From battlefields to back to school: U students and the fight for democracy abroad

Liala Helal

On her first night in Iraq, Elsa Karman was “pretty much camping out on a minefield.”

Though Karman said she was scared, she survived and lived through approximately nine months of duty in Iraq.

She returned to the University in 2003 as a political science junior. The 27-year-old has been in the Army for 10 years.

Karman said that she joined directly out of high school because she needed some direction in her life.

“I knew at the age of 17 that I wasn’t ready for college, so I enlisted in the military,” she said.

In the beginning of 2003, Karman was deployed to Iraq as a psychological operations analyst. She definitely wanted to go, she said.

She said being in the Army made it almost inevitable that she would be deployed.

Before going to Iraq, Karman said, she and other soldiers went over basic skills and made sure their weapons were functional.

“You want to have confidence that your weapon will shoot in the time you need it to,” she said.

But she said she specifically prepared by educating herself about the culture.

She said she was not only informed on the political stances from the media but also on the region’s “incredible history.”

“We were able to go in there with a lot more knowledge than the average Joe,” Karman said.

In Iraq, bombs would go off, and Karman said she could hear and feel them.

But Karman said she knew she had to stay there.

“You can’t just pick up and move,” she said.

Karman said there were people there who were scared, but she was more “aware” than scared.

“There’s always that aspect of the unknown that keeps you on your toes,” Karman said.

She said she was the only woman on her team, and the hardest part about that was getting other soldiers to treat her as an equal.

“I really had to prove myself with them,” she said.

She said there were certain things she could not do that men could, such as fighting on the front lines.

Still, Karman said, she was fulfilling a typical man’s role.

Karman said she talked to many children and older people in Iraq but never to women.

“Their culture pretty much says the women wouldn’t talk to strange men without the man there with them, so we didn’t seek to talk to women,” she said. “Even though I’m a woman, it didn’t matter; I was fulfilling a man’s role.”

While she was in Iraq, Karman also dealt with prisoners of war.

She said that many POWs were captured when they got caught up in the system.

Most often, she said, younger children and older men were in prison for being out later than curfew. Soldiers would try to get them out as quickly as possible.

“By doing that, you establish a rapport,” she said.

Karman said she doesn’t think the weapons-of-mass-destruction issue should have been the most prevalent reason to go to Iraq.

“There were definitely a lot more humanitarian reasons to go in there,” she said.

She said the situation was much worse than people had thought.

Before the war, former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein tried to drain out the Shiite area in 1996, which was a marshland.

“When we got into that area, it was desert,” she said. “They drained the water and tried to pretty much starve (the people) out of there.”

Karman said knowing the culture is nothing like knowing the people.

“It was a big eye-opener, to find out what their real lives are like,” she said.

Karman’s boyfriend, who is also in the military, was worried about her, she said.

If he wasn’t e-mailing her, Karman said, he wrote letters; her mom would too.

“It makes you feel good that they’re concerned for your safety,” Karman said.

When they returned, Karman and her team were honored. U.S. flags waved, and strangers cheered.

“People we didn’t even know were clapping for us, and hugging us, and kissing us on the cheek,” Karman said.

After returning, the soldiers were reunited with family and friends.

“When we got back to Minnesota, our families were here, and it was definitely a very emotional time,” she said.

Karman said she was able to save money while in Iraq because she didn’t need to spend any.

She said going to war put her a little behind in school.

“It was a little frustrating, but you just kind of go with it. I mean, what else can you do?” she said.