‘Free spirit’ returns from Iraq war | VailDaily.com

‘Free spirit’ returns from Iraq war

J.K. Perry
NWS Garcia Returns1 BH 1-21

EAGLE – Sgt. Carissa Garcia’s home life got put on pause while she served the Army in Iraq. A changed woman, she’s coping with coming home to a family she said doesn’t know her as well as when she left for the Middle East.”It’s very difficult for me to adjust because nobody understands unless they’ve been there,” said Garcia, who returned to Eagle Thursday following nearly 14 months on a second tour of duty outside Tikrit. She returns to base in Kansas City, Mo. on Monday.”Everybody expects you to just jump right in,” she said. “I know I’ve changed a lot having this experience and I don’t think my family understands.”On Saturday, friends and family from New Mexico, Washington and places closer celebrated 26-year-old Garcia’s homecoming. Amid the festivities, uncle John Medina said Garcia’s strength will pull her through the adjustment of coming home.Medina understands his goddaughter’s plight. He served in Desert Storm and experienced the same emotions and stress when he returned home.”It’s hard to explain unless you’ve been in the military or combat,” said Medina, who left the military for five years before re-enlisting after Sept. 11. “There’s so much stress and it’s hard to adjust. The transition from military life to civilian life – you have to change the way you think.”Welcome homeThroughout the celebration Saturday, mother Louise Patterson beamed. She was “ecstatic” knowing her daughter was home safely, she said.

“It was probably the worst year of my life just worrying the whole time she was there,” Patterson said.Mother saw a change in her daughter; a growth in maturity, intelligence and especially compassion.Brother Michael Trujillo, 18, hadn’t seen his sister in two years. Their birthdays are one day removed and Trujillo missed sharing a cake with the sister he looks up to.”She was like the mother when our single-parent mother had to work,” Trujillo said.Garcia attended Eagle Valley High School, graduating in 1998. She played soccer a year later for Wayne State University in Nebraska when she enlisted for eight years in the Army.Her inspiration to join came as a young girl when Medina returned home from Desert Storm.”I just remember how much honor he brought my family,” Garcia said. “After that he was kind of my hero; my idol.”She quickly ascended the ranks, serving as platoon leader during basic training and beyond. Now a sergeant, Garcia is grasping for the next rank – staff sergeant.”I haven’t accomplished half of what she has,” Medina said. “I’m glad they recognize her potential because she’s done good things in Iraq. That’s great for her age to have accomplished, especially being a female.”

Garcia worked as a mechanic in her first tour of duty, a trade she dove head first into but later tired of.”I spent a lot of time under these trucks,” Garcia said. “I learned a lot and then became bored with it. It just wasn’t as exciting and I’m kind of an adrenaline junkie. But it’s an important job. You can’t roll without the mechanics.”In the first week of her second tour of duty, Garcia was reassigned to oversee nearly 70 male Sunni, Shiite, Arab and Kurdish laborers. “I had to earn respect with them because I’m a woman,” she said.She managed the workers’ payroll, health care, security clearance and often collected intelligence without the workers knowledge.”We were very successful in putting bad guys behind bars and finding weapons caches,” she said.Learning experience”I was interacting with the Iraqi people every single day,” Garcia said. “I got to learn the ins and outs of the Muslim culture. I learned things that I don’t hear about here.”

Garcia found the media often paints an unrealistic picture that all Muslims are hostile to each other and outsiders. In reality, most Muslims are intense, yet peaceful, she said.”They would say, ‘We could care less what tribe we come from,’ ” Garcia said. “It’s the extremists who hate each other.”Her experience in Iraq has taught her how important it is for young people to get educated about the world and also vote.”My buddies over there and I are depending on people here,” she said.While some Iraqis say they need United States occupation to smooth governmental transition, the situation is getting worse, Garcia said. Soldiers are often confused about the message the Army gives them about why they’re fighting, she said.”We need somebody different,” Garcia said, referring to President George Bush.Ups and downsTravel was a highlight of Garcia’s time in the Army, she said. She’s seen Germany, Belgium, Romania and Iraq.

“The Army has taken me to several countries and I love educating myself in different cultures. I’m pretty thankful for that,” Garcia said.Garcia said she encountered a few disappointments serving nearly seven years in the Army. She signed up for what she thought would be one weekend a month, two weeks in the summer. Then she got called up, and has served close to four years on active duty.School benefits she thought would be awaiting her when she finished her eight-year service won’t be there. The benefits are only good while she’s in the military, but she hasn’t had enough time to go to school because she’s been in Iraq, she said.Garcia doesn’t want to risk signing up again and returning to Iraq to take advantage of the benefits.”I’m ready to pursue my own life and have my own free will,” Garcia said. “I’m kind of a free spirit like that.Garcia is enrolled at DeVry University to study business information systems and marketing. She’s not sure about a profession, but knows she wants to return to the places the Army brought her.Staff Writer J.K. Perry can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 14622, or jkperry@vaildaily.com.Vail, Colorado

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