Postcards From IRAQ

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Far from the dangers of war-torn Iraq, Vivian Hughes is finally settling back into her role as security/compliance officer at Pen Air FCU here.

Upon her return in December, she said the employee who replaced her stayed on board for a month to get her back up to speed.

"It was a little hard getting back into it," Hughes said. "But I feel very comfortable now. The credit union staff has been great."

Hughes admits the memories of her year as a lieutenant colonel in the Civil Affairs Unit of the Army Reserve will linger for a long time.

In December 2003, the 23-year reservist wasn't surprised when her unit received the call to duty in Iraq. But, she said, she wasn't expecting to go with them.

"More than 95% of the unit had known before October 2003 that they would be deployed through orders and advance notice, so I was scrambling in all ways possible," she said. "Initially, I was part of the team that was going to stay back and do the training for them to deploy."

When the military decided to send Hughes as well, she said she worried about how her deployment would affect her family, but also knew that "as an officer and a soldier, I was prepared to accomplish the mission assigned."

Ironically, Hughes' son was just completing a six-month tour in Fallujah.

"When I got there, he was leaving," she said, adding that prior to being deployed to Iraq, her son had spent six months inAfghanistan. "We're all being stretched to the limit."

Hughes' son is now safe on American soil at Fort Campbell, Ky.

Hughes was initially charged with helping the Iraqi people set up a new banking system. "We had a coalition of officers who were more specialized than I was in this area, so I became the overseer."

She said that she also participated in a "mass grave recovery," a task that still leaves her heart heavy with sadness but one that she chose not to talk about other than to say that the "pre-regime's treatment" was inhumane.

"I was operations officer for the economic group and later for the governance group," she said. "I eventually became deputy director of the programs and support group."

Additional duties included working as civil affairs liaison officer in the Ministries of Human Rights, Health and with the United Nations.

"My last assignment was as the multi-national force-Iraq civil affairs liaison officer appointed with the United Nations where I met and worked with wonderful people from Australia, Britain, Egypt, Iraq, Sudan and many other countries."

She said that job included efforts to set up the electoral process.

"That was a great assignment," she said. "We did a lot of things that had to deal directly with the Iraqi people."

During the bulk of her year-long tour, Hughes was stationed at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad (formerly the Republican Palace), but did a lot of traveling in her many roles.

"Being a female and an officer, I had a lot of protection," she said. "But I didn't consider the area as being safe or secure. There were times that we were not allowed to leave the compound."

Still, Hughes said, her tour was worth it as she thinks her "small deeds and acts" made a difference. That said, she added, the country has a long way to go.

"I'm very saddened when I look at things that are going on there now," she said, explaining that while the common Iraqi citizens-"those suffering the most"-are open to change, insurgents and rebels are making it very difficult by making Americans look like the enemy.

"I've always considered myself very fortunate," she said. "I am tolerant and patient of a lot of different cultures. And, I am so glad that I'm a U.S. citizen."

Hughes, whose role in the Army National Guard and the Army Reserve has taken her to many foreign countries in Latin America and the Mediterranean, said she was happy to add many Iraqis to her list of friends.

"Overall, I have very mixed and sad feelings, and some things are just too troubling to talk about right now," she said. "When I learned that I was to go home, I had touch-and-go stressful moments. I didn't know for sure if I would be extended (on duty in Iraq) as some others had been."

She said she also worried that routes out of the country might not be passable.

"I was very relieved when we actually touched ground in the USA," she said. "Although we landed first in Bangor, Maine, it was still the USA."

Unfortunately, Hughes' challenges didn't end when she returned to Pensacola. Her home was among many damaged by Hurricane Ivan. Ironically, she said, before her deployment, she was part of the military relief effort that helped with clean-up efforts after Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Her family was not harmed in the storm.

Still, she said, there's a lot she's still getting used to again, including "Remembering I can sleep safe and quietly through the night. Every day, I thank God that I live in the USA."

Hughes added that she continues to grieve for the soldiers and Marines that paid the ultimate price.

"I grieve for their families," she said. "I also grieve for the wonderful Iraqi people I met that continue to assist us in our efforts and who lost their lives or loved ones because of their association with us."

Hughes has served in the Army National Guard and Army Reserve since 1981. For her tour in Iraq, she was awarded a Bronze Star medal for meritorious service to country. She expects to retire in the spring.

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