A lot has changed since 26-year-old Raquel Smith went to work at a local McDonald’s Restaurant after graduating from St. John’s College in 1994.
What she has seen since then would probably make many grown men shiver and back away.
Growing up in the Bahamas where the thought of going to war was unfathomable, it seems unlikely that she would have ended up joining the U.S. Army, much less fighting a war from which many hundreds of soldiers never made it home.
But the little girl who dreamed one day of becoming a lawyer is now content on being a career soldier. If she could do it all over again, she says she would not do anything differently.
“I think I like the direction I went,” Ms. Smith says.
She served on the frontlines driving a truck, taking supplies back and forth. She had only learnt to drive a truck when she was sent to Kuwait just before the U.S.-led war in Iraq last year.
“We carried supplies, anything from Kuwait to Iraq,” says Ms. Smith, who would probably have been among the more petite soldiers, driving a truck that looked more like a small hotel.
But it worked, since anything goes on the streets of Iraq, she says.
One time, she was a part of a convoy driving at night when there was a knock on the truck during a rest stop.
“They told us we had to get ready to shoot because the Americans and the Iraqis were fighting and the Americans were driving the Iraqis our way,” she recalls. “They told us to get on the ground and anything we see running toward us to shoot. We were about to shoot them, but we got backup. So we didn’t have to shoot, they had to shoot.”
The fact that she served in Iraq for nearly a year easily makes her a national hero, not just in the United States, but also in the Bahamas.
But Ms. Smith says in reflection, “I didn’t do anything heroic, when it was time to go, I just did my job and I came back.”
She was only a few miles away from where U.S. soldiers captured ousted Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, who was found crouched in a tiny cellar at a farmhouse last December near his hometown Tikrit.
It was good news for soldiers, she says. But it was also bad news because there was the realization that his supporters might retaliate, she adds.
Ms. Smith is home this week, just in time for Independence Day before she travels to Hawaii for a four-year engagement, but there’s no telling when she could be called to action again.
While admitting that she felt a bit out of place being back home, she reminds, “I am a Bahamian. This is where I live.”
It’s not hard to see why other soldiers were puzzled over why she left the Bahamas to join the U.S. Army and fight in a war.
The story of Ms. Smith’s military experience started when she came to the realization that “my life wasn’t going anywhere.”
Watching television one day, she says she saw a U.S. Army commercial and decided to dial the number to make inquiries.
“I asked them what are the qualifications of joining the army and they told me,” she says. “I told my mother ‘I’m thinking of going in the army.’ And she said ‘are you sure?’ I said, ‘Yes, I’m sure.’ She said it was my decision.”
In October 2000, Ms. Smith, who was born in Miami, Florida, enlisted and underwent rigorous training. She learnt to fire a weapon.
But she could not have imagined going to war, at least not that soon. She was, however, prepared.
“I said if I have to go, I have to go because that’s what I signed up to do,” she says. “I signed on the dotted line that I would defend the United States. I was scared, I was surprised, but I said I had a job to do and I went to do it.”
She was told to be on alert. No matter where she was, she had to be ready to go “at the drop of a hat.”
And she was.
She arrived in Iraq about two weeks before the war started last March.
“I was scared,” Ms. Smith says. “When it first started, we had a couple of close calls. We could have been killed, but fortunately we weren’t. I was real scared in the beginning, but after a while it started to become natural.”
She says she soon grew accustomed to the sound of gunfire and explosions. Although the fear never completely subsided, Ms. Smith soon settled into the realization that this was her new life, her calling.
Apart from the realization that the chances of getting killed are heightened during a war, the day-to-day living in Iraq was difficult.
“Sometimes we had no water,” Ms. Smith recalls. “Sometimes we had no heat. We had no air condition…we had no ice, no freezers…we didn’t have regular toilets. Sometimes we didn’t take showers for weeks. We had to use baby wipes. We had to make do with what we had. The food really wasn’t that great either. We slept on cots, we didn’t sleep on beds.”
She slept on the floor of the kitchen at one of Saddam Hussein’s former military bases.
“I have pleasant memories and I have bad memories,” Ms. Smith says. “When I was with my unit we were all so close and we took care of each other. We made sure that everybody came back, nobody died. We prayed before we went out. We prayed after we came back. We were a close unit.”
A lot of the females got urinary tract infections because they had to sometimes go for long periods without urinating, she recalls.
“It really wasn’t that sanitary,” Ms. Smith adds. “It was really hard for us [females].”
But the women in her unit came from war without getting pregnant. She points out that five of the women in a nearby unit got pregnant, reportedly for American soldiers.
Although things were tough, she says going to war “made me appreciate life more.”
“Sometimes when we watched the news, we would hear ‘four soldiers got killed today’. Almost 900 people didn’t come back, but I came back and I am so grateful. I appreciate water more because we sure didn’t have a lot of water.
“I don’t take anything for granted anymore.”
The army has taken her to many destinations since she left Nassau. Her first duty station was in Korea. She ended up going to Germany, The Czech Republic, Poland and many other places.
But it’s always good to be home, she quickly adds with a dancing smile.
Ms. Smith also has a few words for young people who may now be feeling like their life is directionless.
“Don’t give up,” she says. “If your life took a bad turn, God probably has something planned for you. You may just not know it yet. Keep on believing. Just don’t give up.”