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Valerie Brown in Iraq 2004. (photos courtesy of Valerie Brown)

As Valerie Brown shuffled into her third class of the day, she was wishing for a dinner break. She sat down at her usual desk in Haag Hall on University of Missouri-Kansas City’s campus, and pulled her books out of her backpack. A student in front of her pulled out a sandwich from the cafeteria and she instantly thought, “Why didn’t I think of that?”

She was tired and hungry after a long day of classes, and the smell from the food teased her senses. She thought back to all of the long and hard days in the military, however, and reminded herself, “I can handle worse.”

Valerie looked down at her watch – 4:57. It was a black plastic Casio watch, just like the one she wore in the military. It was worn and had water stains around it, but it continued, after much abuse, to give an accurate time. Valerie opened up her thick textbook and reviewed the assigned reading for the day. Just then, the professor walked in and set her bag and water bottle on the front desk.

Valerie looked down at her watch – 4:59.

“All right, class…” the professor said. “Did anyone have questions on the reading assignment?”

The reading was on communications in organizational settings, a topic of great interest to Valerie. She had recently switched her major to communications because she wanted to reach out to other people who shared experiences similar to hers.

“Our papers are going to be due next Thursday by 5 p.m. and I want to see that you have put plenty of time and effort into them,” the professor continued.

Valerie looked out at the classroom in front of her. It was cold, and the heater in the old room banged and clanged in vain, putting out little warmth. It was only October and she had a feeling that it was only going to get worse as the winter months approached. Pulling a sweatshirt out of her bag, she slipped it on. A student next folded her arms across her body, wishing she, too, had something extra to put on.

As the professor began the lecture, Valerie took notes and lost herself in the speech. Before she knew it, nearly 60 minutes of her two-hour class had passed.

Just then, she heard a helicopter storm overhead, followed by a “thump, thump, thump” sound from the rotors as it raged on. It was so close everyone, including the professor, paused and looked to the ceiling. It felt as if it had rattled the ceiling tiles of the lecture hall, seeming to loosen whatever held the old place together.

While most of the students were startled, their attention quickly refocused on the task at hand. Valerie didn’t rejoin the discussion as quickly. It instantly took her back to Iraq. In April 2004, she had been an Army specialist and the crew chief of a UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter conducting medical evacuation missions. For a moment, it was as if she had left the classroom and was in Iraq again.

Valerie Brown, second from left, and her UH-60 Blackhawk crew in Iraq in 2004.

The sound of the powerful twin 1,600 horsepower engines was near deafening and sent sound waves for miles in all directions. Valerie and her crew were on a mission over the hot Iraqi desert. The day was only half over and already it had been very busy. The war in Iraq had taken a turn for the worse and they had just finished a mission to move local civilians to Baghdad’s Green Zone after several of them had been injured a shooting incident

As the crew headed back to its home base at Camp Taji, Valerie thought the heat seemed to have tentacles reaching up from the desert floor, wrapping its miserable tight grip around the helicopter. Suddenly, the crew saw a plume of black smoke. She looked down at her watch – 3:52.

She wore the watch with the face on the inside of her wrist where the buckle normally is. Her grandfather wore his watch that way and she wanted to emulate him.

“Hey, does anyone know what that is?” the pilot said over the radio, noticing the menacing smoke on the horizon. Valerie could hear the transmission through the built-in headset in her flight helmet, but over the sound of the helicopter, it wasn’t always easy to decipher the information. It was like each broadcast had to go through a mile-long chain of soup cans before it reached her ears.

“I can see it,” Valerie replied. “But I can’t make out exactly what it is.”

Her crew decided to work their way back to base slowly because they had a feeling that whatever the gigantic black plume was, it would mean a call for a medical evacuation (Medevac) helicopter. They were right.

“Dustoff 06, nine-line Medevac as follows, break,” said the incoming radio transmission. It was from an American tactical operations center on the ground within miles of the rising smoke.

“Line 1—location is a follows, break … 39 Sierra, Victor, Charlie 4589 3901 … Line 2 – Warrior 06, Line 3 –Urgent, Line 4…”

The medical evacuation request continued to Valerie’s crew, and they learned an American convoy had been attacked. One of the convoy’s large trucks carrying fuel had been hit by an improvised explosive device and it was the burning fuel causing the smoke.

Valerie’s crew also learned that U.S. personnel were injured and needed assistance fast. As they came within eyesight of the American troops on the ground, they could see Humvees providing security around the destroyed fuel truck, their rifles pointed outwards.

The helicopter landed near the burning fuel truck and as it did so, the American troops on the ground moved to the helicopter to quickly load injured troops on board through the sliding door Valerie opened..

The unit on the ground looked like they had been through all of these emergency evacuation procedures before. Sadly, Valerie knew they probably had.

“Hey!” a man screamed on the ground outside the helicopter, barely able to make his voice heard over the noise and wind the helicopter rotors were kicking up. “I have something burning on my backside!”

As he turned around, Valerie could see blood covering him from the waist down. The body armor he wore over his upper body had protected him from flying shrapnel, but the rest of his body was badly injured. He, too, was loaded onto the helicopter for evacuation. He grunted with every move while trying to situate himself on the awkward helicopter seats. The look on his face said, “For God’s sake, can we please get the hell out of here?” He was clenching his teeth and looked like he could pass out at any second.

As they were preparing to leave, another soldier, a non-commissioned officer (NCO), on the ground was arguing with one of his soldiers. The NCO had injured his elbow, but didn’t want to leave his unit. After urging from his soldier and Valerie, he handed his weapon off and board the aircraft.

A moment later, the helicopter lifted the crew and the evacuees above the ground and in the direction of Baghdad.

The three injured troops were quickly dropped off in Baghdad’s Green Zone as Valerie thought about how each of them had family members back home. Those families would soon be getting phone calls saying their loved ones had been in an incident.

“What if they hadn’t been so lucky as to escape with their lives?” she kept thinking.

Valerie saw these types of things on a daily basis. Her normal routine was to sit around Camp Taji waiting for a phone call that American troops had been injured or killed. Those calls always conjured mixed feelings. On the one hand she was glad her bird was coming to the rescue, but it also meant Americans had been hurt. She was in the middle of the action though, and it was what she had signed up to do. At least, on this day, she didn’t have to see Americans lose their fights to get home alive. > > > READ MORE

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