Anita Taylor joined the Army at age 22, in 2000. She thought she’d be a badass like Demi Moore’s character in the movie G.I. Jane. Mostly, though, she joined to just have something to do.
“Pre-9-11,” she says, “Military life was pretty sweet.”
She spent most of her time in Germany, where she and her unit went about the daily business of maintaining their vehicles, taking classes on first aid, combat situations, their various weapons, and would periodically spend four day “in the field” training, and, as Taylor puts it, “playing war.”
But then terrorists flew passenger planes into the Twin Towers in New York.
“The whole base shut down,” Taylor says. “We were standing outside the base with weapons with no rounds [of ammunition].” It was mostly just a show of strength, though no one was anywhere near ready for something like that to happen.
“We spent 36 hours standing around our perimeter,” Taylor says of the days that followed. “It was just a pony show.”
The U.S. didn’t invade Iraq for two more years. In the meantime, Taylor says the troops at the base in Germany started training for urban warfare “instead of World War II or against the Russians.”
But in October 2003, Taylor’s unit was the second from the Army to arrive in the Middle East. She spent two weeks in Kuwait, where they landed, acclimating to the region and training in a real desert before convoying to Iraq.
“It’s hot. It’s dusty,” she says of the country. “Dirty. Poor. There’s nothing there. It’s ugly.”
Her platoon wound up setting up camp about 45 minutes north of Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit. They lived in an ammo depot—a building with tall brick walls that looked more like a warehouse. “It wasn’t that bad,” she says, though she was on the road most of the time, supporting an artillery unit. Whenever that unit needed extra security, Taylor’s platoon would go with them.
Taylor’s platoon also transported people and things to other Army posts in their six-wheeled light-armored vehicle. She says it was a pretty reliable mode of transport, and at least looked intimidating.
While at their base camp, each soldier in the platoon pulled guard duty, which became an even more important role when they had to contribute to the local economy of the small town next to the post. While she was there, one Iraqi blew up his car just outside the base. No Americans were killed that time.
“A lot of things we did didn’t make sense,” she says. “There usually isn’t an answer when you ask why.”
But Taylor said she was a good soldier. She didn’t often ask why. “You’re given an order, and you do it, no matter what,” she says.
She was in the middle of firefights.
“A lot of limbs were lost,” she says, which was frustrating because “your brother’s getting shot, and no one’s questioning, no one can do anything about it. [Being there] just stopped making sense.”
She returned to Germany in Feb. 2005, knowing her contract with the Army expired that August. She didn’t renew it.
“I was scared to be outside,” she says. “ I was still prepared for a mortar attack. I couldn’t drive the first two years [after leaving the Army. Wherever I was, it was like I was still at war.”
She returned to the U.S., and came to Knoxville, where her parents had moved since she had joined the Army. She planned on getting a degree at the University of Tennessee.
“I wanted to do something else. I wanted to do it out of the Army,” She says. But after signing up for classes, Taylor couldn’t make herself go. So she got an apartment in Fort Sanders and waitressed at the Sunspot. She could handle the work. Crowds were another thing. And even being at her studio apartment was a living nightmare.
“The whole apartment was set up so that there were ways to defend myself,” she says. Motorcycles flying by her apartment would make her panic. She thought her neighbors were plotting her death. She was always armed. Like King, she had trouble making connections with people. She started drinking heavily with the intent to black out so that she could escape the paranoia.
“I was highly depressed, but I had no idea,” she says now. “I basically just isolated myself and drank.”
She eventually got a job at the postal service, but she spent the next three or four years “eating, sleeping, working, and drinking on the weekends,” she says. “I was still scared of life.”
Though she signed up with VA at the Johnson City hospital, where she received medical care with no problem, it took a while for her to commit to the counseling she received. She started seeing a psychologist at the Knoxville VA clinic, but didn’t like the direction treatment was going. It wasn’t until 2009 that she finally realized she needed to do something about her depression and PTSD.
Taylor googled therapists in Knoxville, called the first one listed, and made an appointment.
“I was shaking. I could barely talk,” she says when she first called. She spent three years with the therapist, and though she’s still a work in progress, she’s better able to cope than she ever has been. There’s still a sense of shame, she says, about being classified as a “disabled veteran” because she has PTSD.
But looking back, she mostly thinks of her service fondly. “It was an honor to serve. It was a great honor to wear that uniform and be apart of something,” she say. Her platoon became her family, more so after working in Iraq. And though she admits that as a woman, she had to work harder than her male colleagues to earn her peers’ respect, she doesn’t think she was treated much differently. The only people who have ever responded in any negative way upon finding out she’s a veteran, she says, are the old Vietnam vets who don’t think women have a place in the military.
Now, having been through everything she’s experienced, she wouldn’t necessarily recommend going into the Army to every young woman. “I’d give them true life stories,” she says, and warn them, “You may come out with PTSD.”