This past week marked the 10th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq by U.S. led coalition forces, the beginning of a war that, to date, has cost the lives of over 4,400 U.S. men and women in uniform, and, by some estimates, over 130,000 Iraqi civilians.
The war wasn’t only a turning point for U.S. foreign policy and international relations with the Middle East. For many, it was also personal turning point, including Bethlehem, New York native Kate Hoit.
I met Kate as a student at the State University of New York at Albany, where we were both studying journalism.
However, unlike most of her fellow students, just a few years earlier Kate had been in the middle of a war zone, having spent a year in Iraq as part of the Army’s 301st Area Support Group, from late 2004 to 2005, during a deadly escalation of insurgent violence prior to the so-called “surge” of U.S. troops in 2007.
I called Kate last week to catch up and to ask her about her experience in Iraq, her transition back to civilian life, and what she’s been up to since graduating from UAlbany in 2010.
Kate, who enlisted in the Army Reserves as a high school junior at age 17 with aspirations to become an FBI agent, was waiting tables at a local restaurant in Albany when she got the call that she would be headed to Iraq.
“I think I just stared at the phone and said, ‘Okay, thanks,’ she says, of the night she got the call she would be deployed. "And then I hung up and stepped outside and cried for a minute.”
On whether she had any expectation when she enlisted that she would go to war:
“What does a 17-year-old girl from the suburbs know about war? That word itself didn’t mean anything to me. The only vision or image I had of war was of the first Gulf War when I was 6-years-old, watching it in my living room.”
“When I did join, September 11 had just happened. The only warning order that my parents gave me was, ‘Katie, there’s a chance you could go to war.’ I was like, ‘Whatever, I’m good. That’s not going to happen to me.’ At the age of 20 I find out I’m going to be deployed overseas.”
On meeting her new unit:
“It’s like when you walk into a new school and you don’t know where to sit at the lunch table. And then, very quickly you realize that you all have the same uniforms on, and you all from different parts of the country, so you’re all kind of in the same boat.”
When she arrived in Iraq, Kate was assigned to public affairs as a reporter for the base newspaper. She described how she got that assignment:
“When we were training at Fort Dix one of the majors at the time asked, ‘does anyone here know how to write?’ I had done a couple of courses in high school and I was like, ‘yeah, I totally know how to write.’”
“Through training she saw that I was motivated; I did things that other people didn’t want to, and eventually when we got overseas as she said, ‘I want you to work in the public affairs shop with us.’”
“That was the best lie I ever told in my life because through that I discovered writing, photography, and it eventually led me to the career I have today”
On what it was like to write and report for the Army as a soldier:
“A typical day would be you wake up, go to chow, and then you roll into the office. I suppose it’s kind of like a normal newsroom; I have my camera, I have assignments, I go out, but of course it’s not safe.”
“Our base was called ‘Mortaritaville' so we would be always getting mortared. That was like a constant kind of pain.”
“My missions would range from doing a story on the Australian troops that work at the base hospital to a new movie that was coming out at the movie theater, which sounds really ridiculous, but we had a movie theater, to heading out with a couple of civil affairs units because we just set up a new water treatment facility for Iraqis in a local village.”
“One time I followed around a general into the base hospital to follow him while he was handing out Purple Hearts, and that was kind of one of the first shocks I had doing the job. At the time I was kind of shielded from the destruction of the war. We were on one of the biggest bases, so we were kind of protected from everything.”
“I saw a burnt Iraqi crying and screaming for his family. At the time, two American soldiers had been brought in on stretchers and (were) bleeding because they had just been in a firefight or struck by an IED (improvised explosive device). The job allowed me to see Iraq and the war on many different levels than just being a young girl from the suburbs who just got thrown into something.”
On whether there was any pressure from commanding officers to keep reportage “light” or “water down” coverage:
“For that particular moment, when I was in the base hospital, the general who was handing out Purple Hearts walked into the ER. There was blood on the floor, people were running around, and I’m standing there, feeling like a total jackass, with my clean uniform and my camera, and he walks over to the soldiers, and he shakes their hands, and he looks at me to take a photograph, and I wouldn’t, I refused to do it.”
“That was his moment to show that he was at war, but when in reality, what did that guy do? He just wanted to shake somebody’s hand to show that he was there, and I refused to do it.”
“I attended a couple memorial services; one woman was killed in a convoy, and I went to Kuwait for another soldier who had committed suicide, and I was always just told to tell their story.”
“I was given the freedom to do what I thought was right. I was never told to only report positive news or report in a way that makes the U.S. Military look perfect because, by all means, we’re not. War is not perfect.”
On coming back to the states and being anxious upon enrolling and attending classes at the State University of New York at Albany:
“Of course I was nervous; I’m coming back to a peer group that I’m supposed to be on the same page with and I’m not by any means. I go from this rigid, I wake up at this time, I wear a uniform, this is my job, I’ve got a mission and a purpose, and I come back where there’s no structure. My family was kind of uprooted by the war so I’m trying to get everyone back on their feet.”
“I come in with a bunch of cool college kids and I’m like, ‘[expletive].’ Where do I sit in class? I like sitting in the back, with my back against the wall because I don’t like stuff behind me, I had to do homework… it was scary!”
“I’m in grad school now and I still feel that way. Obviously I talk openly about by service, but I never wanted to be pegged as the weird girl who went to war and now is trying to get her degree.”
“A lot of veterans come back into the classroom and they’re like, ‘where do it fit.’ It’s not because I don’t want to fit in, it took a while to realize that I do fit in and that people can learn from my experience and I can just learn from hanging out with my fellow students.”
On whether she ever felt stigmatized by students or faculty at SUNY Albany:
“No. SUNY Albany was seriously the best decision I ever made. The professors were so welcoming; they helped me with my writing. They were my mentors. And (the students) always asked questions and allowed me to be my weird self in the corner. I wholeheartedly loved school and it helped me more than anything.”
On how she came to her current position as a staff writer with the social media team at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs:
“Because of my war experience I fell in love with writing and when I came home I enrolled in UAlbany and studied journalism and fell more in love with it, and by the time I graduated I was offered a job in (Washington) D.C. to work for the Department of Veterans Affairs in online communications. They didn’t really have an office at the time.”
“When I initially came home I started writing my own blog and writing about my experiences, so that caught the eye of different people. That is how I wound up with a job in D.C. It’s been about two years.”
Kate was recently accepted in the Masters in Nonfiction Writing program at Johns Hopkins University, where she is currently attending classes as a Tillman Military Scholar through the Pat Tillman Foundation.
Most recently, she accepted a position on the Defense Council of Truman National Security Project, a leadership development program designed for candidates who, “demonstrate potential for ongoing public leadership.”
When asked whether she has any aspirations to enter civilian public service, whether as an elected official or in another capacity, Kate says, “We’ll see. I still secretly want to be in the FBI.”