Sgt. Tonya Shelley
Former Technical Sergeant (E-6) Craftsman, Offutt Air Force Base, Bellevue, Neb.

Special to
Sunday, March 19, 2006 12:00 AM

Tonya Shelley was a single mother and a lifer in the Air Force when she was deployed to Iraq, one of many deployments in her 20-year career. Shelley's was a short-notice deployment; she had just eight days to prepare, during which she flew to Utah to settle her then 11-year-old daughter with a cousin.

She spoke honestly and openly about how to balance the desire to have contact with a child and the absolute need to protect herself from losing focus on her mission, putting herself or others at risk. Shelley said she limited herself to only thinking about her daughter at certain moments of the day.

Shelley had been deployed to Saudi Arabia twice before, so she was familiar with the region. Although she said she had little interaction with the Iraqis while stationed at the Baghdad International Airport, she emphasized that she never encountered an Iraqi who was not happy that the U.S. forces were there.

Shelley said she started a typical day with physical training at about 7 a.m., which was followed with a "combat shower" -- three minutes total, 30 seconds to get wet, a minute to scrub up, another 2 minutes to rinse. "Well, that's four minutes. What are you going to do? It's kind of a moot job, anyway, when you go outside and the wind is blowing and you're going to get dusty again."

Without question, the hardest part of her deployment was the separation from her daughter. She'd been deployed many times before and separated for even longer stretches, "but this was my first combat experience. I've been to places where there heightened tensions, terrorist threats, and even small-scale negative interaction. But never anything like this."

She did the best she could, however. For her daughter's birthday, she received permission to do some brief shopping on the Internet and managed to send home a teddy bear, some cookies and roses.

"There were times at the airport where the Internet firewalls were so tight and we were so limited on communication that it was three weeks before I could speak to my child." Shelley would send e-mail to Offutt and hope her colleagues at the base would be able to forward it, but it didn't always work.

She was torn about the limits on communication. On the one hand, it was extremely hard to be out of touch when she knew her daughter was worried for her safety. On the other hand, Shelley said, she realized that she needed the isolation in some ways, to protect herself: "I understood the reasons that those limits were in place. One time, I was on the phone with my child and there was a mortar attack and she asked me what the sound was, and I had to think of something to tell her. I think the more communication that you have, maybe the more lax you get. And I think sometimes when people are afraid, they say things that they may otherwise not say. Fear is a motivator."

Shelley added: "I didn't carry pictures of my child all the time because I didn't want to be hurt. I carefully chose the times of the day when I thought about her and the rest of the time I focused on my job. There are times when it can really interfere with your ability to function. And you learn to compartmentalize because you have to."

After returning home Shelley's hardest adjustment was to "stop noticing everything, noticing everybody. I didn't realize I was doing that until I got back. Now, I see trash in the road and I make sure I don't run it over because over there, it might be something you don't want to run over. It's exhausting to live like that."

The experience made her more appreciative of little things like hot showers and food cooked on a stove. She hears people say they need a break from their kids and it floors her. "I just look at them and think: 'You've got to be kidding me.'"

There was a moment, after she got back, when her daughter told her that she was her hero, then hugged her. It's a moment Shelley says she'll treasure all her life.

-- As told to Washington Post reporter Jennifer Frey

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