Sevalia, a sixth generation New Orleanian and Ninth Ward resident who joined the reserves at age 17, has a story that illustrates the difference of one soldier's overseas service in the tiny kingdom of Kuwait (south of Iraq) during both war and peacetime.
Three years ago, Kuwait was the site of a moment that Sevalia, 43, still cherishes today -- a what-are-the-odds encounter with her brother, who is a lieutenant in the regular Army. "I was walking to the defact' -- the cafeteria -- and saw him walking across the street," Sevalia recalls with a beaming smile. "Big hug!"
At the time, her brother had served 14 years in the Army, including the first Gulf War and a posting to South Korea. Sevalia had been with the reserves for 22 years. They had toured the same bases around the world, crossing paths but never meeting until that day in Kuwait.
The chance encounter in 2001 is one of several pleasant memories of Kuwait for Sevalia. In 1999, she participated in military exercises in Kuwait with the 324th Division, tracking parts and vehicles. She had volunteered for both peacetime tours, the longest of which lasted two months. The Army conducted "morale" tours, allowing the soldiers to shop for souvenirs in Kuwait markets. And there was the time-honored military tradition of personal "liberty leave." Sevalia and a fellow reservist could take a vehicle for a little sightseeing after work.
Wartime Kuwait was different. "During peacetime, we (soldiers) had more freedom," she says. But the loss of freedoms would be the least of Sevalia's worries during her third and most recent tour of Kuwait. Sevalia had to leave her two teenage children, a girl then 16, and a boy of 14. The children went to live with Sevalia's mother, a nurse's aide who retired on a disability pension after raising nine children, including Sevalia. "It was a big adjustment for them," she recalls.
Her wartime deployment would be much longer -- one year "in-country" with the 377th Theater Support Command, 11th Detachment, plus nearly a month of preparations before departure. On the day after Christmas 2002, her unit began a meandering deployment for Kuwait. A football fan, she recalls that they did not arrive "in-country" until Super Bowl Sunday, Jan. 26, 2003. Once in Kuwait, she was placed in charge of a warehouse, three reservists and several civilians. "All in all, it wasn't a bad deployment," she says of her work duties.
Neither the war in Iraq nor the violence that followed spilled into Kuwait during Sevalia's tour. The most disturbing scenes she saw were the frequent casualties from notorious, high-speed traffic collisions on Kuwait's desert highways. "I actually saw a body dismembered from a car accident," she says, somberly.
Being away from home for so long began to take its toll. During her absence, her son had problems in school. And though Sevalia would attend her daughter's high school graduation, she would miss her school prom and other memorable moments. Off duty, she had access to a computer that allowed her to email home. She would also telephone her children twice a week. Mindful of the eight-hour time difference, she would call at midnight, so she could catch her children before they went to school.
Holidays were hardest. Sevalia had never been away from home for Thanksgiving and Christmas. When Sevalia was growing up, her mother would want all her children to come home before midnight on Dec. 31 to greet the New Year together. Sevalia yearned for the family tradition when she welcomed 2004 in a foreign land.
As a senior sergeant, she felt an obligation to keep up morale among the youngest reserves, even when she was struggling with being away from her kids. "There were a few men under age 20," she says. "I had to be strong for them."
Sevalia returned home Jan. 21, 2004 and deactivated in March. Like many returning soldiers, she is very concerned for her fellow troops who are still overseas, whether in war-torn Iraq or the lonely desert of Kuwait. Her contract with the Army is up in 2006, but she expects to re-enlist. Still, she's not eager to go overseas again. "If I had to go back I would, but I really wouldn't want to go back," Sevalia says. "Being away from my family was a bigger issue for me, especially with my kids." Although she is on inactive reserve, she hesitates to make long-term plans. With the shortage of U.S. troops and war still raging, she knows she could be called back sooner. "It's not like we came home and it's over with," she says. -- Allen Johnson Jr.