have only 11.

We also had the Blue Force Tracker [computerized friendly-force monitor] in the back, and again, this was a really rudimentary version with a giant console. We couldn’t see it, but they could. They could see as the helicopter icon crossed over from Kuwait into Iraq for the first time, and they were cheering and going crazy.

That was really cool. We did several trips just flying back and forth taking these guys farther and farther forward…

I have never really experienced any kind of overt sexism. I’m sure it might have played into the way certain people dealt with me.

One thing I did experience a little issue with relating to my being female, was my finance, who is my husband now. We were both in the same general area. His battalion was also headquartered out of Tal Afar, so for the deployment, we were somewhat co-located. We never did anything we weren’t supposed to do there, but some people got jealous that I could see my “significant other” and they couldn’t.

For a while, my company commander and battalion commander at the time told me I wasn’t allowed to see him, which I thought was ridiculous when we ate at the same dining facility.

So, that presented a bit of a challenge. I felt that was odd. I understood their reasoning, but still thought it was odd.

Later on in the deployment, I got a female company commander who was also married to another service member and had a completely different train of thought on how the matter should be handled, and we were allowed to eat together and work out in the mornings…

We would land the Black Hawk in the middle of a field, or in the middle of a town, we’d shut it down, and the battalion commander would link up with his patrol and go. We would just have two Black Hawks with nothing but the crews in them and our personal weapons on us.

Every time we would just be completely surrounded by the local children, curious adults and in hindsight that’s crazy that we accepted that security risk. [Laughter] They very easily could have killed us or sabotaged the helicopters, but, for whatever reason, that was the norm back then. It was interesting.

The little boys would come up and try to talk to us with what limited language they had, and sometimes the adults would come up and talk to us. They always thought it was interesting that I was there.

They would go up to my Soldiers and ask, “Is that a girl?”

They would say, “Yes, that’s a girl and actually she’s my boss.”

That would blow their minds.